Guest writers series – 5 Storytelling Lessons from Contemporary Films

This guest post is by Savannah Cordava, a writer with Reedsy.

One common piece of advice you’ll receive throughout the writing process is to read as much as possible. After all, who better to learn from than the authors who inspired you in the first place? But for those of us juggling work, family, and social commitments, reading multiple novels a week — and analyzing them for storytelling lessons — isn’t too feasible.

An evening spent watching a film or two, on the other hand, can provide both quality time with loved ones and a masterclass in storytelling… if you pick the right movies, of course. In this post, I’ve put together five storytelling lessons I’ve learned from some of my favorite new films. If you haven’t had the pleasure of viewing these yet, make sure to check them out!

1. Context is key

Context is essential if you want your readers to properly understand your plot and your characters. To that end, if your story isn’t set in the modern day — indeed, even if it’s only a few years in the past — you’ll want to clarify the norms and attitudes of that era.

Greta Gerwig does this to great effect in her 2019 adaptation of Little Women. Mid-19th-century social attitudes, particularly those concerning women, are constantly on display in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Presenting these norms allows Jo March — the natural protagonist of the film — to demonstrate her individuality by defying them, from the start when she pursues writing as a woman to the end when she slyly takes control of her own story.

The importance of context doesn’t just apply to fiction set in a different time. If you were writing a sci-fi novel, for example, you’d want to provide enough information about the environment and society to show how they’re different from our own. Likewise, when writing fantasy, you’d need to set rules for your magic system and situate your main character(s) within it — what are their powers, what are their limits, and how do they interact?

2. Give characters depth

Thoughtful worldbuilding and a strong plot will get you pretty far, but in order for readers to invest to the end of a story, they need to care about the characters. That’s why, in addition to a wider cultural context, you’ll also need to develop each individual character in depth.

The MCU isn’t exactly known for its characterization, but some characters do have impressive arcs. For example, Tony Stark’s journey from egotistical, irresponsible playboy in the first Iron Man films to a selfless team player in Avengers: Endgame is extremely well-done — gradual yet steady, unpredictable from the first film but seemingly inevitable by the last.

Not every character needs such an elaborate arc, especially if you’re only writing one book. But characters like Tony Stark implore authors to ask important questions of their own characters, like: What led this character to who they are? What would compel them to change? How will the stakes of their situation, and the influence of those around them, sway the course of the story?

The answers will form deep foundations for your characters, allowing you to build on them for many stories to come — if you so desire. (And if you’re keen on extra-thorough development, try a character questionnaire to flesh them out completely!)

3. Show, don’t tell

Of course, plain descriptions of your characters’ values and motivations can get pretty boring. That’s why you also need to “show, don’t tell”. This golden rule is evident in so many great contemporary films, but I’m going to use Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite as a prime example.

First off, there’s no voiceover narration or dialogue exchanges among the characters to tell us that the Kim family is poor and desperate for money. Rather, we see it in the depiction of their run-down home, their dismal jobs, and eventually, the fact that they are willing to ruthlessly scam another family in order to live comfortably at last.

Likewise, we don’t need to be told that this is a film about privilege and class warfare; the contrasting circumstances of the Park and Kim families make it overwhelmingly clear. One particularly memorable scene is when the matriarch of the Park family comments that a recent rainstorm “was a real blessing” to clear the air — as the visuals of the movie cut to the Kim’s basement apartment being flooded and all of their possessions destroyed.

There are many ways to “show” in writing, but foil characters and strong contrasts like this are especially effective. You might also consider using metaphors and symbolism, which often convey important themes and messages more elegantly than straightforward narration.

4. Find the right length

With more showing and less telling, you’ll hopefully avoid the dreaded 1,000-page manuscript. Nonetheless, finding even more opportunities to reduce your word count will make things much easier — especially when it’s time to find an editor.

Bloated films like Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice prove that even the most beloved characters aren’t enough to keep fans hooked, as evidenced by the negative reviews and massive box office drop after its first weekend. A significant part of this was its overlong runtime, clocking in at over 2.5 hours and brutally described by one critic as “a near-total drag.”

Needless to say, if a new iteration of Superman can’t excite former Supermen themselves, there’s something wrong with the format. This isn’t to say that you can’t make a long film — or write a long book — of genuine quality. But more often than not, creators hit upon the perfect story length not when there’s nothing more to add, but when there’s nothing left to cut.

5. Attend to supporting details

Though you don’t want to write so much that readers drown in the pages, I hope the lessons thus far have made clear that the devil is in the details — and that you should be deliberate even with the smallest of story elements. Secondary characters in particular can make or break a story!

To come full circle with another Greta Gerwig film, we all know that Saoirse Ronan’s character in Lady Bird is the central protagonist, but the film’s supporting characters add so much color and context to her world. Beanie Feldstein as Julie, for example, doesn’t just fall into the typical “best friend” trope; she’s a complex and engaging character by herself. While loyal to Lady Bird, she has her own goals and a rich inner life, highlighting how different young women can be and how various friendship dynamics can manifest.

Try to do the same with your own secondary characters: give them their own personalities and theoretical storylines, even if they don’t show up much in your book. Who knows — you might end up with enough fodder for a sequel! (Though as we know from the movies, you shouldn’t write one unless you really have something interesting to say.)

Whether you like big-budget action films, quirky coming-of-age stories, or anything in between, I hope this post has inspired you to dissect your next Netflix pick for some great storytelling lessons. Happy watching!

Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, she enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories.

Savannah Cordova

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