What Can Your 10 Favorite Movies Tell You About Your Voice

Saturday was the first Washington Romance Writer (WRW) meeting for the 2010-2011 season.  My local RWA chapter takes July and August off, so it has been a few months since we’ve all met to learn more about the writing life and socialize.  I love these September meetings.  I miss my “tribe” over the summer, even though I was fortunate enough to go to RWA national this year, and I love seeing the new faces that always attend the first meeting of WRW’s year.  There was a good crowd as the program was very strong with literary agent Nephele Tempest of the Knight Agency presenting 3 different workshops on the agent search, writing a synopsis and how technology has changed the writer’s job.  Equally important for me was that I gained so much from the conversations I had with my fellow writers throughout Saturday during lunch, dinner and a post-dinner tea.  Yes, I made a very full day out of it.

During the post-dinner tea, fellow WRW member Marjanna shared a recent exercise she did in Barbara Samuel’s voice class.   Barbara asks her students to make a list of their ten favorite movies of all time and then explore what that list tells them about their voice especially in terms of the story elements that speak to you.  Or, at least that was what I got out of the exercise.

I’ll admit I was a bit skeptical at first.   I’m much more into books than I am movies or scripted television shows.  There have been years when I have seen more plays than I have seen movies.  I wasn’t sure if I could even come up with a top ten list and wondered what it could possibly say about my writing.  But, I reminded myself that I had gained a lot from one of the other writing exercises that had first struck me as pretty worthless.  It’s that whole plot/plan your story through collaging.  Another WRW member Beth Holcombe had taught that workshop at a monthly meeting, and it gave me insight, or at least reminded me, of what often intrigues me in stories and in history.

I was not the only skeptical one at the table, but I suggested that we do this exercise together.  Let’s all make a list of our top ten favorite movies, share them, and see what we could draw from them.  I approached my list by asking myself what movies had I seen more than twice.  I thought it would be more meaningful to make a list of my top ten favorite books as I had learned a lot from a piece I had written about why I loved Mary Balogh’s books, but I needed to play well in the sandbox so to speak.  I may have cheated a little in that 5 of my movies were based on novels, 4 of which I had read before seeing the movie, and two of those novel adaptations were miniseries.  But, I came up with a list.  My favorite, ten movies were, in no particular order:

  • Princess Bride
  • Star Wars
  • Pride & Prejudice (3 of the many versions)
  • It’s not your fault movie – aka Good Will Hunting
  • Anne of Green Gables
  • It Happened One Night
  • Harry Potter (I didn’t force myself to choose one)
  • Gosford Park
  • Persuasion
  • How Green Was My Valley or That Christmas Movie with James Stewart – aka It’s a Wonderful Life

The first thing that struck me in this list was how character driven the stories were, and each had a lot of character growth.  I consider myself a plotter and really want there to be some kind of plot to the stories I read, but none of these movies are just plot driven.  There’s a strong emphasis on English and “girl” stories – neither of which was a surprise to me.  Other elements that we found in this list were community, the difference one person can make, coming of age and rooting for the underdog.  Many of these stories showed the main character grow, blossom, reach her potential or heal.  There is a sense of justice, love wins the day, overcoming hardships or opposites coming together in many of them.  One friend was very struck by the fact that all of these movies had at least one main character who was seen as nothing by the world or by herself, but through the course of the story, the character realized his or her own specialness, and the world recognized that specialness. Another friend said it was the identity to essence journey that Michael Hague talks about.

I have to admit that I was surprised by how much I got out of this exercise and am glad I took the time to do it.  I think my friends that night also learned something about their voice that night.  Do you see any common elements in this list of movies that we missed?  Does it make you think of your 10 favorite movies and what they can tell you about your voice?  I encourage all of you to do this exercise in the comments, and we can offer suggestions on what can be gleaned from each other’s lists.


51 responses to “What Can Your 10 Favorite Movies Tell You About Your Voice”

  1. Anna Sugden says:

    *sigh* I miss chapter meetings and critique group meetings when you get to talk writing!

    Interesting post, Michelle. I’ve heard about this before from a number of people and keep meaning to do it myself.

    I do know that several of your choices would be on my list too! Gosford Park, P&P, Star Wars (does that date us?), Harry Potter and It Happened One Night.

    But, without repeating yours and off the top of my head, my favourite movies would be:

    The Philadelphia Story
    Sliding Doors
    You’ve Got Mail (or the original Shop Around the Corner)
    The Fabulous Baker Boys
    The Sting
    Straight Talk
    Pretty Woman
    Against All Odds
    Bull Durham
    Falling in Love
    Christmas in Connecticut
    Star Trek (the most recent one)

    Not sure what that tells you about my voice! Obviously many romantic themes, strong/individual women who march to their own drum as well as women who survive.

    I’m intrigued that there are two stand-out films – The Sting and Star Trek – both of which I love because of the cleverness of their plots.

    • Very fun, Anna. Don’t the Sting and Star Trek have strong male buddy/relationship themes too? Actually, a lot of these have very strong male friendships, don’t they? Is that something you explore in your novels?

      I’m definitely struck that 4 of them are older romantic comedies (Charade, Philly Story, The Shop Around the Corner, Christmas in CT) with a different story telling style than today. I wonder if something can be extrapolated from that.

      Please people who love and know movies more than I do jump in and offer their take on what Anna’s list says.

      • Anna Sugden says:

        Ah *lightbulb moment* – I do have strong story themes about males, male friendships/bonding in all my books. I’m also told I do a good male PoV (thanks to Virginia Kantra’s awesome workshops!). Actually, I forgot to mention one other huge favourite – Tombstone – which fits that perfectly too!

        Also a good point about the older romantic movies/comedies. They all have snappy dialogue too! Very quotable lines, which applies to a number of the modern romances as well. If only I could do the same *g*.

  2. Elise Hayes says:

    Oh, interesting exercise, Michelle! Ok, off the top of my head (and I’ve only got 5 minutes to do this…)…and I don’t get to see a lot of movies…

    1. Princess Bride
    2. Ever After (Drew Barrymore’s version of Cinderella)
    3. Buffy the Vampire slayer (TV series, so I don’t know if that’s cheating)
    4. Firefly (also a Joss Whedon TV series that was simply amazing and that I’ve seen multiple times)
    5. Notting Hill
    6. Pretty Woman
    7. Casablanca
    8. Antonia’s Line (foreign flick that I saw years ago that I found utterly charming–a multi-generational saga about a woman and her daughters and granddaughters)
    9. Northern Exposure (since I’m cheating and including TV series)
    10. Top Gun

    Hmm…ok, up to #6 I my list was dominated by happy endings and comedy. Antonia’s Line ends mostly happily (with the death of Antonia, but surrounded by her fun, large, and quirky family. It’s a movie about a woman challenging traditional gender conventions to define the kind of relationships and family structure *she* wants to have).

    That’s all the time I have this morning. I’ll keep thinking about it, though…

    • What immediately strikes me is how the first 8 really explore the woman’s point of view of life and relationships – and the last two have strong female secondary characters.

      Other thoughts, everyone?

      • Helen Cook says:

        Great post, Michelle! Really got my gears whirring this wet morning.

        Elise, another commonality I see in your list (which has a remarkable about of overlap with mine) is that all of these stories have quirky characters in strong group relationships with other quirky characters. They have struck out on their own path; they defy conventional social mores, but they still have a close supportive community. If one is a person that can’t quite muffle the back-of-the-head voice saying, “but what will THEY think?” these sorts of stories can be very affirming. At least, I think that’s what *I’m* getting out of them.

        Wonderful conversation, everyone! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

        • That is great, Helen. I’m one of Elise’s critique partners, and I love that insight. What do you think, Elise?

          Helen, please feel free to share your list even if it overlaps with Elise’s. The commonality and differences are both interesting.

        • Elise Hayes says:

          Helen, this is really helpful–thanks! You’re right, I do love quirky characters, but haven’t been able to find a real place for them in the medievals I’ve been writing. I do think they’ll come out more in my writing when I shift to urban fantasy (after I finish the current medieval).

          And I do love strong communities and the network of relationships that can provide (where everyone has different strengths, weaknesses, and fears).

  3. I am way more of a TV person than movies — and could list how the TV I like influences my writing very easily, but let me take a stab at movies… like you, not sure if I can get ten…

    1) Joe Vs Volcano
    2) Bull Durham
    3) Thomas Crown Affair
    4) Bourne Identity
    5) Stranger than Fiction
    6) Bridget Jones’s Diary
    7) Top Gun
    8) Lethal Weapon
    9) Groundhog Day
    10) Shakespeare in Love

    So, romantic, hero-driven, sexy, action-rich stories where justice or love clearly prevails, with some sense of whimsy or fantasy. Some crime/violence, though not the kind you find in slasher films (ick) or things like Goodfellas, etc. Also enjoy fairly complex character development, strong story with twists, and a lot of things happening.

    I HOPE I rise to that list of qualities in my writing. 😉


    • Welcome, Sam!

      I’m definitely struck by how hero-driven many of these stories are – and a strong appreciation of plot.

      Other ideas, folks?

    • Yvonne says:

      I LOVE Joe Vs the Volcano!

      I don’t have my list from Saturday night with me, but I know Joe Vs the Volcano wasn’t on it–and it should have been! LOL! I hope I never get stranded on an island because I can’t pick just 10!

      Still. Here’s what I remember:

      1. Princess Bride
      2. Fight Club
      3. Boondock Saints
      4. Shakespeare in Love
      5. Look Who’s Talking
      6. Dogma
      7. Payback
      8. A Time to Kill
      9. Lilo & Stitch
      10. Speed

      What does this say about my core themes? Justice, community, Big Twisty Plot?

  4. Ha, it interpreted my number eight as a smiley — but meant no special emphasis there…


  5. Diane Gaston says:

    Julie told me about this exercise, Michelle. It sounds like great fun to do with writing friends. Of course, as soon as someone asks me for my favorite anything, my mind goes blank.

    To me this speaks more to what themes you gravitate to in your writing, but I can certainly see that as a component of the amorphous “Voice.”

    And it certainly intrigues me about Barbara Samuel’s course!

    It was great to see you Saturday and to pick up one of your terrific “Healthy Writer” bookmarks.

    • Diane, it’s always great to see you in person! I’m sorry we couldn’t talk further.

      Marjanna, if she pops by, will hopefully strengthen the bit about what one can learn about your voice from this exercise – and about Barbara’s class in general. I do think that theme is part of one’s voice, but I like to take an expansive, organic vie of voice. It makes it less scary for me. 🙂

  6. susan meier says:

    Let’s see…

    50 First Dates
    Gone with the Wind
    Lethal Weapon
    Terminator (1, 2 and 3)
    Ten Things I Hate About You
    Steel Magnolias
    The Wedding Singer
    The Day After Tomorrow

    wow. I could go on and on! LOL

    I seem to like strong heroes and heroines. Some comedy…a little disaster!


  7. Welcome, Susan!

    Don’t you have some comedy and strong characterization in all your stories? I’m trying to remember how you described your Harl. Romance type of story at WRW this past spring, and my recollection reflects the kind of stories reflected in this list. There’s definitely a lot of relationship focis in the strongly plotted stories listed as well.

  8. Hi Michelle
    Great post. Good to see you on Saturday (I was to your right, next to Denny). I loved the meeting too, for both the speaker and the community! Great bookmarks, BTW – I took home two 🙂

    Ok, so let me try this exercise without thinking about it too much. Not necessarily in order:

    1. Harry Potter – Prisoner of Azkhaban (& possibly Order of the Phoenix)
    2. Wall-E
    3. Philadelphia Story
    4. American in Paris
    5. Pride & Prejudice (with Colin Firth)
    6. Lord of the Rings (all three, but especially #1)
    7. Star Wars (original – IV)
    8. Indiana Jones & Raiders of the Lost Ark
    9. Wizard of Oz
    10. Spiderman 2 (and 1, but NOT 3!)

    (Do I have to use up one of my 10 to list Monty Python & the Holy Grail? It’s not really a fav – more like a compulsion 😉

    One thing I can see right off the bat is that I like sci-fi & fantasy more than any other category, followed by classics (and I include P&P in that b/c of the style). If I were to extend the list, it would include more of the same. I haven’t actually purchased a movie ticket for anything other than a blockbuster sci-fi/fantasy in years, and at home I only watch English films like P&P, North & South or things of that nature – I have no patience for 99% of American romantic comedies.

    OK, so that’s my taste, but what does it say about my style/voice? No idea…

    • One thing that really jumps out to me in your list is how important good worldbuilding is to your favorite stories. I’ve always loved historical fiction and classics, and a favorite author explained to me that the world buidling I enjoyed in those two genres may be something that would appeal to me in sci fi/fantasy as well. It does – particularly in what I think of as pseudo-historical fantasy. Do you think a lot about the world-building in your stories?

      And, Danielle, it was great seeing you on Saturday too. Welcome to the blog. I’m glad you like the bookmarks. 🙂

      • World-building – I hadn’t thought of that! I read a bit of everything but love historicals and urban fantasy the most 🙂 I find world-building so intimidating in my own writing, but that’s probably b/c I put such an emphasis on it. Good call – and great blog!

  9. […] 27, 2010 · Filed under Uncategorized In a blog about romance writing, The Healthy Writer Blog, an exercise for writers involved coming up with the names of your ten favorite movies. Many […]

  10. Oh, fun! You know I’m a huge movie fan. Though before I share my movies, I want to wholeheartedly agree with Elise on Buffy and Firefly. Firefly is my all-time favorite TV show, followed closely by Buffy, Supernatural and several other sci-fi/paranormal type shows.

    Okay, movies (not in order):

    1. Avatar
    2. Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy
    3. Lord of the Rings trilogy
    4. Underworld and Underworld Evolution
    5. Penelope
    6. Serenity
    7. Leap Year
    8. Twilight movies
    9. Harry Potter movies
    10. House of Flying Daggers (Chinese film)
    11. Star Trek (new one, and yes, I’m cheating and adding an 11th movie if you don’t count the series above as multiple movies)

    With the exception of Leap Year, these all have some sort of sci-fi/fantasy/paranormal element. I can always tell the movies I love most and will re-watch because they are the ones I buy on DVD.

    • I thought you might like this, Trish.

      I don’t recognize every single movie (particularly 5 & 7), but don’t they mostly have a romantic main or subplot as well? Several of the stories have a fight between good and evil, very high stakes battles too. Are they very plot driven stories? There are some coming of age elements in 8 & 9, but I don’t think that is in all the movies.

      One of these days I’ll see Buffy or Serenity.

      It does seem like you are drawn to paranormal romance. I know you’ve written some paranormal manuscripts. Is it the world-building that calls to you in sci fi/fantasy/para-normal stories? I know that you have a lot of world and community building in your published novels.

      • Penelope is a sweet, romantic story about a girl who is cursed with a pig’s nose and her family’s search for a guy who will love her for who she is, not what she looks like, to break the curse. It has Christina Ricci and James McAvoy, who I really like.

        Leap Year is a romantic comedy from earlier this year with Amy Adams and Matthew Goode.

        A lot of these have high-stakes battles, often fate-of-the-world type stuff. I do love stories with lots of rich world-building and characters that kick butt and take names. 🙂 But as you can see from my list, I love sweet, romantic stories too. But the movies I often pay good money to see at the theater are the sci-fi/fantasy ones that I feel like ought to be seen on the big screen for the first time. Though I don’t have any in the top 10 list, I do love westerns too (also a lot of good guys versus bad guys) and will go to the theater to see these so Hollywood will make more westerns.

        And you’re right, all of these have at least a secondary romance in there somewhere. Star Trek’s is probably the least of these. Even the Harry Potter films have the Ron-Hermione and Harry-Ginny story lines.

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  11. Mary Curry says:

    Hi Michelle,

    I’m almost ashamed to admit how lame I am when it comes to movies. Especially since I used to work for Columbia Pictures. 😉

    I’m not sure I’ll come up with ten but I sure loved reading everyone else’s lists. You’ve given me some great ideas for rentals.

    1. Braveheart
    2. The Patriot
    3. GWTW

    Are we seeing a theme yet? (NO, not Mel Gibson, though once upon a time…)

    4. You’ve Got Mail
    5. Beauty and the Beast
    6. I’ll put in Against All Odds because I worked on that one.
    7. How To Lose a Guy in Ten Days

    I’m really scratching the bottom of the barrel here. I just don’t see that many movies.

  12. Mary Curry says:

    Oops – forgot two I really loved:

    8. The American President
    9. First Knight

    I’ll add in an old one to make 10. When I was in college, I adored American Gigolo.

    • You can join me in the I prefer to read books than watch movies club.

      The obvious trend is a romantic main or sub-plot. Half of them are historical, so world-building, particularly historical w-b, may be important to you. Strong heroes als seem to be important.

      Other thoughts, folks?

  13. Julie Halperson says:

    I was lucky to be part of the tea swilling group on Ssturday night — for posterity, here’s my list:

    Random Harvest
    Princess Bride
    Mary Poppins
    Portrait of Jennie
    Star Trek IV
    Indiana Jones – #1
    Love Letters
    Persuasion – 1995

    I must admit I am SO out of touch with current movies, unless it’s a costume drama I see with my crit group. But I am an old movie fanatic, which is why so many on my list are before 1960 (maybe 1950!)

    And it’s so hard to pick my top 10 — these are the ones that make my heart melt, give me that feeling at the end that the end is perfectly right, or reaffirms my belief that there is magic in everyday life.

    It was so much fun on Saturday – I recommend it to everyoone.


    • Julie, how do you think your love of old movies influences your voice and story telling choices? Do you like the more leasurely pace – more in-depth details and stories? I absolutely love the idea of magic in everyday life. 🙂

      There is a lot of hope and perseverance in your favorite stories as well – people overcoming, doing what’s right in the face of big costs, etc. Very inspiring movies. 🙂

      And, the tea swilling was much fun. I’m so glad we extended the evening beyond dinner.

      • Julie Halperson says:

        Interesting points, Michelle.
        Actually, I think I watch a lot of old movies for a couple of reasons. I’m more of a listener than a watcher — and I can put one on for two hours and not have to change the channel. I work on other things while the story runs in the background. My fave channel, TCM, will often times run an actor for an evening, and I get a banquet (from soup to nuts) or mysteries to comedies – over the course of an evening. It’s given me a true appreciation of dialog, but I’ve got to work on description!
        Also, I’m lazy. TV shows change times and channels so often, I can’t keep track!
        So I’m out of the mainstream of viewing, but I find the movies very satisfying.
        One thing they also help me with is character dynamics. I can watch an old movie and get involved with the character inter-relationships and start to figure out how to translate them to another story plot. I find it a lot of fun. Diane and I do this sometimes — we take a movie as as start and see where it takes us.

        I’m looking forwsrd to the next tea swill time!

    • Robin Hillyer Miles says:

      I’ve read Portrait of Jennie and seen the movie numerous times … it so ethereal. Need to find it for my collection. I’m pretty sure the novella is in a box in my attic.

  14. Robin Hillyer Miles says:

    I’m eclectic in my pickings

    Cinema Paradiso (all time favorite)
    The Notebook (can’t change the channel if it is on)
    The Princess Bride (love the play on words in this movie)
    Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Rings
    Star Wars – A New Hope
    Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
    13 Going on 30
    Bundle of Joy (with Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher)
    Highlander (what’s not to love?)
    Monsters, Inc.

    Okay, the theme might be hope for a brighter/better future … ?

    • Robin Hillyer Miles says:

      And The Notebook is probably more because it was filmed in the Lowcountry of SC and I like the scenery, the time period and the house, I love that house!

    • Robin, I’ve not seen every one of your movies, but what struck me first was that most of them have a strong paranormal element of some sort. Do your stories tend to have some kind of strong world building element? Do you pay attention to the setting or landscape? It seems like the latter is very important to you in The Notebook. There are also strong plot twists and strong lessons learned that lend more hope and optimism for the future.

      • Robin Hillyer Miles says:

        You must see Cinema Paradiso! It is a 1988, Italian, sub-titled film about a little boy growing up with two surrogate father figures – one the town priest and one the projectionist at the local movie palace.

        I start crying at the opening credits, it is that good. The owners of Malco theaters here in the Mid-South named their newest theater after the movie, it is that good.

        The final scene will both break your heart and make it soar.

        • I’m pretty sure I’ve heard of it. Is it similar to Tea with Mussolinni? I really enjoyed that one.

          • Robin Hillyer Miles says:

            I haven’t seen Tea with Mussolini (sp) … this one will grip your heart and not let go (IMHO)!

            The little boy is so cute, he’s a hunk as a teen and as an adult he’s a lost soul until he does the one thing his mentor (the projectionist) makes him swear never to do … return home. The little boy is now a famous movie director in Hollywood, famous and empty.

            Ah, the tragedy, the hopefulness, the sadness, the glee and above all the LOVE of film. It’s a love story to films/movies after it is all said and done. How they’ve shaped our lives, made us better, or worse people, and how sometimes the entertainment is off the screen as well as on.

            To give you a hint, the priest doesn’t like the kissing parts in movies. He previews each and every one and beats on the floor with his cane/stick to make the projectionist cut out the kissing parts in order for it to be approved for showing in his town.

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