Thursday, January 27, 2011

Movie Biology

Want to improve your writing? Watch a movie.

Analyze it. Dissect it. Identify its parts.

Why? For one, it’ll give you a break from your usual writing, but it might also help feed your creativity and teach you how to plot your novel.

For the past few weeks, I’ve attended My Book Therapy’s Monday night online chat session with Susan May Warren and other voices. During these sessions, Susan has shown us how to dissect movies into acts and relate them to our writing. That’s when I discovered I was movie illiterate. What I mean is: I’d never watched movies to dissect them and identify their parts. Sure, I knew they had a beginning, middle, and end, but I’d never scrutinized what happened in each act.

Until now.

So, last week, I allowed myself to watch movies—lots of them—just to analyze the acts. What a blast! Have you done this? If not, you might want to try this creative approach.

I’ll show you what I mean. Have you seen the movie, Home Alone? (I think I’ve watched it a hundred times with my granddaughter.) Hopefully you have, but if you haven’t you still might be able to follow this illustration. I will separate the events that belong in each act.

Here we go. (Remember, I’m new at this.)

Act One: We see Kevin in his ordinary world with his siblings, in his home (setting), and we feel the dynamics of the family. Then everything changes. This is the inciting incident. Kevin wakes to find his family gone. Every one of them. He’s totally alone. He’s in his usual home environment, but it’s all changed. He’s never been on his own before. Something has happened TO him to change his ordinary world.

When Kevin realizes what’s at stake, he’s ecstatic. This is his dream! He can do anything he wants and no one is there to tell him he can’t. Total freedom. Since his inciting incident is a positive experience, Kevin wants to increase his enjoyment. He jumps on the beds, plays with his older brother’s toys, eats whatever he wants, stays up late watching movies, and basically does anything he wants to do.

(Note: if the inciting incident had been a negative experience the quest would be to return to the ordinary world.)

In this act, we also get a glimpse of how Kevin fears the basement and the old man living across the street. This is a foreshadowing of the fear he’ll face in Act Two.

Act Two: This is where Kevin will encounter obstacles and conflicts. For example, he has to do the laundry—which means he has to go to the basement and face his greatest fear. And he has to face it alone.

In this movie, the biggest conflict comes from outside forces—the robbers. When Kevin realizes the robbers are going to come to the house he knows he only has himself to rely on. Yes, it’s great getting to do anything he wants, but it also means he has to face everything alone. But he has a choice. He could fight or hide. He chooses to fight and lures the robbers into the house. Once he does this Kevin has reached the point of no return. There is no turning back. His choice has consequences. What’s at stake? The worse case scenario: Kevin could get captured and die.

But Kevin learns something new about himself—he’s good at playing games and tricking people. He uses this skill to keep the robbers at bay and it works—until Act Three.

Act Three: This is the final challenge, the climax, or the Black Moment as Warren calls it. It’s when everything that can go wrong does. In Home Alone this is when the robbers capture Kevin and hang him on the hook. Nothing could get worse. There’s no hope. Or, is there? Just when we think this is the end, the old man, whom Kevin used to fear, rescues him.

In this act, after the robbers are caught, we see the change in Kevin. He no longer wants what he wanted in act one—freedom to do whatever he wants. Now he wants his family. He wants to return to his ordinary world because he’s lonesome. It’s Christmas morning and the only important thing to him is having his family back.

He’s redefined as a result of his journey.

In the end, all the loose ends are tied up in a bow. The perfect ending. His family returns. They see the change in Kevin in how he did the laundry, decorated the Christmas tree, and shopped for his groceries while they were gone.

Now you try. Watch a movie. Get out pen and paper. Take notes. You might have to skip the popcorn, but it’ll be worth it. If you watch (visual), listen (auditory), and take notes (kinesthetic) you might be more apt to remember—which in turn will help you apply it to your novel. Also, as you’re writing that short one page synopsis for GENESIS or FRASIER keep these acts in mind. It’ll help you tighten your manuscript and focus on good story mechanics.

And, if you’d like to delve deeper into these mechanics, please become a voice with us at Susan May Warren’s My Book Therapy. You won’t be sorry you did.


  1. Nice job with the example, Michelle. I love analyzing movies but sometimes get so caught up I forget to keep an eye out for how it's put together. Yeah, and that's exactly the kind of movie to dissect!

  2. Thanks Steph. I have a feeling that most writers do this already, but it was new to me...and fun!

  3. Thanks for this. I've been a member of the Voices in My Book Therapy for quite some time now, and always enjoy the Monday night chats when I can "attend." Susan won the Mentor of the Year Award at the ACFW last year, and rightly so. I know she has been a personal encouragement to me as well as so many others. As you've mentioned, the chats always bring movies into the discussion as a way to highlight and illustrate points of plotting, both subtle and obvious. It's a great tool. I'm glad you had the time to do this, and great analysis of Home Alone! Thank you.

  4. Michelle WeidenbennerJanuary 30, 2011 at 4:41 PM

    Thanks, JoAnn. MBT and her Voices have helped me SO much that I can't imagine why anyone wouldn't want to join in on the learning. I'm not surprised Susan won mentor of the year. It's amazing how she finds time to write books, be a super-mom, and mentor, too.