What writers can learn from movies about writing

Sleepless in South Florida last night — I’ve lost control over chapter five — so I retreated to the sofa and the remote. And there, thank God, was “Wonder Boys.” I am beginning to think my muse speaks to me through the Turner Classics. 
“Wonder Boys” is one of my favorite movies about writers. Others are “Barton Fink,” “My Brilliant Career” and “Swimming Pool.” (Charlotte Rampling retreats to Provence to finish her crime novel…ah yes.) These movies have stuck in my brain through the years not just because they entertain me but also because they teach me about this weird profession I have chosen. Here are a few my favorite lessons:

Wonder Boys: Make choices!

Based on the novel by Michael Chabon, “Wonder Boys” stars Michael Douglas as professor Grady Tripp, a novelist who teaches creative writing but, after winning the Pen award for his first novel, is stalled on his second, a 1400-page hot mess. (Will he ever publish again? Does he still have anything left to say? Is he a one-hit wonder?) A student tells him it is because he has not “made any choices” as a writer. Well, you HAVE to make choices as a writer; writing a novel is nothing if not a series of choices. Yet this is often the biggest obstacles, especially for first attempts. Maybe it’s because the writer fears he will never get a second chance so he crams everything he knows into one story. With experienced writers, it might be because the writer just sits down and starts writing without first thinking. (Which is really the hard part). You have to think about what your book is about. You have to think about how to structure it and what kind of characters you need. And you have to cut out the stuff that you don’t need. The stuff that is not in service to your story and theme. You have to make choices. In every chapter, page, sentence…and word.

Throw Mama From the Train:  Know what you write

If you’re writing a thriller set in a nuclear sub, it is a good idea — as Billy Crystal’s character Larry tells his writing class — to know the name of the “thing the captain speaks through.”  This is basic stuff — that crime and thriller writers get the details about forensics, police procedure, military protocol, and such right. But aren’t you dismayed at how often writers get this stuff wrong? I think it’s pure laziness. Because it is not hard to get experts to help you, to go watch a YouTube video of an autopsy, tour Edinburgh on Google Street View, to do research to find out how guns or Elizabethan government works. Verisimilitude — it’s a lovely word. (Yeah, I had to look it up to spell it right). We work hard to create fictional worlds that readers eagerly enter. They don’t like it when we rudely jerk them out of that world by dumb mistakes.

As Good As It Gets: Write what you know

When the poor secretary asks romance writer Jack Nicholson how we writes such great women, he delivers one of the greatest comebacks in all of moviedom (above clip). The lesson here is that yes, the chestnut “write what you know” is useful but only to a point. A fiction writer MUST be able to write outside her gender, race and limited world. But unless you have deep empathy and acute powers of observation, and, maybe most important, the ability to take a specific experience (especially if it’s your own) and make it universal so it connects with Everyman, you won’t succeed. I am not sure this can be learned. It might just be the special province of talent.

Adaptation: Know when to quit

Not quit writing. Just what you are writing. “Adaptation” speaks to all of us writers on many levels, but its most gut-wrenching lesson is about the despair of trying to be passionate about a book you don’t really care about. I’ve had to make the hard choice to abandon a book in midstream. But I’ll let my friend Sharon Potts tell you about this valuable lesson:

“For the past year, I’ve been struggling with a book that frequently feels like more than I can handle. Too many subplots that are all tangled up and I can’t seem to bring them to a satisfying resolution.  And then I realized, my problem is more than plotting. It’s my protagonist.  I don’t ‘feel’ her anymore.  I don’t care if she saves herself and the world. So how can I write if I’m not passionate?  And if I don’t feel it, will readers care when I finally finish the book?  In the meantime, another story has been poking at me.  A story that ties to my mother’s past and to historical events I’ve always cared about.  Even before I write a word, I can already see my protagonist clearly. She’s so real to me that she overpowers the heroine in the book I’ve been struggling to finish.  So I made a decision.  After a full year and over 100,000 words, I’m putting aside my ‘frustration’ novel.  I’m going to write the story my heart wants to tell.” 

Deconstructing Harry: Know when to keep going

This is not my favorite Woody Allen movie; it’s a vulgar uneven portrait of a self-serving user who turns everyone in his life into fictional fodder. (Sorry, can’t get this video link to work!) One character tells him, “This little sewer of an apartment is where you take everyone’s suffering and turn it into gold.” Tough to watch. But I like the ending because it strikes the only note of light when Harry Block realizes “his writing, in more ways than one, had saved his life.”
Not a bad lesson, all in all. What are your favorite writer movies and what did you learn from them?  
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18 thoughts on “What writers can learn from movies about writing

  1. “As Good As it Gets” is my favourite. I learned Jack is an amazing actor, which I already knew, and Helen Hunt deserves more credit for her acting. I learned we writers must take our strangeness in stride and do our best to get along with the outside world. And most dogs will love you as long as you carry bacon in your pocket.

    I will look for “Wonder Boys” and “Adaptation”. They both look very interesting.

  2. Amanda, Yes, Hunt gave an amazingly poignant performance and Jack is well, Jack. You’ll like Wonder Boys. It’s a wry look at academic life as well and Toby Mcguire, Frances McDormund and Robert Downey Jr. are great in it.

  3. MISERY comes to mind. Stephen King’s novel is a book within a book with his dark humor about a burned out writer and his #1 fan. In the movie, Kathy Bates takes a sledge hammer to James Caan’s legs, but in the book, the woman used an electric turkey carving knife to lop off his toes one by one. Thanksgiving has never been the same for me. Ha!

    • She also used a blow torch (I believe) to singe the wound so that he didn’t bleed to death. You know, stuff she learned as part of being a nurse.

      What a psycho, but a great character!

    • I could visualize King chuckling as he wrote this book, but his dark humor ( turning commonplace items into horror) is a common theme for his books.

    • “Misery” is one of my faves as well. I love the final scene where his agent Lauren Bacall is taking the writer to an expense lunch to announce that the Times reviewer has given him “a love letter.” What tickles me is that the movie tells us this is “18 months later.” Which means James Caan cranked out that literary tome in 6 months! I’m impressed.

  4. Nicely done, Kris. My 6 favorite movies about writers have capsule reviews here.

    I’d have to think about “lessons” learned from them. Perhaps from Sunset Boulevard: be careful what driveway you turn into when the repo men are after you.

    • I adore “Sunset Boulevard.” Was going to include it here but couldn’t find a good clip that ready was for its closeup. My favorite line from Joe (as he’s reading Norma’s script): “Sometimes it’s interesting to see just how bad bad writing can be. This promised to go the limit.”

  5. WONDER BOYS has long been a favorite of mine. I grew up near Pittsburgh and recognized almost everything in the movie, so there’s a bond there, but it works on multiple levels even without that.

    I find i learn a lot about writing by watching films that aren’t about writing. The two housr (more or less) length of a movie allows me to see how plotting works, or doesn’t. Establishing shots take the place of scene setting, and can give an idea of when it’s necessary, and when it’s not. And, of course, dialog. There’s nothing like hearing people talk to get the sound of dialog into your head. Good actors speaking good dialog makes it that much easier. Want to write a character who’ an inner city drug dealer, but don;t have a personal frame of reference? Watch THE WIRE.

  6. There are a lot of good and even great movies about writers, but there are far, far fewer about WRITING. It’s such a solitary occupation it’s tough to make the center of a movie. Two that do it brilliantly are “Finding Forrester” and “Wonder Boys.” “Adaptation” is awfully good too, one of Cage’s most fascinating and bizarre performances.

  7. Yeah, I like “Finding Forrester” as well. Sean Connery has a quote in there somewhere to the effect that the first draft comes from the heart and the rewrites from the head. I quote that one often…

  8. One of my favorites is “Secret Window” with Johnny Depp. If you’ve ever thought about committing plagiarism, watch this movie first.

  9. Nice. Very nice. You hit on some real gems. However, I still can’t get past Jack Nicholson’s comeback line–another keeper for the ole Quote Box. 🙂

  10. Brilliant blog, Kris. Brava!
    Reminds of this quote by Charles Dickens: “Every writer of fiction, although he may not adopt the dramatic form,
    writes in effect for the stage.”

  11. PURPLE VIOLETS (2007). Directed by Edward Burns, and starring Burns and Selma Blair, it tackles all the clichés and punctures all the sacred cows, all with the perfect dose of humor.

  12. Starting Out in the Evening – brilliant performance by Frank Langella. The only piece of writing advice/insight I recall is Leonard Schiller, a sort of Saul Bellow-like character (or of that generation), talks about simply watching and listening to his characters.

    Also, despite his previously prestigious career (he’s been silent for a while), he can’t get a book deal with a major publisher – all they’re publishing is how-to’s and celebrity confessions, one embarrassed editor tells him.

    But, what really makes it is the way the movie makes the decision to write (or not) *suspenseful* – you have to watch it through to the end. Wonderful moment.

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