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Films inspiring writing

Movies inspiring writing

Why writing about your business should be like a great film

Films have always borrowed from books, with many of the most notable and famous films being adaptations of novels or stories – Gone with the Wind, Cabaret and The Remains of the Day are just three examples from thousands. Here I want to look at things from the other direction: how storytelling techniques in films can provide vivid and inspirational ways of thinking about how you should present your story, particularly in relation to the challenge about writing about your business in an engaging way that will gain you new customers.

So, here are four ways in which great films can teach you about attracting and keeping readers to material you write about your business. This blog is based on a presentation delivered in Jan 2022 to an online networking group, 4Networking, at the launch meeting of a group bringing together people interested in films and in business: Film on Friday.

Defy expectations

Films are brilliant at this, and, thinking about it, probably most of my favourite films have this effect on me as I’m watching them. I love films which upturn what you believe is going to happen next or subvert the genre of the film you believe you are watching. Many of my favourite directors achieve this in some or indeed most of their films: Hitchcock, Kubrick, Scorsese, Coppola (Francis and Sofia), Tarantino, Ridley Scott, to name just a few.

The film I focused on in my presentation isn’t from any of those directors, but is the 1971 Michael Caine film, Get Carter, often referred to as one of the greatest British gangster films of all time. It was the directorial debut of Mike Hodges, who also wrote the screenplay. That is significant, because it is the quality of the dialogue, the choice of locations and the brilliant plot which help this film to stand out, and to still be a gripping viewing experience 50 years on from its release. The performances of course help too, with Caine never better or more believable as a tough East Ender set upon revenge for the death of his brother.

Get Carter defies expectations in a number of ways:

  • Use of location: This is East End gangsterhood transplanted to the northeast, using Newcastle and the surrounding area in ways that at the time were surprising, and still add brilliantly to its atmosphere. Fascinating too to see how much Newcastle has changed since then. Keeping it grounded in a recognisable place, being unafraid to be local in outlook is a great lesson to learn when writing about your business experiences.
  • Be flawed, be believable: ‘Flawed’ is a euphemism for the extent of Carter’s character shortcomings, and Caine had already given us some great anti-heroes in films such as Alfie and The Ipcress File. But here he takes it to another level, and yet you still root for him throughout. It makes him believable, even in some of the extreme moments of the plot. Now, in your business writing, don’t of course go about advocating killing people or bundling women into the boots of cars, as Carter does, but don’t be afraid to lay bare your flaws and mistakes, as any solutions that emerge from this will then be so much more believable.
  • Surprise ending: A Hollywood staple, and so true in Get Carter (no spoilers here, in case you’ve missed this 50-year-old classic!), but what is so great here is that the film has spent its entire duration earning its surprise ending, so that, once you’ve seen it and taken it in, it feels the only possible ending rather than a gimmick tacked on at the end. And what a great way to end a business blog, book or even an email – a surprise ending that enthrals your audience but feels earned and justified.
  • Be authentic: This film has authenticity in spades, even when at its most theatrical and dramatic, to an extent which was in danger of putting off audiences. Instead, it proved to be its strength and is a key factor in its enduring appeal. Contrast this with the terrible Get Carter flop remake from 2000, with Stallone in the title role. The strapline on the film poster is ‘The truth hurts’ and that is painfully the case in relation to the critic and box office response to this woeful remake. Stallone is no Caine, he’s just not believable or relatable in this role, and this too is a warning when writing about your business – be authentic, particularly to a UK audience, as BS will get you found out.

Revel in language

This may sound a surprising aspect to learn from films, as clearly this is what you can gain from well-written books. However, many of my favourite films take a delight in words, in dialogue and in descriptive language. They have created so many quotable and quoted lines and coming from a film they have passed into widespread usage in a way that lines on a page have rarely been able to reach.

In my presentation I invited people to be more Tarantino, or more Scorsese in creating scenes with memorable lines or sayings. In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino lets his two gunmen indulge in a detailed discussion about cultural differences, centred around McDonald’s in France serving up a Royale with cheese. Far from frustratingly slowing down the action, you are now invested and interested in these dark characters, and it is this surprising, rambling dialogue which has achieved this.

When looking at films from the perspective of what can be learned that will help when writing about business, lets look at what is probably the supreme ‘business film’, The Social Network. Not only, it can be argued, is the rise of Facebook the most important business story of the 21st century so far, but the way this film portrays it is hugely instructive and inspiring. Funny, gripping, suspenseful, surprising, crazy, with Mark Zuckerberg as its flawed central character, the film’s success is built on its brilliant adapted screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, which rightly won an Oscar.

The film has many scenes with people just talking, often in offices and boardrooms. Talking about contracts, numbers, business, strategies. All of it is made gripping and fascinating. As one tip from this blog, anyone aspiring to write about business must watch The Social Network, as this is how it should be done!

Use real-life stories

Increasingly, filmmakers have understood the unique power of an inspiring true story and used these to create some memorable and moving films. Fact really is stranger and more powerful than fiction. I cited two examples in my presentation. The great Alan Bennett has produced so much great work in books, on stage, on TV and in films. The History Boys started out as an excellent play and went onto be filmed using the stage cast and is a lightly fictionalised version of school life you could imagine Bennett having had. However, this 2006 film, while great, doesn’t stay with you in the way that his next film venture does. The Lady in the Van started out as a story, then a play, but it is the 2015 film, with Maggie Smith in the title role, which is its greatest incarnation. I saw it again recently on TV, and its plot, that of a madly eccentric woman living in a van on Alan Bennett’s drive for 15 years, would seem barely believable and rather farcical if it wasn’t based on the truth. The life story of Miss Shepherd turns out to be funnier and more outlandish, yet also more poignant and tragic, than that of any of Bennett’s invented characters.

The other example I chose was films which tackle the appalling episodes of children being taken by their mothers by religious orders in Ireland. The notorious Magdalene Laundries were portrayed powerfully in the fictional The Magdalene Sisters film from 2002. But compare this with the astonishing Philomena, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, based on the true story of Philomena Lee. The film conveys the reality of the situation more powerfully than fiction ever could, the film ending with the now obligatory shots of the real-life person the film is based on.

So, dig deep into your life story, and into real-life examples of business wins and losses in your writing. These will resonate more deeply than anything you could choose to invent.

Create a narrative arc

A coherent and compelling narrative journey is just as important in non-fiction writing as it is in fiction. As with the point about revelling in language, it is film which can illustrate most powerfully the importance of constructing a solid narrative arc in your writing. Even a sales email should have a beginning, middle and end, and incorporate devices such as suspense and withheld information, and end with a moment of inspiration and call to action.

To illustrate a great narrative arc in a film, I chose for my presentation the master storyteller Steven Spielberg, and his greatest film, E.T.

I’m a huge fan of great sci-fi, but the strength of E.T. is that is mainly a human drama, in a humdrum suburban setting. It superbly sets up these five stages in the narrative, which could equally apply to a business email, blog or even a book:

Create intrigue: An alien lands on Earth – what is it, how is a boy going to be involved with it, will it get back to its planet?

Help people to identify with the situation or issue: By ET being brought into a family home, you empathise with an extraordinary set-up.

Create suspense + show possible solutions: How will ET be protected from menacing forces? How will he communicate and get back to his planet?

Show that standard methods won’t work: The government agencies can’t seem to save ET’s life – it’s all down to the boy, Elliott.

Show the power of your solution: The uplifting ending! ET is saved by the unlikely force of boys on BMX bikes, along with a little ET magic.

The film ends with ET saying to Elliott, “I’ll be right here”, pointing to his head. This is where you want to be with your clients and prospects, by creating such a powerful story that you’ve got lodged in their minds. As self-employed business owners, writing about your business is all about describing why you, the underdog, should be the one preferred over bigger, corporate alternatives.

So many great films celebrate the triumph of the underdog and end with an uplifting message, and so does this blog! Be inspired by E.T., get on your BMX and outrun your competitors!