Watch Movies to Improve Your Writing

Students, former students, and anyone else with a yen to write are invited to submit questions on my Feedback page. As many as possible will be answered in future blogs.

Today, I’ll wrangle with a question posed by a former student: How do I make a piece of writing appeal to readers? The easy answer: Appeal to the identify factor.

To elaborate, here’s a trick that works for me. A cinema buff, I often reflect on how movies work when writing fiction or nonfiction.

As a child, I loved Saturday afternoon matinees, which cost only a dime then. The Rand was the only theatre in Randleman, where I grew up, and nineteen times out of twenty, the show would be a Western. I knew nothing of the west and cowboys. So how did the director and actors lasso me in?

First, they corralled me by endowing the lead character with unexpected details. Of course, all those memorable cowboys such as Red Ryder and Roy Rogers had similarities: ten-gallon hats, spurs, horses. But to add appeal, savvy screenwriters made each leading role cowboy unique by flushing him out with unexpected details. For instance, adventurous Lash LaRue always dressed in black and battled with a whip instead of a gun. He had little in common with mild-mannered Hopalong Cassidy. Gray-headed and distinguished, Hopalong appealed to me because he reminded me of my grandfather. Those cowboys in Grade B movies captured my interest, in part, with their daring do, but also because they remained one of a kind. When writing about yourself or someone else, revealing what’s unexpected might be even more compelling than creating a hero.

Though the territory on screen wasn’t familiar to me (Back then, I’d never been to Nevada, where most Westerns were filmed), the scenery convinced me that such a place existed. A movie visually creates a locale. A writer must do so with words. How does the place you describe look? What are the textures, the sounds, the colors, and how do things move? To make what you write real to the reader, you need to appeal to the senses and be specific. The Lone Ranger didn’t just ride a horse; he rode Silver, a huge stallion who frequently rose up, lifting his front legs. And cowboys don’t just eat dinner. They chow down on chili so hot it makes their eyes water.

Oh yes, those old matinee movies knew how to entice. Sitting there on the second row, before I’d even finished my popcorn, I’d be transported to the screen, holding onto Silver. Miraculously, I’d become the masked man and with Tonto’s help, I’d surely catch the bad guys.

Entice your readers with words and send me your questions. In the meantime, happy trails to you.

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