Writing Tips

Why I Watch Movies While Writing A Book

By September 27, 2014 36 Comments
Millie Ho Writing Desk

My current writing set-up.

I started incorporating movies into my writing routine recently.

It’s exactly what it sounds like.

Instead of writing to music as I normally would’ve done, I drag my manuscript to the monitor and open a movie on my laptop. And then I write, typity type type, until my eyes and ears can’t take it anymore or my hands fall off.

Now, watching a movie while you’re writing might sound like a terrible idea, but please hear me out.

There are three advantages to this method

  • Ever been stuck when writing a scene or character? A movie can inspire you in two hours, max.
  • You can’t read while you write, so a movie is the second best alternative to doing creative research in a short period of time.
  • If you put a boring movie on, you get some killer white noise in the background.

I’m editing my manuscript now, and I’ve started noticing some inconsistencies. My story starts off being really science fiction-y with all the tropes that entails, and then everything seems to magically teleport to the 90s. After reviewing my earlier drafts and cross-referencing story notes, I realized that the culprit was my lack of noir aesthetics.

Like, duh. Captain Obvious much?

Noir was the reason I started writing the Nash Moor story. The main characters—Mr. Hallelujah, the bounty hunter, the sketchy members of detective agency Otter & Associates—were inspired by noir and wouldn’t work without it.

I needed to go back to my noir roots, and go back fast.

Instead of re-reading Raymond Chandler or opening up a tome of American detective fiction, I pulled up my movies folder and started hacking away at all the areas on the manuscript marked with “IC” for “inconsistent”.

The first movie was The Maltese Falcon.

Then Pulp Fiction.

And then, as I was figuring out how to reconcile noir and sci-fi, I watched Blade Runner, an old favourite.

After hours of writing and watching, my manuscript was littered with notes and scenes with improved characterizations and a more believable tech/noir ambience.

At the end of the day, movies remind us of what we want to achieve with our own stories. We want the characters, atmosphere and conflict(s) to be just as real and evocative as what you’d see on the big screen. Readers have to care and be as wholly invested in the story as though they’d just bought front row tickets to a highly anticipated film.

The story has to come to life, and watching a movie while I write brings me a step closer to that.

And hey.

If you ever get bored with your story, at least there’ll be something to watch other than a horrible guilt-tripping blinking cursor.


Millie’s Note: Do you have unorthodox writing habits or tips?

Join the discussion 36 Comments

  • mihrank says:

    amazing and beautiful!

  • elmediat says:

    Fascinating – you are using the audio atmosphere of the noir films to re-enforce your sense of mood & pacing.

    Simon R. Green’s Nightside series is a masterclass in mixing Hard boiled noir with fantasy. John Taylor has the gift of finding anything. The Nightside is the other London where it s always three in the morning under a full moon. It is “a place where dreams come true and nightmares come alive. Where one can buy anything, often at the price of your soul… or someone else’s. Where the music never stops and the fun never ends”. Gods, ghosts, time travellers and every type of alien and demon can rub elbows and other body parts – there is always a mystery to solve and the solution is always morally ambiguous. Lots of fun reading. 😀

    • Millie Ho says:

      Sounds like a real feast! I just scanned through the characters list and am liking what I see. Did you find that the story worked well despite being crowded with different tropes?

      • elmediat says:

        He makes them all come together – he uses The Nightside as as a metaphysical & meta-textual playground. The mysteries are a mix of Raymond Chandler, Philip K. Dick and H.P. Lovecraft. The taxies are hungry for pick-ups, literally and you might see a mysterious black beauty of a car with a green masked man wearing a fedora and a masked chauffeur taking a short-cut through The Nightside. There is a a diner that is always in the 1950s where the Travelling Doctor can safely meet himself.

        Green goes a step further and creates a shared universe so that all his different series are connected. people, events, and objects cross-reference. The Nightside series was completed, but characters and references keep showing up in his books. Right now, I am almost finished Property of a Lady Faire, the latest in a series that features the adventures of Edwin Drood, AKA Shaman Bond ( the man with the Golden/Silver Torc) and Molly Metcalf , the Wild Witch. Besides the James Bond allusions the couple play off each other as a Nick & Nora Charles couple. The Doormouse, a humanoid mouse who creates doors to anywhere, a skill he acquired studying with Carnaki, appears in the novel, along with Hadleigh Oblivion, Detective Inspectre. Creative names and concepts just pour out of these books.

        My son is addicted to both series. He stayed up one night a read the Lady Faire novel pretty much in one go. 😀

  • I feel the same way about non-episodic TV shows. I don’t watch them while I write, but they often inspire me to get my plot tightened. I find myself drawn to shows like Breaking Bad, where the plot really does come from the devolution of the main character. But then there’s Sherlock, the new one with Benedict Cumberbatch, which is excellent. Also, The Killing. I like to look for inconsistencies in the plot, as do most people, but I’m always watching with an eye towards writing and making sure I don’t make the same mistakes. Usually by the end of watching one of these shows I have a new idea for my next chapter.

    Unorthodox writing methods? Let me see. On Sundays I get out of the house early in the morning and go to a bar…yes, a bar. And I am constantly entertained by those serious hardcore alcoholics drinking PBR at the crack of dawn on the patio while I write. Pretty weird that a bar would be open in the morning, right? This place has a perfect setup for writing (for me). I can plug in my computer outside and order a coffee and bagel and avoid the distractions of home.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Breaking Bad is one of those shows where you can find good writing takeaways regardless of where you start. I think the same applies to high-stakes shows like Dexter, or even more episodic shows like Law & Order. I used to dislike episodes that ended on a cliffhanger because it didn’t complete that whole “three act story system”, but now that I’m writing a series, I see why it’s a challenge to pull off a cliffhanger well.

      Ha! You paint a hilarious picture of early morning alcoholics. The patio will always be a favourite writing space. 🙂

  • I hear you, but I am not convinced. Maybe it’s age, or lack of youth. Dunno.

  • Mark says:

    This really makes sense to me. I do get a lot of potential character routes from watching TV, even when the acting is poor, I can see the story-line is something that a decent book could make much better. (A book is always better.)

    I’ve never watched a movie while simultaneously writing but I have read books and then written (which, to me, is kinda like the same thing) and it does help with the mood and direction I’m trying to go towards.

    I’ve tried some different methods while writing but never what you suggest. I’m gonna try it and see how it goes. I’m in the middle of a first draft of a supernatural awakening story so, yeah. I’ll see what I can flick on and do the old watch-TV-while-writing approach.

    • Millie Ho says:

      Thanks for your comment, Mark. I think the benefit of watching TV (especially a series) is being able to quickly see the characters come into their own from Season X to Season Y. Actors, live or animated, usually have stronger characterizations further down the show, and as a writer you can easily discern the improvements and how to apply them to your own work.

      Good luck with the experiment. I’m guessing a supernatural awakening story calls for lots of horror/sci-fi/thriller?

  • kvennarad says:

    Fascinating, from beginning to end.

    Yes, ‘Blade Runner’ took ‘Do Androids…’ and made it into sci-noir.

    I’m longing to read ‘Nash Moor’, if only because I was planning a bounty hunter in my vampire threequel, and I want to see how you handle a bounty hunter.

    No, I don’t have any particular writing habits. I simply hunch over the keyboard…

    • Millie Ho says:

      We can beta read for each other! I just have to get the manuscript in a readable format. Won’t be long now!

      • kvennarad says:

        I’m about 30,000 words into ‘KWIREBOY vs VAMPYR’ (the sequel), and I haven’t even managed to get the protagonist out of the Sierra Nevada yet (he has to get to DC). I’ll gladly give you that to read through when it’s finished, and I’ll gladly beta ‘Nash Moor’ for you.

  • Anonymous says:

    Interesting idea. And do not forget “The Third Man” by Carol Reed, 1949. That is a Noir…
    ciao, robert

  • Interesting idea and process. And do not forget “The Third Man” by Carol Reed, 1949, that is a Noir!

  • Hi Millie,
    Im glad you’ve found something that works for you. I can’t have words happening outside of my mind when I am writing, even is songs, although non-verbal music is okay if someone else puts it on. I do like to exercise using movies for visuals and thought-stimulators that might relate to writing project I am working on. Best of luck with your writing.

  • This is actually a pretty rad idea. I could even mute the film and put music on at the same time, so I get AMBIENT IMAGES! it could work, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I’d end up watching… maybe if I queued up trailers to films that have the feel I’m going for? There wouldn’t be enough plot to get sucked in, just a stream of awesome-osity in the right vein.

    I absolutely get what you mean about drifting away from theme or setting during the writing of a piece. I’ve got plans to run through my manuscript again and focus on one at a time (today I’m filtering for PIRATE!)

    • Millie Ho says:

      Ah cool! Actually, watching trailers is an idea. Trailers distill the plot to the most interesting draw-you-in bits, so there’s good fodder there. The downside is that you don’t always know who’s who, but maybe that’s where writers come and fill people in.

      How’s your October coming along, by the way? Is the home life conducive to writing productivity?

      • Haha… not really to be honest. I got back from the work trip with a couple of new work projects up my sleeve. For some reason my boss seems to have forgotten that I’m only a lowly grunt, not a study manager. That in combination with my parents circling (ready to snaffle up the newborn and run cackling into the hills), and baby prep, and I’ve not made much progress.

        I’m determined to hit the manuscript hard tonight after everyone is in bed, and get the thing off to some test readers before the baby arrives (only a couple of weeks left!). I’ll give the video playlist thing a go tonight, since I’ve got a dual screen setup anyway.

        How’s your work going this August? Must be getting towards hibernation time of year over there soon, so perfect weather for writing? 🙂

  • Nice one. Yer, if I have deadlines, as long as they haven’t been sprung on me, I’ll get through a whole series of a trashy super hero show writing a paragraph between episodes and editing. It is because of self efficacy; none of us like to be told what to do. It is primal. <3 =D

  • Wildfire8470 says:

    Hi Millie, Your blog is still amazing as ever. I hadn’t thought about it previously, but I usually put the TV or a movie on for the drone of white noise. Are you in NaNo this year? I can’t participate as I am working on the book I started last year, but I am trying to keep the schedule. Send coffee! LOL!

  • Hey Millie, sorry its been so long. I can imagine editing to movies… not sure about writing to them, though. Too much distraction for my brain. Hope your editing goes well.

  • Hi Millie. :0) Pleasure to meet you. I popped over to Sorrow Bacon (GENIUS!) and wanted to leave a comment there but I’m too lazy to create another Google account. On the subject of Noir- it’s an interesting thing. I’m completely in love with black and white and have been for years. As a photographer, I have to LIVE black and white to capture its essence, to the degree that I want and also so that viewers can really feel it. If you want to kick up the Noir, I’d suggest a good hot cup of coffee (or whiskey!) and leaving “Mildred Pierce” on rotation. I promise, it’ll seep into your bones. (Mildred Pierce w/Joan Crawford was the first of its kind to really highlight “Noir” in the movie industry. They used special lighting in that movie that had never been used before.) Anyway- my point! I’m continually inspired by that movie and if you haven’t checked it out, do yourself a favour and see it: I never walk away uninspired or without new ideas. Good luck with your manuscript! x -Birgitta

    • Millie Ho says:

      Hey Birgitta! Thanks for the tip about “Mildred Pierce”. I’ve been meaning to read more James Cain books, but am still rotating through Chandler and Leonard until I finish their repertoires. I’ll definitely check out the film and miniseries based on the same story. Never pass on classic noir! Have you seen “Run Lola Run”? It’s been inspiring some of my work recently, and maybe you’ll find some use out of the film as well.

      • I’ve never seen “Run Lola Run” but will definitely look into it. (I’m doing the “death spiral” at the moment- AKA “studying for my finals”- ha.) And yes, classic noir is just that- classic. It’s an era that can’t be replaced. I think also there’s something to be said for the innocence of it all, you know? It depicts a world “pre-internet” and everything seems ancient now. But one thing that Noir always seems to elicit is strong, dramatic lighting. If you can translate that atmosphere into your writing, then you’re really on to something. Anyway, again, all the best with that!

Leave a Reply