The bookstore is loaded with books on how to write. From memoirs like Stephen King’s On Writing to Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style, you can find books on every step of the writing process. Need some tips on how to write fantasy? Read this. Want to learn the art editing? Read this. Do you want to let your writing breathe? Read this. Need a book of disgusting words? Read this.
Of course, another way to learn how to write is to read. Some writers will tell you to read the classics, while other writers believe that you can learn just as much from crappy books as you can from critically-acclaimed literary works.
While the methods above are excellent ways to learn the craft of writing, one medium that‘s rarely mentioned is film. You can learn snappy dialogue, suspenseful pacing, scene transitions, and symbolism by playing close attention to an expertly written movie or television show.
I’ve always enjoyed analyzing a good movie with friends over beers, but it wasn’t until Mad Men that I realized the benefit of paying close attention to my favorite shows.
Here’s a list of a few expertly-written television shows and films that we think attentive writers can learn a thing or two from watching...we certainly did!
1. Breaking Bad: Breaking Bad is a masterclass in writing, from the complex characters, down to the rapid-fire plot that keeps you gripped. The writers never take the easy way out, even when it appears that they’ve written themselves into a corner. Poorly written television shows hold back on information because it’s not time for the big reveal. Breaking Bad never backs down or treats the viewer with respect.
2. Mad Men: Mad Men is all about the characters. The show takes place over roughly 10 years, taking the viewer though the tumultuous sixties. As the show progresses, all of the characters evolve and change with the times, for better or worse. Mad Men is thick with foreshadowing, symbolism, and existential dread. You can learn so much about subtlety, subtext, and attention to detail by watching Mad Men with a writer’s ear…er, eye.
3. Twin Peaks: The town of Twin Peaks is filled with quirky characters, dark secrets, and intrigue. The show masterfully balances the stories of several characters, while keeping the storylines tied to the main mystery of ‘who killed Laura Palmer.’ Twin Peaks is replete with symbolism, supernatural occurrences, Native American folklore, and even some slapstick comedy. What holds it all together? The masterful writing that can somehow jam belly-laughs and horrific violence into a single episode.
4. Bone Tomahawk: Bone Tomahawk is an excellent example of a genre movie (western) that takes the cowboy stereotype and flips it on it’s ear, subverting the viewer’s expectations. When the wife of local is kidnapped by cannibals, it’s up to her crippled husband, an old sheriff, and older deputy, and gunslinger to rescue her. Writers will notice the witty dialogue that’s both economical and clever, with not a single word wasted.
5. Glenngary Glenross: Glengarry Glenross is based on a play by David Mamet, who’s known for his hard-boiled dialogue and gritty characters. Glengarry Glenross is about a group of time-share salesmen fighting for their jobs. The story plays out over a series of long scenes driven solely by intense dialogue that’s both vicious and heartbreaking.
6. Faults: Faults is a lesser known movie about a man hired to deprogram a woman who was brainwashed by a cult. Pacing is king in Faults! The story reveals itself in bits and pieces through a tense game of cat and mouse. But who is the cat and who is the mouse?
If you have a favorites TV show or movie that you think is well written, tell us in the comments!
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