Watching Like a Writer

When I first started to try to buckle down to make writing a Real Thing I Do, I bought a bunch of books about writing. Some of them were good, some were kind of silly. Many of them recommended that I read books in my genre with an analytical eye, and even try to break them down for myself into the standard parts of a plot, so I could see how others did it. This was a recommendation that invariably annoyed me, because I was a reader long before I was a writer (elementary school book-writing efforts notwithstanding), and as a reader, I can’t do anything but lose myself in a book. Like, really lose myself. I can’t read when my children are around, because they could set themselves on fire and I might not notice. I’m a deep reader, is what I’m saying. So I’ve always found it impossible to draw back from the consumption of the book as a reader to try to analyze it as a writer, which has made my attempt to learn how to write better occasionally frustrating.

But it turns out, the more you learn about plot, structure, and genre tropes and standards, the more flexible your brain is! I still can’t do it with books. But my children are finally old enough to start watching movies, and, like good corporate shills, we started them off on Disney. We all watched ‘The Princess and the Frog’ the other night. And this time, even as I was enjoying the movie, I realized that I was noticing things. Things like… emotional arcs. I discovered – after all the time I’ve spent carefully plotting my own stories’ arcs through conflict, black moments, and more – that I was actually noticing the components of the story from a writers’ perspective. I noticed each character’s individual emotional arc; I defined their internal and external conflicts; I pointed out their black moments (not out loud, I’m not some kind of monster who talks through movies, ahem).

Afterwards, I was startled to realize that I’d just been able to do the kind of analysis that made me want to throw all those writing books across the room. Yes, it was on a Disney children’s movie, not the most subtle of storytelling, but the fact that I did it without thinking about it is a pretty good start. Maybe I’ll be able to swim up to the shallow end of a book one of these days. I guess all that learning I’ve been doing is actually settling in!

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