Back in May, we discussed how you can study TV shows and movies to sharpen your storytelling skills. That was such a good time that I’ve chosen to do another round of these blog posts. Last week we focused on a few more TV shows, and this week I’ll assign you some more movies to study. (After taking a Shakespeare on Film class in college, I can attest that kicking back with some popcorn and a great film is the best type of homework.)
Here are more movies that are not only fun to watch, but will help make you a better writer.
1) Starting Off with a Bang: The Dark Knight
Where to watch it: Hulu
There is so much to love about this movie. Even if I weren’t a longtime Batman nerd, I think it would still rank as one of my favorites. It’s got everything—great pacing, clever writing, and gorgeous visuals worthy of an IMAX viewing. This film also manages to flesh out the paper cut-outs you see in so many other Batman movies and give Bruce Wayne, Alfred Pennyworth, and Harvey Dent some real substance. The Dark Knight features Heath Ledger infusing humor and terror into the role of the Joker in one of the best performances of his tragically short career.
One important part of this movie to study is the very beginning. We close in on a skyscraper where suddenly, a window breaks apart. Behind it we see a man in an unsettling clown mask shooting a grappling gun through the space where the window used to be. Then we see another man don a clown mask and jump into a car with two other clowns. The clown from before, along with another, zipline over a busy city street.
It soon becomes clear that this is a bank heist that has been planned by the Joker. Here’s what makes it unique—once each clown has fulfilled his purpose, another shoots him dead. Eventually, we’re left with just the Joker standing, who takes off his clown mask to reveal his trademark makeup and scars underneath. He takes the bags of money and drives a school bus into a line of them on the street, cleanly making his getaway.
This film doesn’t set a single thing up at the top of this film—no backstory, no exposition. Instead, we’re thrown right into the exciting action. We learn through a bit of dialogue between the goons that the Joker planned this job, but that’s it. Apart from providing an exciting beginning to the story, this scene also shows the viewer both how brilliant and ruthless the Joker is without having to explicitly explain a thing. You can learn a lot from The Dark Knight about how to start your story with a bang and get readers engaged right away.
2) Updating a Classic: Clueless
Where to watch it: HBO Max
Across books and film, updating a classic has always been a popular format. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine retells the Cinderella fairy tale while Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding updates Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Several movies have also attempted to bring classic literature to modern audiences—She’s the Man and 10 Things I Hate About You each draw their plots respectively from Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare.
Don’t get me wrong, I love 10 Things I Hate About You. But to me, there is one update of a classic that stands tall among the rest. And that is the 90s teen film Clueless. One hallmark of a great retelling is that you can enjoy it without even realizing it is a retelling. I loved Clueless for years before I ever knew that it was based on the 1815 book Emma by Jane Austen.
As I curiously took the book out of the library and read it, I was stunned to see how incredibly similar its story was to Clueless. Movies like She’s the Man and 10 Things I Hate About You trace their roots back to Shakespearean plays, sure, but they take those works’ loose plots and run with them. Clueless, on the other hand, stays very true to Emma’s story and themes. Like Emma, Cher is a privileged, beautiful young woman who enjoys matchmaking and meddling in other people’s affairs. She tries to set up a friend of lower social standing with a wealthy friend of hers, only to learn that he is besotted with Emma herself.
Clueless does a beautiful job of taking a story and making it relatable for modern viewers. Instead of class differences, the film focuses on popularity. Instead of falling for a lowly farmer as Harriet does in the book, Tai gets a crush on an unpopular skateboarder. This movie manages to include everything that makes Emma a great story while skillfully translating it to the present day. If you are looking to write this type of story, I highly recommend giving Clueless a watch first.
3) Pacing: Spirited Away
Where to watch it: HBO Max
I’ve talked before about my love for director Hayao Miyazaki’s work. He immerses viewers in beautiful, whimsical worlds and takes them on exciting adventures. His films also manage to keep an excellent pace. One of the best examples of that is Spirited Away. The 2001 film won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, making it the only non-English-language animated film to ever win the award. It was also voted the fourth best film of the 21st century by the BBC in 2016, which made it the list’s highest-ranking animated film.
It is easy to understand why the movie has received such accolades. It is a marvelously imaginative story with lovely animation and a relatable protagonist in Chihiro. The young girl achieves real growth throughout the story—starting out scared and afraid of moving to a new town and school, and eventually learning to be brave in the face of far more frightening circumstances.
This film does not waste a moment on unnecessary exposition. At the beginning, we see Chihiro lying in the backseat of her parents’ car, clinging to a bouquet given to her by her best friend at her old school. Just a few lines of dialogue between her and her parents quickly make it clear that they’re moving somewhere new in the middle of nowhere and that Chihiro is upset about this fact. “And quit whining,” her mother says, “it’s fun to move to a new place. It’s an adventure.” In less than two minutes, the film has already set up Chihiro’s situation and resulting unhappiness, and the character arc she’ll have ahead. The story continues at a roaring pace from there—it is definitely worth watching not just because it is a wonderful movie, but for all it can teach you about how to keep a story moving.
I really could gab about TV shows and movies all day! We may just have to do another round of these in the future. There are just so many great shows and films out there that we can learn from as writers, and sitting back on the couch with some snacks can be a lot more fun than taking a class.