When someone asks me what kind of movie I’m in the mood for, my answer will — 100 percent of the time — be “rom com.”
While I couldn’t make it halfway through the abridged version of “Jane Eyre” and I still don’t know how “Old Yeller” ends, I can zip through a sweet romance novel in a week.
I’m not supposed to admit that, probably, because I’m a writer.
I should appreciate the classics, complicated literary fiction and Oscar-winning screenplays. But I prefer bite-size entertainment.
And, so everyone will stop judging my mass-market paperbacks and Jennifer-Aniston-strewn Netflix history, I’ll argue it’s actually good for my writing, too.
If you need an excuse to put down “Infinite Jest” and enjoy a beach read this summer, here are some ways consuming bad stories can actually make you a better writer.
1. The story structure is obvious
The easiest critique of rom coms is we all know how they’ll end.
Boy meets girl. Girl hates boy for a few chapters. Boy does something sweet girl doesn’t expect (but we totally did). Girl falls for boy. Boy screws up, but we beg girl to forgive him, because by now we’re rooting for them. She forgives him, and they finally kiss once. The end.
No one watches or reads a romantic comedy to be surprised.
As readers, we enjoy the familiarity. As writers, we can learn from it.
When you’re new to fiction writing, story structure is hard. You think you know what a story arc looks like…but it’s not that easy, is it? And if you don’t hit the right notes at the right points, even amazing characters and a killer premise will fall flat.
In cheesy writing, the plot points are obvious. We see them coming, because they follow a tried and true formula: Conflict, climax, resolution.
Non-cheesy stories follow the formula, too — it’s just harder to see.
Watch predictable movies and read breezy books to familiarize yourself with story structure. Even your most creative and unique story should hit those important plot points.
Bonus points: Watch a trilogy (“Pitch Perfect,” anyone?), because the formula is even more obvious when you see it repeated by the same characters three times over.
2. The writer’s fingerprints are all over it
Beyond cheesy, formulaic writing, there’s just plain bad writing. This is where you can really hone your skills.
Bad fiction writing is rife with traces of the writer.
You sense when a character’s monologue about the breakdown of Western values is basically a personal essay from the author. You feel their valiant attempt at making the relationship between the mother and daughter fraught and relatable. You read oddly placed dialogue as an obvious spoiler for a later plot point.
Good stories don’t feel like they’ve been written. They feel like they just are.
When you read or watch good stories, you get lost in them. It’s tough to think like a writer and learn from them, because you’re so busy enjoying them.
You don’t have to mimic bad techniques to learn from them. Understand what the writer was trying to do — character development, connection with the reader, foreshadowing — and note how they can work into your own stories.
3. You can make it better
Learning what not to do is just as important as learning what to do.
I’ve hardly met a writer who doesn’t lament typos in published novels or the misuse of “lay” in a script. Some of us have even been known to keep a pencil nearby while we read.
Put that writer’s eye to use to recognize bad writing and make it better. Go beyond typos, and note weak sentence structure. Figure out why your eyes gloss over at a piece of dialogue. Recognize poor organization within chapters.
Rewriting bad books could be a great exercise to strengthen your writing muscles.
4. It’s easier to see what’s wrong in bad writing than what’s right in good writing
Good writing is solid inspiration, yes. We should all enjoy it and aspire to put more of it into the world. But it’s hard to learn from.
Good writing is inimitable. If you set out to write a Woody Allen movie, you’re going to fail.
If we could all pinpoint exactly what makes incredible writing so incredible, we’d all be Woody Allen. Or Charles Dickens. Or Dave Eggers. But it’s tough to map a formula for that kind of writing.
Instead, watch a B rom com, dissect the predictable plot and shallow characters and figure out how you could uniquely do that story better.
For a new fiction writer, working some depth into “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” is a way more realistic starting point than trying to write the next “Casablanca.”
Enjoy your guilty pleasures — guilt-free
Next time you want to while away the weekend in the chick lit section of the library, do it without shame. It’s more than an escape from the depth of work and life you deal with day to day — it’s an important step in your development as a writer.
What are some of the best lessons you’ve learned from cheesy movies or bad fiction?
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