What Watching This Year’s Best Picture Nominees Has Taught Me About Storytelling

Open your mind. Take a long, honest look at our world.

I’m not the best movie watcher. On average, I probably watch about five movies every year, two or three in theaters at the most. I tend to stick to movies with hype, movies adapted from books I’ve read. I stay in a film-viewing comfort zone. At least I always have, until this year.

As I’m writing this, I have seen all but three of the movies nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. That means I’ve seen more movies already in 2017 than I usually watch in a year – and that’s not counting movies I’ve seen that are up for other awards.

Why have I suddenly set out on this journey to show up to the Oscars more prepared than usual? I like award shows, for one thing, and I like being able to cast my own vote, so to speak. If something wins an award, I want to be able to say, “Oh yeah – totally deserved.”

But there’s a second reason I went on a movie-renting spree this month: for the stories.

You see, when you stick to only watching Disney movies (that now includes Marvel, Star Wars and those soon to be animated classics we all love), you severely limit your own perspective on the stories being told through screenwriting. I’m not saying these movies don’t have good stories. But movies are nominated for Best Picture for a reason, and from a writer’s perspective, I wanted more insight into why.

I got a lot more out of the experience than I expected.

I can appreciate a good movie. I can nod and say, “Wow, that was deep.” But when you watch a variety of movies, from different genres, with different directors, written for a variety of audiences, you suddenly realize there are so many things and people and places in this world you never think about. You are just one very small person in a very big world, and these stories are here to show you that even though you may not be personally affected by something, someone, somewhere, is.

And the same way you should branch out and watch/read/listen to stories your normally wouldn’t, you also need to do the best you can to TELL stories you normally wouldn’t tell.

I don’t believe we can successfully create if we do not also consume. I’ve known since the start of the year that I wanted to put a major focus on consuming more – reading more books, watching more movies and shows, being willing to explore things I normally wouldn’t touch. The more you open yourself up to different stories, whether you think you’ll be ‘interested’ in them or not, the better you’re going to be at telling stories yourself.

You have to open your mind to characters and events and perspectives you aren’t familiar with. You can’t just keep writing some variation of the same characters and storylines over and over. People get tired of that, and so will you. You have to stretch beyond your own storytelling comfort zones – not because any kind of diversity apparently sells books, but because your potential audience isn’t just made up of one kind of person.

If you want to reach out and affect people, as all writers desperately long to do, you have to make your audience uncomfortable, and surprise them, and make them think differently, challenge their beliefs – which you have to do first within yourself as you’re creating, before whatever story you’re telling has the capacity to do the same for someone else.

While it’s true that many good stories are good because of their relevance – we need to hear a particular message, and this story or that just happens to shout it loudly in our faces – many good stories are good because they don’t play it safe. They’re raw and loud and very clearly have something to say. Not all stories have to be clever or witty or happy – because life isn’t always that way, and sometimes the world needs a story that’s honest and not always easy to watch.

I encourage you to tell a different story this year – you know, that story you’ve thought about writing, but haven’t because it might be too ‘risky.’ Or insert whatever adjective you’re using as an excuse. Stop holding yourself back. The best stories are the ones you dare yourself to write – and then follow through until they’re finished.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.