On balancing books and movies.

Stephen King once said, “Books and movies are like apples and oranges. They both are fruit, but taste completely different.” Stephen King also insists in On Writing that no one – absolutely no one – can be a writer without reading A LOT. Writers should read and write every day; there’s no way around it.

I agree with King’s sentiments. After all, I just wrote an entire post about reading more books. Reading is essential, invaluable, and irreplaceable. However, life is all about balance, right? As we move into the final dog days of summer, I want nothing more than to load up on snacks, stretch out, and enjoy a movie in the cool darkness of my living room. How can I make this leisurely activity support my writing goals?

According to Shaunta Grimes, writing for Medium.com, the best way is to watch a movie like a writer. She explains the process in depth and provides helpful links here, but what it boils down to is structure. Screenplays generally follow a 3-act structure: Act One is the Setup, Act Two is the Confrontation, and Act Three is the Resolution. This is covered extensively in a number of different ways in any number of places, but for our purposes, I’m going to explain it the same way I do when I’m teaching the concept in my creative writing class.

  • Act One must introduce major characters, the setting and the conflict. It must have an inciting incident and end with a major plot point that changes the course of the story.
  • Act Two is the longest third of a screenplay. It often includes subplots and showcases character arcs. It includes a major plot point as well, but now the stakes are higher. It usually ends with a moment of crisis.
  • Act Three is typically the shortest third of a screenplay because it’s the showdown between the opposing forces of the conflict, and the resulting consequences of that confrontation. All loose ends are tried up, or least addressed.
  • Put even more simply: Act One, put a guy up a tree. Act Two, throw rocks at him. Act Three, get him down.

So as a writer, watching movies specifically for their structures and character arcs can help generate plot point, character development, and themes, and thereby help cure writer’s block! What kind of movies are best? That depends on what you’re writing, but the internet has come to a consensus that there are about 20 movies every writer should see.

I scrutinized nearly 20 of these lists myself. They came from a literary magazine at a respected university, writers’ blogs, marketing specialists, well-known magazines and databases (IndieWire, Writer’s Digest, IMDB, Medium), lesser-known magazines (Paste, High on Films) and Ranker and Google. There was also a random list I found with no real author or attribution, but I liked the titles, so I kept it. From the master list, I narrowed it down by the number of mentions on every list I searched. Without further ado, according to the internet, here are 20 movies every writer should watch:

  1. Adaptation (9 mentions and usually near the top of every list)
  2. Misery (9 mentions and usually near the top of every list)
  3. Midnight in Paris (8 mentions)
  4. Barton Fink (8 mentions)
  5. Ruby Sparks (6 mentions)
  6. Almost Famous (6 mentions)
  7. Stranger Than Fiction (6 mentions)
  8. Wonder Boys (6 mentions)
  9. The End of the Tour (5 mentions)
  10. Naked Lunch (5 mentions)
  11. Spotlight (4 mentions)
  12. The Words (4 mentions)
  13. The Shining (4 mentions)
  14. Sunset Boulevard (4 mentions)
  15. Finding Forrester (4 mentions)
  16. Dead Poets Society (4 mentions)
  17. Bright Star (3 mentions)
  18. Capote (3 mentions)
  19. An Angel at My Table (3 mentions)
  20. Factotum (3 mentions)
  21. Shakespeare in Love (3 mentions)
  22. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (3 mentions)

I bolded the ones I have seen and as you can see, I need to get working on this list! There is no particular order, other than the number of times the title was mentioned on the lists I studied, and there were quite a few honorable mentions, which I’m limiting to ones I have seen and loved:

  • You’ve Got Mail
    • This movie is more about reading than writing, but it’s all connected anyway. And who doesn’t love an enjoyable romantic comedy with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan? Dave Chapelle’s in it too, so there is literally something for everyone. Nora Ehpron at her most enchanting.
  • Genius
    • This movie stars Jude Law and Colin Firth. Need I say more? It chronicles the fascinating relationship between editor extraordinaire Max Perkins (think Fitzgerald and Hemingway!) and Thomas Wolfe.
  • The Rewrite
    • Hugh Grant plays opposite Marisa Tomei in an adorable and heartwarming romantic comedy about a screenwriter who used to be really good a long, long time ago and how he reclaims his former glory. Maybe fame and fortune aren’t everything.
  • Secret Window
    • Johnny Depp is FANTASTIC as writer dealing with his wife’s infidelity and a mysterious stranger who accuses him of plagiarism. A Stephen King special, the intensity climbs right up to the surprise ending!
  • So I Married an Axe Murderer
    • Mike Meyers at his funniest. He’s a writer who – you guessed it! – may have married an axe murderer.
  • Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
    • Confession: I haven’t seen this movie, but I’m a H U G E fan of Sam Rockwell, so I’m going to see it ASAP.
  • In Bruges
    • Not entirely sure what this film has to do with writing, but as far as films go, it’s damn near perfect. Colin Farrell gives a performance of a lifetime, and it’s from the unbelievably talented Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri).
  • Funny Farm
    • Chevy Chase has aspirations of becoming a serious novelist, so he relocates to the country, thinking he’ll find inspiration in a seemingly quaint country town. Hilarity ensues.
  • Music and Lyrics
    • Another Hugh Grant film (leave me alone), but this time he’s paired with Drew Barrymore and this is actually all about the writing process, particularly as it pertains to songwriting. It’s also adorable.
  • Adult World
    • One of my favorite movies of all time. Emma Roberts stars as a young woman who wants to be the protege to a famous, reclusive, brilliant poet (played perfectly by John Cusack). Evan Peters is in it, too. The heart in this film is surprising and wonderful.
  • Stand By Me
    • More Stephen King (are you really all that surprised?), but this is more about friendship and growing up and the choices we make inside of ourselves. Perfect, nostalgic, bittersweet coming-of-age tale.
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
    • Johnny Depp as Hunter S. Thompson. Wonderfully weird. Need I say more? This cult-classic is definitely worth the watch.
  • Sideways
    • Road trip movie about two men in wine country, one of whom is a depressed teacher and unsuccessful writer. This movie speaks to me on so many levels.

Has this list inspired you? Do you feel strongly about any of the titles? Am I missing some great movies about writing? Let me know in the comments!