Ideas and Organization

Movie clips are possibly my students’ and my favorite teaching technique. For example, when I’m trying to get across why you need to consider your audience’s opinions BEFORE you make an argument (in persuasive writing), I show them the rainy scene from the Focus Features Pride and Prejudice where Darcy makes the claim that Lizzy should marry him with the reason that he loves her “most ardently” and the evidence is his agony.

And Lizzy says whoop-dee-doo.

Even if the dialogue runs super fast in that movie — super fast with British accents, no less — students get the idea: claim, reasons, and evidence aren’t enough if you haven’t considered the audience’s values. Lizzy isn’t the type to swoon at any old declaration of love. When he comes back with the letter, which addresses her objections, students see how much more effective it is at persuading Lizzy to trust him.

And the thing is that by seeing it and hearing it as a movie clip, students remember the concept better, I think. I mean, who’s going to forget a proposal that intense gone wrong? And hopefully, when they sit down to write their written arguments, they’ll think about their audience’s beliefs, opinions, values, objections, etc.

Last night I took it even further and tried to explain the six writing traits — ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions — in terms of movies.

For example, I asked them how often they’ve been enticed by the premise (the idea) of a movie, only to have it fail to meet those expectations. Yeah, they got that. And we came up with a list of what a movie — or, more importantly, a piece of writing — has to do as far as ideas:

  • excite/entice us
  • give us something/someone to care about
  • delve deep into the ideas (no shallow interpretations of the premise, whether humorous or dramatic)
  • deliver on expectations
  • resonate with us

Pixar has been great at this. Their saying is that “story is king.” I told my class about how Ratatouille was first pitched as a brilliant premise — a rat who wants to be a gourmet chef — in 2000, but by 2005 the storyline still wasn’t working for whatever reasons, and they had to revamp until they had story and characters — fiction’s biggest idea ingredients — that would deliver.

Even though Pixar and other computer animation studios do amazing things with the visual aspects of their movies, all of that would be no good without solid ideas first.

With organization, we decided to see if we could map out the structure of a formulaic romantic comedy:

  1. Introduce audience to lead characters separately. Show us what their life is like and what each person is “missing.”
  2. Have main characters meet. There should be attraction but also conflict. Something stops their relationship from instantly working out.
  3. Let them connect. There may be happy musical sequences involved with them staring into each other’s eyes, but there is still plenty of angst because we know the under-the-surface conflict hasn’t been resolved.
  4. Force them apart. The break-up is pretty much a standard of romantic comedies. The characters give up on love, tired of being hurt, all that jazz. It’s the hopeless moment.
  5. Provide a resolution. Obviously the audience wants to leave feeling good, so this is the part where the characters need to sympathize and apologize and compromise until everything works out and they are happy and complete and believe again in the possibility of love.

How does that help us understand organization? Well, there’s stuff like providing an introduction that lets us get to know the subject and a conclusion that gives direction and hope, but also the lesson of building tension. Organization is what makes the ideas move forward and keeps the momentum of the ideas going. And in order to have momentum, you have to have tension that builds toward a resolution.

Nifty, huh? Amazing what movies can teach you — even the formulaic ones.

What do you think? What movies have you seen that you loved or hated because of their success or failure with ideas or organization?

For me, the most recent example I can think of was watching The Reader. I left after half an hour because I did not care about the characters at all. (Maybe the problem was that I was fast-forwarding or closing my eyes through half of it, who knows? I’m still a little kid sometimes.) My hubby tells me it got really good after that, but I just couldn’t force myself to keep sitting through a movie I didn’t care about, and it taught me that I want to watch, read about, and write characters I can fall in love with.

This movies-and-writing trilogy continues with the sequel: Voice and Word Choice.

Leave a comment!

8 thoughts on “Movies Explain the World (of Writing), Part I

  1. I do not have a movie example but I recently read a book I thoroughly disliked. Another person pointed out to me that the writing alone was worth the read. I did not have the vocabulary to describe why she was wrong but after reading your blog post I now know how to convey that well chosen words alone do not make good writing. Also, thanks to Courtney for the tip.


    1. So good to hear from you! It’s been fun to find Courtney’s blog, and I’m glad you’ve found mine. 🙂

      It’s funny that in my English major no one ever critiqued literature this way, but this is how I was taught to critique student writing as a teacher, and it’s been invaluable to me as a writer. You’re absolutely right: well-chosen words aren’t nearly enough. Thanks for the comment!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s