Four Things a Writer Can Learn from Watching a Film

Many authors and writing teachers use film to explain everything from tension to story structure to character development. We can learn more than four things from studying films, but I recently watched a fun movie on Netflix and I can’t stop thinking about a few things regarding strong stories it reinforced for me.

The movie was “The Adam Project.” It stars Ryan Reynolds, Mark Ruffalo and Jennifer Garner. Yes, I’m one of those people who might choose to watch a film because I like the cast. I have suffered through many horrible movies because of this character flaw, and still…

Here’s the movie’s tagline from IMDb: After accidentally crash-landing in 2022, time-traveling fighter pilot Adam Reed teams up with his 12-year-old self for a mission to save the future.

I highly recommend using the IMDb single-line formula for creating a sentence pitch for your work in progress. I write the formula for doing so in this post.

I enjoyed the movie but at the peak of the story in what should have been the climactic sequence, I found myself strangely unaffected. Whoops! That is not the sort of reaction the writers and filmmakers of an action film are aiming for.

The writers didn’t fail horribly with this movie. I would give it a hearty thumbs up and would gladly watch it again. However, they did do two things wrong and more on that later. Before I get to that, I’ll chime in on two things they did well.

Know Your Audience

I mentioned that I liked these actors. I have mixed feelings about Ryan Reynolds because he can have a foul mouth (for example as DEADPOOL), but I hoped since this was a family-rated movie that wouldn’t be the case.

It wasn’t. Reynolds was at his best, tossing around sarcastic, witty commentary and comebacks. Even better, the actor chosen to portray twelve-year-old Adam could stand toe-to-toe with Reynolds slinging insults. The casting here was perfect.

The filmmakers did a great job of understanding their audience would want action and adventure, but that they would expect laughs from Reynolds and wanted a movie to watch as a family. My sons would have loved this movie as pre-teens (and I’ll recommend it to them as adults, too).

Writers have to know what their audience wants from a story and characters. That’s why it’s imperative to understand genre expectations. Do your homework. Read a ton of books in your chosen genre. Learn what your audience wants. Then you can deliver a story experience that satisfies and keeps readers coming back to read your next book. And the next.

Characters that Make Us Care

Writing the same character at two different stages in their character journey can be a challenge. It was done well in this film.

Older Adam had compassion for his mother and a bit of disdain for his younger self. From his perspective, he hadn’t made the best choices or acted in the best interest of his family as a teenager. Since many movies aimed at a young adult audience villainize parents, it was great to see both sides of the coin. Garner did an excellent job playing the part, too.

Characters need a past. They need wounds that inform the choices they make when faced with plot developments.

Adam had a wound and the filmmakers showed it to us in a single event over multiple conversations. That way we understood when it was healed for both Adams, and that was one of the most powerful scenes of the movie for me.

Mark Ruffalo gave great insight into the flip side of the parental coin, too. It’s powerful for parents to realize that what we think our actions tell our children aren’t often what they hear us say. Kids want time and attention, even those with a gift-getting love language realize the true sign of love pays best in time currency.

And, yes, I loved the juxtaposition of that against a plot centered around time travel.

Villains We Understand

I am not advocating for giving the villain a primary story in every movie. Because Avengers Infinity War was the villain’s story, it was unsatisfying for me. I want good to defeat evil, and that wasn’t the case in that movie.

However, if you take a character who is a supporter and even friend of someone and then reveal to the reader (viewer in this case) that they’re truly the bad guy, you need to give them a very good reason.

Mr. Freeze was trying to save his wife. Thanos believed he was saving the universe.

We can still want the bad guy to lose but it adds incredible tension when we understand where they’re coming from. Even if we disagree with them.

In this movie, the antagonist’s motivation for “power” didn’t line up with the younger self we met during time travel. That person supported the Reed family and especially Dr. Reed’s time travel research. These were her friends–not a means to an end.

Because I didn’t understand her motivation or what happened to “turn her,” I felt disengaged from the scenes where she was carrying out her evil deeds.

As a writer, spend more time diving deep into your villain. Do the same sort of characterization for that person as you do for your hero. The villain will be misguided, and the reader can see the ends shouldn’t justify extreme means, but they’ll feel conflicted about seeing a total defeat of the villain. That will create more tension and keep them reading.

Unbelievable Events

And now we’ll fast-forward to the climactic battle inside the villain’s lair.

I’m not going to tell you exactly what happened. But to keep time travel from happening, the heroes needed to retrieve a hard drive that used Daddy Reed’s equation to direct an electro-magnetic energy and create wormholes between different time lines.

As the battle starts and picks up the pace, I turn to my computer engineer husband and ask, “Wouldn’t the hard drive be destroyed by this?”


And I was out.

Suddenly, the entire scene didn’t matter because it was implausible. And the work they’d done to create all three Reeds as “geniuses” dissipated.

It couldn’t have happened this way. They should have handed over the drive and walked away. The tension and suspense were otherwise well-drawn but that one small detail wouldn’t allow me to suspend my disbelief.

As a fiction writer, you can’t afford to give readers a reason to question plausibility. They need to be all-in, and that means you have to do the research so the obstacles you throw at them are realistic.

If you get the chance, watch this movie. It’s enjoyable. Because I got the emotional payoff of the character journeys, I didn’t consider these story weaknesses a deal-breaker.

But, man, this could have been an amazing movie if the writers had shored up on villain motivation and eliminated the implausible event (because even in a fantastical movie, the things based on our real world and common knowledge are rules that shouldn’t be broken).

Did you find this post helpful? Are you ready to tune in to watch the movie and see if you concur with my assessment?

If so, I hope you’ll come back and post a comment. I’d love to know how another writer saw the strengths and weaknesses of this film.

What do you think? Add to the discussion here.