Why Writers Should Watch Bad Movies

Writers watch bad movies

While it may sound strange to say, there is a whole part of our culture who enjoy watching bad movies. I should know: I’m one of them. Heck, I even go so far as to make it a social activity. Bad movie nights are a regular event in my household. So, the obvious question is: Why do I (and many others) do it?

Well, I can’t speak for everyone but, for myself, watching bad movies offers multiple advantages. For starters, it’s a chance to laugh with my friends – and people should always make time to do that, in my opinion. Secondly, I find it to be an excellent writing exercise, one that I believe helps me improve my craft.

So, let’s talk about how watching bad films can make you a better writer:

Learning to Critique Means Learning How to Edit

I’ve written this before but it bears repeating now: Everyone has an opinion that they can express on basic terms. It doesn’t get much simpler than saying “I liked it!” or “Man, that stunk!” These are examples of basic opinion. While they’re to the point, they’re not very helpful to an audience. Saying you liked or didn’t like something is saying just that.

It’s why I don’t like hearing that level of critiques on my own writing – there is nothing I can do with raw, subjective opinion. Developing stronger expression is essential for writers. You must learn to identify the exact elements of a story that made you a fan or turned you off. Not only will this better inform you of your own personal tastes, it will train you to identify elements of storytelling.

Elements of storytelling
Here are four basic elements of storytelling. Note how the diagram shows them leading into one another: storytelling elements should never be wholly separate, otherwise the narrative may feel disjointed.

When you watch a bad movie, you already know that it’s going to be terrible, so you can cut past that initial “Do I like this?” question. Establishing a ground observation “this movie is bad” lets your brain immediately ask: “Why?”

A Mental Exercise: “How would I have done it?”

Once you’ve identified why you don’t like something – be it a poorly written character or an overdone plot device – you should ask yourself the following: “How would I have done it?”

I’m always asking myself this when I’m watching something – heck, I even do this with works I like. It’s important to get a personal take on material, especially since this can be a creative jumping off point in and of itself. Certain authors, like Neil Gaiman, Lev Grossman, and Phillip Pullman, have made a nice living off of giving their own creative spins to earlier ideas. Heck, look at Shakespeare – the man was always looking to history to get his inspiration.

Fixing the problems in bad storytelling can require a complete story transformation, especially if the issue is a major one. Let’s take the 2014 film, Godzilla. Now, I’m not saying this is a bad movie – I like it. Nevertheless, it has a bizarre character decision, namely – killing off the Bryan Cranston character, Joe Brody.

Up until this point, Brody has been the emotional center of the story. As an audience, we witnessed the opening scene almost entirely through his perspective. Given that this sequence was a tragedy – one that took the life of his wife – we’re immediately very attached to this character. We feel for him, drawing us closer and making him seem like a natural protagonist.

Then he dies and the script has to lurch onto his son. The momentum of the story falters because we have to reposition ourselves onto an entirely new character, one that we never formed an emotional attachment to.

Godzilla 2014 script problems
A lot of people criticized Aaron Taylor Johnson’s performance, but I think it was more a problem of the script. We never have a scene that emotionally grounds us in Ford Brody – not like we had with Joe.

Many people identified this as a problem, including Cranston himself. As a writer, I agree with it – but keeping Joe Brody alive means completely rewriting the main plot. What was a journey to reunion a family gets strengthened as we have the additional bond of father reuniting with son.

Honestly, it’s a shame the movie didn’t have time for another script rewrite, one that took advantage of this.

But I hope I made my point – when you identify an example of bad storytelling, ask yourself how you would correct it. Not only will you get practice examining editing, you can give yourself a lot of nifty ideas.

Why Not Read Bad Books?

Now, a few of you may be asking: “Why movies? If we’re writers, shouldn’t we read bad books?”

You’re welcome to, but these can take a lot more time. At the end of the day, writing is a demanding occupation that already takes months, if not years. I prefer to read good books, as these are lessons of a different kind.

But it’s personal preference. You can easily apply the same lessons to bad writing – but watching Twilight takes a lot less time than reading it.

So those are my words of wisdom for the day. If you decide to give bad movies a try, I recommend Mystery Science Theater 3000. You’re certain to find a bad movie, and their commentary can help point out why an element of storytelling isn’t working.

At the very least, you’ll hopefully have a good laugh.

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