Tips on writing about books, movies, and music that your readers might not be familiar with — without boring them.
Looking for ideas on how to write about books and films in a more engaging way, or interested in writing about songs but aren’t sure how to articulate your appreciation to those who haven’t heard them? Let’s talk about how to entice readers into posts on books, movies, and music they haven’t heard of.
Novelist and journalist Jonathan Gibbs at Tiny Camels comes to mind — he blogs about books, and even though I’ve never heard of the books he writes about, his writing about reading engages me. Consider his thoughtful commentary on Peter Stamm’s All Days Are Night, which doesn’t just explore the book, but the experience of reading itself.
Or take author Alec Nevala-Lee’s many posts on television and film, for example. Alec is masterful at penning succinct, focused commentaries on entertainment, often zooming in on an element of storytelling, rather than simply focusing on one production. In “The fifty-minute hour,” he discusses Mad Men and episode length; in “The title shot,” he blogs about the opening sequences of various shows like Community and House of Cards.
If you’re looking for different ways to write about books, movies, and music — while keeping your readers interested — here are five tips:
Highlight a passage.
Call out an excerpt using the blockquote tool in your post editor (the button with the quote mark icon).
Share an excerpt from the book that you love, or that keeps you thinking about the story all day. Ideally, the passage encompasses what you want to dissect or discuss. It might be direct, like a bit of dialogue, or a piece of prose that creates a fantastic image in your mind. I love how Anna Fonte writes about the book she’s reading in “Breadcrumbs” — she starts with the passage, then uses herself as a character in her own post, sitting on a train, to help illuminate the ideas she gleaned from her reading.
Establish the thread between you and the story.
Tell us why you’re interested in this book, movie, or song/album, or reveal something about yourself that shows a connection to the material. At An Anthology of Clouds, Valerie Stivers-Isakova reviews Things I Like About America, a book by Poe Ballantine. I’ve personally never heard of this author, but I absolutely loved this post, right from the beginning. Valerie begins:
There was a desperately unhappy and bored time in my life when I learned to draw the map of America freehand, all the states named, in the right places, mostly in the right shape; the line of the Mississippi helping to define the erratic edge of Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana; the jigsaw of the northeast represented accurately; some rough attempt at 2-long, 1-tall scale done with the handspan between pinkie and thumb; all of it ballooning, squashed and demented, but maybe, I thought, just maybe, representing hope if I were abducted by aliens and forced to account for my country.
She then introduces Ballantine’s book and his mastery of the American road story, and immediately, I feel her connection to his narrative — and her larger interest in why we have road stories, and what we seek when we go elsewhere.
Don’t be afraid to talk about you when you’re writing about books, films, or music.
Zoom in on a moment in a scene, then work outward.
We talk about zooming in on key moments in our writing in the Writing 201: Finding Your Story course at Blogging U., and how to use specific scenes within our stories to illustrate Big Ideas. The blogger at In a Lonely Place discusses Richard Linklater’s Boyhood through the lens of time, recounting a scene in Boyhood as well as a moment in one of Linklater’s earlier films, Before Midnight, that both reveal the passage of time as a series of small moments.
Unless you really want or need to stick to a chronological plot review for a book or film, push yourself to think beyond this structure.
What results is a richer, nonlinear commentary on the larger themes within Linklater’s films, rather than a straightforward chronological review of Boyhood (which would be a pretty long post given that the movie is shot over twelve years!).
Select a specific scene, moment, or line in the book, movie, or piece of music you’re writing about and use it to anchor the ideas in your post.
Create an emotional connection.
Music rouses emotions within us. As the writer at Raishimi33 says, songs weave into “the fabric of your being” and mark the defining moments of your life. In “Songs That Saved My Life (Pt. 1),” she compiles a playlist of these tracks, and even though I’m not familiar with all of them, her personal descriptions are quite moving. Her writing about REM’s “Everybody Hurts” conjures memories of her and her father on a rainy day, when her parents were going through a rough time:
So to see my father standing there, unable to hide the tears anymore, was something that will haunt me for the rest of my life. I didn’t know what had gone wrong between them — still don’t, really, since it’s not an issue I ever wish to press — but what I did know, was that words wouldn’t come up my throat….
Later, at another station where a music store was still open, he bought me the REM single Daysleeper, which was a favourite song of mine at the time…But it’ll always be Everybody Hurts, by the same band, which will stay attached to that fragment of time — when for once, it was my old man leaning on my shoulder, and not the other way around.
Take a risk, go deep, and explain why you’re drawn to a book or movie or song. Even if your readers aren’t familiar with the story or the tune, the emotions you stir are relatable, pushing your readers to think about their own connections to songs they love.
Compare the work to something in an unexpected way.
Sure, you can compare The Prestige to The Illusionist (two movies from 2006 about magicians), or Saving Private Ryan to The Thin Red Line (two epic war films from 1998). But think beyond expected comparisons and explore specific angles that interest you. Consider “The Art of the Bad Movie,” which discusses the movies of famously awful filmmaker Ed Wood to Sharknado, a completely different kind of bad movie. Or take a movie franchise like X-Men, and instead of comparing it to other Marvel tales (like Spider-Man or Fantastic Four), weave thought-provoking commentary around something else altogether.
What are your tips and techniques for writing about books, movies, and music?