Things I've Learned from Old Movies

Recently I've been watching a lot of movies with my grandparents and, when I have the chance to pick movies I want, we end up watching old old movies - 1930s and 40s, usually black and white, generally John Wayne (because Grandpa and I both like John Wayne).

I've been thinking about the kind of things you learn from old movies, especially the ones with fuzzy sound and choppy cinematography.


1) Your Badguys and your Goodguys should be easy to tell apart.

In the old movies, it was easy to tell who was the Badguy and who was the Goodguy by what they were wearing. Nowadays, audiences don't like the Good/Bad division quite so much as they used to. There's a [not so] secret love for redeemable villains and protagonists in the moral grey area, but I don't think that means that we should toss this aside.

Making your characters distinct and easy to tell apart is important. When the audience can't tell which character is which, that makes the whole story a lot less fun.


2) Ducking always means you're hidden, even if you're in plain sight.

This is more along the lines of associating an action or description with a certain state or feeling. If you've read any old fairy tales, you'll see entire lines repeated at intervals, usually to indicate "this hasn't changed yet" and to give the kids something to say along with the book or storyteller.

But you can use the same tool for other purposes in more nuanced ways. Associate a particular gesture or exclamation with a particular train of thought, and you can use it as a shortcut later on. For example, if you establish that your supporting character's ears turn red when he's embarrassed or upset, then you can use that to show the audience that he's upset without saying "He stalked angrily away" or something equally obvious.


3) Letting the audience read a notice for themselves feels less contrived than having a character summarize it.

There's a concern in cinema that if they show a note or letter to the camera, there's a section of the audience that won't be able to read it for one reason or another, so it's usually paired with a voiceover or with a character summarizing it shortly afterward. But if I take this concept and I apply it to my writing, then it turns into letting the audience read the letter directly rather than having someone "read the letter swiftly," and summarize afterward.

This one is a bit more tricky, though, because some characters would read it aloud, or summarize the contents for others, and there's something to be learned about characters who do that kind of thing. So I wonder if this is really so much a thing I learned as it is just something to keep in mind.


There's obviously lots more to learn from these old movies, and I might write up another post for it at some point. What movies have you watched recently, and what did you learn about storytelling from them?

#Writing #Lessons #Learning

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