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Writing About Film

When writing about film there are certain conventions that must be used. Learn these conventions and use them. This is part of being literate in discussing and writing about cultural texts.

Use present tense. The story of a film (and written fiction more broadly) plays out in the present ever time you watch (or read) it; thus, while it seems like everything “happened” in the past when you get to the end of a film (or book), the events will “happen” again in the present if you watch (or read) it again. As a result, we write about the events in a film (and a novel) in the present tense (e.g.: “John shoots himself.” Not: “John shot himself.”). This convention is called the literary present.

Get the facts about the film right. You should not get the (spelling of the) names of the characters, actors, or locations in the film wrong. This shows a lack of research and effort. The best online resource for film information — including characters’ names — is the Internet Movie Database. Getting such facts incorrect when I provide them in the prompt for some writing seems particularly egregious (see below).

Use characters’ names, not actors’ names, when describing the plot. E.g.: “John T. Chance falls in love with Feathers.” Not: “John Wayne falls in love with Angie Dickenson.” Only use the actors’ names when talking about the work or significance of the actors themselves. E.g.: “John Wayne strongly supported the House Un-American Activites Committee’s search for communists in Hollywood.”

Watch any film (or at the very least scene) you are going to write about at least twice. We all get caught up by narrative. The first time you watch a film you are concerned with figuring out what is going to happen. The second time through you know what’s going to happen and so you can focus on the details: ideas and actions in the background, shifts in lighting, costume, and character actions (that may foreshadow what is to come), how the film’s music plays into the scene, etc. Noticing the type of details that will help you write your papers is easier the second time through.

Cite specific examples to illustrate your points: lines of dialogue, descriptions of particular sequences/shots, and so on. In order to do this, you will need to take notes while watching the films. Write down basic plot developments, lines of dialogue, etc. This is easiest to do while watching the film (or scene) for a second time (as above). It helps if you are taking note while seeing it streaming or on DVD so you can pause and replay the sections you want to take notes on.

Do not tell me the story of the film. While you may need to offer some of the details of the plot to provide a context for understanding your reading of certain dialogue or scenes, remember that the bulk of your writing should not be taken up in retelling the film’s plot. The point of any writing about a film is not to retell the story, but rather to use the elements of the film to show or prove something. Have a position or argument about the film that you prove in your writing.

The titles of film and television programs should be put in italics (e.g. Blade Runner or The Godfather). Quotation marks are only used around film titles (“Rio Brave”) in newspapers.

Proofread. Carefully edit your paper. Careless work reflects on your attitude toward the paper. If you don’t care about what you’ve written, why should the reader?

Do not plagiarize. If you use someone else’s words, give him or her proper credit in MLA citation style. This includes using information you found on the Web or in the course materials. Always cite your sources. Anything else is theft. The one exception is citing the films themselves. If you are writing about a film, I will assume the details you offer are from that film. This means you do not need to do in-text citation when quoting dialogue and so on. You could still list the film as a source in the Works Cited of the paper.

Borrowed from David Sidore and John Butler.

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