Friday, September 16, 2011

The Innocence of the Non-Writer

I’ve read several websites that suggest that one good method for learning about plot and structure is the technique of watching movies and tracking how and when various plot points happen. Kristen Lamb has used the movie “Finding Nemo” for just such a purpose on her website. Here is just one of many examples. Up until last night, I’ve never tried this technique – at least not consciously – but in the last week I’ve suddenly started figuring out plot twists on television because I recognized the writer’s attempts to divert my attention elsewhere.

Last night, my wife brought “The Lincoln Lawyer” home from the library. It’s a decent film, starring Matthew McConaughey, which tells the story of a lawyer who discovers his client is guilty of the crime of which he is accused, but is prohibited from doing anything about it. There’s more, but you’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

Suffice it to say, five minutes into the movie it occurred to me to watch for various plot points and record when they happened. Along the way, I felt it necessary to point some of these things out to my wife, including:

1. How the openings scenes were there to set up the “normal world,”
2. How the purpose of the first major scene was to show us the MC in action and help us relate to him before the “real” plot started,
3. Exactly when the inciting incident occurred,
4. Announcing that the first plot point (the point of no return, when the MC has to make a choice) would happen at the 40 minute mark(assuming the film followed standard structure.)

I’m sure this probably annoyed my wife to no end, but she let me talk anyway.

Turns out the first plot point was way off, not occurring until the midpoint of the film. Oh well. Maybe that’s why I’d never heard of the film?

Anyway, I bring this up because during one of the slower parts of the movie, it suddenly dawned on me that the first major scene, the one whose purpose was to introduce us to the MC, had gone on for too long and been more complicated than it had needed to be. And in that moment of realization, I knew that the secondary purpose of the scene was to introduce us to the biker gang that was going to show up later in the movie and solve some kind of problem. When they showed up at the end of the movie and… wait for it… solved a big problem, I leaped off the couch, shouted “I knew it!” and did a happy dance in the family room.

The wife only wept for a few minutes. She's getting better about this kind of thing.

So, now that I’m seeing movies in this new light, can books be far behind? And will my quest to learn about plot and structure eventually doom me to being unable to watch a movie without spotting clues or upcoming twists too easily?

This is all Kristen’s (among others) fault.

But would I give up writing fiction to regain the innocence of being a non-writer again?



  1. Ha ha ha, oh your poor wife!!! Just kidding. It is really neat when you start to see things with a writer's eye, isn't it? Love that your having so much fun!

  2. I do this too when I watch movies and tv shows although I try very hard not to. I actually find it more difficult with books, which I'm glad about :-)

  3. When I took my first screenwriting class, the teacher wisely told us "you'll never be able to watch a movie the same way again." So true...

  4. Another clue - watch for when they include things that don't seem that important. Like, why would that character need to be there? Or that scene? It tends to be a clue.
    Except when it's not, because it was a red herring, and the writers wanted us to think that it was a clue.

    Except that it's not a red herring, it's a clue, and the writers thought that we would think that the clue was a red herring even though it was actually a clue. So that the obvious red herring was actually a red herring.

    I love the games mystery writers play with their audience.

  5. LOL. It's the curse of being a writer. I do it too. What happened to just enjoying a show without trying to dissect it? She might never watch a movie with you again. ;)

  6. Hello,
    I wanted to let you know I've nominated you for some awards:
    Leibster Blog (for blogs of less than 200 followers),
    Versatile blogger award (anyone who's into chemistry, castles, harry potter and writing has got to be versatile)
    and the Lovely Blog award (I like the castle design of your blog).
    Anyway, check out my post and I hope you get some traffic from this!

  7. Like the combination of writing, castles, chemistry, and of course, Harry Potter :) I'm in your campaigner group 4 (YA/MG) and FINALLY getting around to visit everyone (new follower). So glad I stopped by though because I've had so much fun analyzing movies like this, too. If it's a really good movie I get sucked in and forget to keep track of the milestones, but a so-so movie? So fun to see where they went wrong. Usually they get the structure right but fail to deliver on their hook strongly enough - enough to make us care for the characters.

  8. Awesome post. I was thinking about the exact same thing today as I watched "Tangled". It took all of my will-power not to get out a pen and diagram the plot. It's nearly impossible to watch a movie now without wanting to do that.

  9. Cindy, That's so cool, especially since my mother lives less than an hour north of there in Springfield. In fact I was in Springfield less than a month ago!

  10. I'm giving you the Versatile Blogger Award! What's more diverse than castles and chemistry??

  11. I've gotten to the point where I do that in books, and I do sometimes wish I could go back to just reading as a reader, and not as a writer. But you do get a much deeper understanding :)

  12. I think it's best to write creatively, not critically, and not over analyze every movie/book you intake to the point where you can't be entertained by anything less than perfection.