Novel-Boosting Movie Scenes

Novel-Boosting Movie Scenes

the-road-warriorRight before I begin writing any major-length work, I do some important “stretching” exercises. No, not writing exercises; I do those nearly every day of the year regardless of what other projects I’m working on. This exercise is picking some DVDs off my shelves and queuing up a few key scenes that get me in the mood to tackle writing a novel. I don’t watch the whole movie (I usually don’t have the time), only a specific scene that does something to the synapses in my brain and makes me want to charge at the word processor and start slugging.

My list of favorite “inspiration scenes” has grown over the years, adding new films and picking up fresh selections from older ones. Most of these scenes are action pieces (considering what I like to write, this makes sense, but any sort of energy is beneficial for a writer) with a few odd bits mixed in.

Here are the scenes I have turned to over the last few years during the crazy days before I typed “Chapter One”:

Van Helsing Roasts the Count in Dracula / Horror of Dracula (1958)
I’ve read too many works of speculative fiction where the author dreamed up a fantastic opening and middle, but decided to go on lazy holiday for the finale. The boffo close-out of Terence Fisher’s wild and colorful adaptation of Dracula, which forever fixed Hammer Film Productions and stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in the horror movie firmament, always reminds me that “good enough” is not good enough! If you’re going to slay the King of the Undead, don’t just execute a bland staking: roast the sucker, forcing him screaming and shrieking and crumbling to dust into a ray of sunlight. If I don’t have a finale for my book with this kind of excitement planned, I am not trying hard enough.

Medusa from Clash of the Titans (1981)
This film caused the spark that turned into my love for fantasy, so watching any scene from it reminds me why I got into this crazy fiction-writing game in the first place. Most of the time, the only scene I need to watch to rekindle that childhood enthusiasm is the stunning confrontation with Medusa, arguably the finest special-effects work ever from Ray Harryhausen. The scene concludes with a stirring shot of Perseus stumbling from the ruins and holding aloft the gorgon’s severed head to the skies in exhausted exultation… like a struggling novelist crawling from the underworld with his chthonic new masterpiece clutched in his hand, ready to show to the world (and hopefully not turn them to stone).

Two-Face Face-Off from The Dark Knight
The most recent addition to my gallery. It might strike some readers as odd that the scene I turn to from the hit Batman film doesn’t contain the anarchic Joker, and isn’t even an action scene. The moment that I return to again and again is the tense stand-off in a scorched warehouse between Batman, Commissioner James Gordon, and Harvey Dent, now fallen into the depraved “Two-Face” character. The dramatic charge of the scene and slow pounding build of the score all make it gripping, but it’s the acknowledgment of how much a character can change over the course of a story that makes it a novel-writing favorite. Harvey Dent started the story as a White Knight, but by the finale I seriously believe he is seconds away from blowing off the head of a ten-year-old boy.

Siege of Gondor / Battle of the Pelennor Fields from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
The biggest medieval battle scene ever lensed. Swooping Nazgûl. Super-elephant (Mûmakil) charges. From my favorite novel. No need for complete sentences.

The Ecstasy of Gold from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The “ecstasy” of the title (actually, the name of Ennio Morricone’s music cue that accompanies it) is one that any writer will understand: those moments of perfect madness where you plow forward in a total daze, not sure if you’re getting near your goal, or even what you’re doing, but knowing you just have to keep going. Just like Tuco (Eli Wallach) running in circles through an army of crosses marking the dead, searching for one grave that’s a golden jackpot.

Title Sequence from Moonraker
Huh? I picked a 007 film, but I didn’t select an action sequence? This one is highly personal, since the first novel I ever finished originated out of an idea that came to me while watching Maurice Binder’s elegant “zero-gravity” choreography of nude female silhouette flitting around space imagery to the exotic warbling of Shirley Bassey. This credits montage transports me every time into a great creative mode. But I have to shut off the DVD immediately afterward, before I land back in the most Chuck Jones of all James Bond movies. . . .

The Creation from Bride of Frankenstein
I could spin you a metaphor about how Doctors Frankenstein and Pretorius represent the mad artist in the throes of creating a new “fictional” creature, a bride for his or her previous nascent ideas, but that would be total swill. The appeal for me is totally visceral. The scene is a spectacular of lights and sound and music and great sizzling lab equipment that makes me wish I could go blow something up by throwing a few hundred switches labeled “Do Not Throw This Switch.”

“You Don’t Mind Talking about It, Do You, Dave?” from 2001: A Space Odyssey
Because, when you think action packed, you think 2001: A Space Odyssey, right? And especially any scene where a man calmly discusses shipboard issues with a machine represented by a single red light. HAL-9000’s most famous scene comes when Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) starts disconnecting it; that’s a brilliant and heartbreaking moment, but it’s not the one I skip to on the DVD when I want a jolt of writing inspiration. Instead, I go to this one: Dave shows some of his sketches of the sleeping crewmembers to HAL, and HAL in turn tries to explain to Dave, as best as it can, its concerns about the mission. Why do I find this scene so inspiring? It’s an excellent example of how simple dialogue and small touches of character can say so much and remain absolutely riveting—even though nobody so much as raises their voice above “library talk” level.

Kong vs. the Tyrannosaurid from King Kong (1933)
The “triple V. Rex” battle from the 2005 re-make is damn electrifying, but it’s impossible to beat the thrill I get from Willis O’Brien’s original staging of the giant ape wrestling a carnosaur. I’ve seen the scene hundreds of times, and it never fails to leave me ready to conquer the world.

Tanker Chase from Mad Max 2 / The Road Warrior
The other entries on the this list I put down in more or less random order, but I slotted this one last because it is unquestionably my favorite: the ultimate cure for “I don’t think I can do this” blues. The chase in the desert is long enough to feel like a “mini-movie” on its own, and its raw edge and final climactic head-on collision create a better adrenalin rush than all the coffee ever brewed and all the energy drinks ever canned. It’s my can’t-fail kick-in-rear to get-to-that-book sequence.

Anybody else have “novel booster” movie scenes they’d like to share?

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John R. Fultz

Hey, Ryan,

I know what you mean–inspiration is key. With me, though, I tend to watch whole movies…call me a completist, but I can’t watch just one scene out of context…I need to see the whole movie.

But here are some movies that ALWAYS inspire me to write:

Of course the first movie is technicaly the best, but its first sequel, BENEATH, is my favorite apes movie. The great, creepy soundtrack, the images of Taylor and Nova riding through the desert of the Forbidden Zone, and later James Franciscus exploring the underground ruins of New York City where psychic mutants dwell…it’s just great stuff. The ape assault on the mutant lair, and the enusing destruction…movie violence was never so enjoyable. And Taylor blows up the entire planet! No happy ending here…

No need to say more about this, perhaps the finest fantasy adaptation in the history of cinema.

I guess the movie poster said it best: “If adventure has a name…it must be Indiana Jones.” Right on. My favorite Indy movie for a litany of reasons.

Any episode of this TV series is a glimmering jewel, alive with wisdom, artistic integrity, and inspiration. Best. Show. Ever.

Frank Frazetta teamed up with animator Ralph Bakshi to create an animated film that literally looks like one of Frazetta’s fantasy paintings come to life. I’ve watched this over and over, and I never get tired of it. Best way to immerse yourself in the stylistic dreamworld that only Frazetta could produce–a primordial adventure for the ages!

Terry Gilliam’s fantasy masterpiece…this one’s got it all: humor, heroic fantasy, mythic characters, surreal environments, and the sheer thrill of untamed adventure. And in the end, it’s all just a story. Or is it? A hymn to the power of storytelling itself. Inspirational.

Oh, man. This movie got it SO right. Too bad the sequal was dumbed-down to get a PG rating. The original Conan movie remains a fantasy masterpiece because John Milius (ROME) brought Howard’s world an character to life with such respect and genuine flavor. The blood, the sorcery, the savagery, the lust, the jewels, the giant snakes, the swordplay…and the amazing soundtrack is still one of my favorite things to listen to while writing fantasy. (I hear they’re doing a CONAN remake–I hope the makers study this first film well.)

Sheer auteurish bravado…a storyteller unleashed. Tarantino reinvented the heist movie and created one of the greatest crime films in history. Even though it’s outside my usual genre of writing, this film is so good it reeks of undiluted storytelling joy…I find it inspirational as a storyteller. Any great work of art, by its very nature, inspires others to create. Tarantino’s films always do this for me.

John Hocking

All right, first of all I’m a scene-guy not a full-film-rewatch-guy when it comes to seeking inspiration from movies. Short, sharp shocks to the imagination seem to work best for me. I watch clips from Fistful of Dollars, Sanjuro, Lone Wolf & Cub: Sword of Vengeance, Sword of Doom, Fiend Without a Face & Seven Men From Now among others.

Guys, Temple of Doom? Really? Annoying child sidekick, annoying female lead, forced gross-out humor, obligatory insect scene, choppy narrative flow, no secondary characters worthy of note, no villains with even a residue of personality. Comparisons to the first film provoke winces. I don’t think I could sit through Temple of Doom again while I imagine I could watch Raiders again this afternoon and look forward to the experience.

Jackson Kuhl

Synchronicity again: I just showed Temple of Doom to my boys for the first time yesterday (Election Day = no school). And wow, there is no comparison of Temple to Raiders or Last Crusade. Short Round is fine by me but Willie Scott? A shrill harridan with zero sexual attraction. I’ll take the lip-biting Elsa Schneider any day.

But the big problem with Temple is the shallow story. The main villain — Mola Ram — is introduced late and we’re never sure who he is or where he came from. He’s just some guy who shows up with a skull on his head. How did he take control of Pankot, of the maharajah and the prime minister? With his magic Blood of Kali (which is never explained)? Why does fire break the Blood’s influence when their temple is sitting on top of molten lava? What happens if Ram collects all five shankara stones? What’s at stake?

At the end, Indy returns the shankara to the village elder and says, “I understand its power now.” Good thing because the audience doesn’t. He just recites some spell on the bridge and it ends up burning Mola Ram’s hand deus ex machina-style, sending him straight down to the crocs below.

Last Crusade is superior because it’s an integrated, coherent story whereas Temple is just a bunch of leftover scenes Lucas and Spielberg couldn’t shoehorn into Raiders.

Only redeeming aspect: The opening in the Shanghai nightclub is great.

John R. Fultz

Youz guyz is way overanalyzing a pulp-inspired movie. Temple of Doom is the most action-packed, breakneck, lurid, fast-paced, DARK and fantastic Indy movie. If the chemistry between Short Round and Indy doesn’t work for you, that’ sad–because it’s a great father/son dynamic. Short round is an adorable kid–and he added a lot of great comic moments to a movie that was one tension-filled scene after another.

The point of Willie Scott’s character is that you’re SUPPOSED to hate her! She was the perfect foil for Indy–he’s capable in any situation, and she’s totally helpless. He’s humble and she’s arrogant. He’s worldly and she’s pampered. You’re not supposed to actually LIKE her…

The gross-out humor was one of the coolest things about the movie! The eyeballs, the snake surprise, all that…it was part of the pulp fun–just like the tunnel full of insects. They had already done snakes in the previous film, so this time it was insects.

The mine car chase–brilliant. The rope bridge scene–one of the most tense scenes in cinema history. As a 13-year-old watching this I was absolutely appalled and amazed when Indy CUT THE ROPE!!!

As for the villain–he’s the embodiment of evil…the Nazis in RAIDERS weren’t developed as three-dimensional characters either. Nor did they need to be. This is a fantasy-pulp story about basic good vs. evil. It’s action–it’s fists to the mouth and bullets and swords and falling out of airplanes. Its sheer movie adventure at its best.

CRUSADE was undoubtedly the weakest of the three movies–it rehashed the whole Nazi thing; it went to screwball comedy WAY too much; the plot drags like a T-Rex’s tail in the middle; and the Holy Grail premise was paper-thin.

Still, in my book, and Indiana Jones movie is a great movie–but CRUSADE was my least favorite. RAIDERS is technically the “best film”. But DOOM is my favorite of the three because it’s the most FUN…

I’m truly amazed by those who don’t like TEMPLE OF DOOM. But…to each his own…


I find my inspiration for writing in song lyrics. Lately certain songs from 3 Doors Down, particularly “Landing in London” make me think about my berserker character standing on a wall, awaiting a siege.

A few other songs, like “Let me Be Myself” make me think of my assassin.

Although if I had to think of movies that have been inspiring, and the scenes that worked.

HITMAN – the opening scene when Agent 47 asks Mike, “How you decide when to kill?” A great question for an assassin trying to quit cold turkey.

Bourne Identity – When Jason and Marie are sitting in the cafe and he starts rattling off all the things he knows: where the most likely place to find a gun is, how much the big guy weighs how well he can handle himself, and such. For characters who don’t know why they can do what they do?

Transporter – Anytime Frank mentions his rules. Everybody has to have rules. I like the straightforward ones.

Man on Fire – When Denzel’s character is burning the stubs of fingers on the guy’s hands that are duct-taped to the steering wheel. Mercy even for bad guys, but if they don’t cooperate the fingers have to go.

Conan the Barbarian- The pit fighting scene. Savagery at its best.

The Matrix – recently rewatched this, and what amazed me most are some of the images. The one shot down the rectangular stairwell with all the checkered floor tiles. It was Alice in Wonderland all over again.

Oh, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Temple of Doom might have been more pulp, but they went too far with Willie. She was enough to keep me from watching it again. Moderation is often better than excess, and this is a prime example. Marion and Indy had differences and she screamed, but not nearly as loud or as often.

John R. Fultz

Oh, geez! I forgot to mention my four favorite martial arts/Asian films! Completely wonderful and inspiring:

FIVE DEADLY VENOMS (and old-school pulp kung fu Show Brothers classic)

HERO (the story of China’s greatest hero–Jet Li’s best movie hands-down)

HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (amazing cinematography, unforgettable characters, and those incredible daggers!)

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (Ang Lee’s best film, IMHO, is a tour-de-force of martial arts adventure and eastern mysticism)


John, nice additions.

Bill Ward

Short Round rocks!

Great post, Ryan. I find myself doing this too, though curiously never in a way designed to psych myself up for writing (though I will now!).

Good to see mention of Morricone, amazing atmospheric music. I sometimes listen to Morricone CDs when I’m writing, usually the same few songs over and over (‘Ecstasy’ is a favorite).

John R. Fultz

“You call him Doktah Jones, Lady!!!”

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