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Watching for Reference

When writing a television show, a feature film, and even a short film, it’s a good idea to watch something with similar styles or story structure. I don’t watch to copy dialogue or scenes, but I’m watching to see how they made the film. I watch movies with actors that could play the same role as my characters. I look for the editing and where they cut in to and out of scenes. It’s fun to be able to understand how they made a certain narrative structure work and how I can apply that to my scripts. That’s the best part of what I do as a screenwriter… I get to watch shows and movies.

For television, I’m still new at writing television, so I watch as many shows as I can that’s sort of similar to what I’m writing. I watch for how long each act is and where they cut for commercial breaks. It’s almost a given that each break consists of SOME sort of cliffhanger to keep the audience waiting through the commercials, and I try to add those into my act breaks.

 

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Watching this show for my TV Pilot

All show types (genres) have their own unique structure. For example, if you watch crime shows, almost always the last two acts have them finding the killer and figuring out the motives (unless it’s a “to be continued” ending, and then you won’t know who the killer is). Also, on top of the episode structure, the series have their own structure as well. For example, some shows episodes are following a specific timeline, each episode relies on the other. Other shows rely on the characters and situations, so you can watch any episode and not have to worry about missing anything new from last month.

 

For movies, it’s a bit different. Every film has a beginning, middle, and end. There’s a problem addressed in the beginning, the middle is the character running around trying to figure out the issue, and the end is the resolution. The Hero’s Journey has the main character jumping through hoops and almost near death before returning home to tell everyone what he just endured. Romantic Comedies start off with two people not really liking each other and then falling in love… and then out of love… and then in love, again. I promise you, the more you watch a specific genre, you’ll see it!!

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From my notes when talking with a client.

Right now, I’m working on a new script that has me needing to watch some films for reference and to take notes on. I need to find that right personality for the character that I’m writing. I don’t want to be over the top with her drama, so I’m definitely trying to watch as many films I can with a similar character arch type to make sure I’m going down the right path. I can’t really talk about the script in detail because it’s not my story, but I’m really excited to get into these characters and put in my little touch.

Everything I wrote about research coincides with watching movies. Researching the genre that you’re writing doesn’t mean just looking online or reading books for structure formulas and blah-blah-blah, you have to watch some films or television shows that are successful in that genre. Do not feel like you’re being lazy by watching a ton of movies. If it’s purely for research you won’t be feeling lazy, you’re working. Now, if you just use this as an excuse to watch and not write… well, that’s on you.

A lot of the times, I’m writing and watching something at the same time. That only works if I’m writing for television. I like to keep having a show that I’m mirroring playing on in the background that way I can keep in mind of the timing and structure. I never really actually watch the show… I’m listening for beats and whenever there’s a dramatic moment, I look up and find out when in the show it happened. It’s probably not the best thing to do, but it works for me. 🙂

Thanks for reading!

-Emi


What kind of shows/movies to you watch to help you write?

If writing stories, do you read other books in that genre?

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