I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.
Writers love to tell stories, but they also love to hear stories. It inspires them to write their own and share their thoughts, opinions, and experiences with the world. Sometimes just hearing a good story puts you in the mood to write. While a good book can do the trick, so can a good movie. Movies have the benefit of being able to combine images and words to tell an emotional, imagery-filled story in just a few short hours. This makes them a quick and reliable muse for writers. Below are 15 of the movies that I pop into my DVD player whenever I need inspiration to write.
William Miller writing on his typewriter in "Almost Famous"
1. Almost Famous (2000)
Synopsis: A sheltered 15-year-old writer gets a freelance writing assignment with Rolling Stone Magazine, touring with a 1970’s up-and-coming rock band and experiencing the trials and tribulations that come with emerging fame.
Why It’s Inspiring: The story grabs you from the opening scene. The characters are interesting and multi-faceted. The plot is incredible but realistic. The world of rock music is both romanticized and criticized. Each scene is its own sectioned-off sequence which culminates in a cathartic, satisfying ending. Movies about writers help writers remember why we do what we do. To see them in action struggling with their craft is comforting and inspiring, especially when they achieve success. The story’s hero, William Miller, is young and inexperienced and knows his stuff. To watch him struggle with his dream job is something that all writers can aspire to experience and relate to.
Casper is a funny, family-friendly film that doesn't talk down to its audience.
2. Casper (1995)
Synopsis: A friendly ghost befriends the daughter of a paranormal psychologist after he is hired to drive out the ghosts that haunt the mansion belonging to a jilted heiress.
Why It’s Inspiring: Yes, it’s a kid’s movie, but it’s probably the most well-written kid’s movie ever made, balancing comedy, drama, and action to create a hybrid family-friendly movie that balances child and adult humor. Death can be a tricky subject to discuss in a kid’s movie. Casper makes death a very easygoing topic. Everyone dies. Sometimes at 12. Sometimes at 30. Sometimes at 80. It is how you live your life in the time you are given that matters.
The ghosts in the movie are trapped in a version of limbo, stuck on earth due to personal unfinished business, but it’s a tolerable limbo, especially when there are living people to either terrorize or befriend. This movie shows how a story doesn’t have to be chained to any one type of genre, and the characters can be funny one minute and sad the next, and it’s still realistic and organic in terms of creating a realistic world and people to populate the fantasy story that you are trying to tell.
Hazel is an average teen facing problems far beyond those found in typical teen films.
3. The Fault in Our Stars (2014)
Synopsis: A teenage girl dying of cancer meets a boy at a cancer-support group, and the two plan a trip to Amsterdam together to meet her favorite author.
Why It’s Inspiring: Movies based on best-selling books can be great, and they can be awful. They can make you wish that your work is turned into a movie one day, or they can make you feel like locking the rights away in an airtight safe. The Fault in Our Stars is one of the great adaptations. It’s well-acted, well-produced, but most of all, it's well-written, keeping with the tone and basic plot structure of the book while still making it its own. Some of the dialogue comes straight from the book, and it’s interesting to hear the words spoken aloud. It also takes a the overdone, tear-jerking subject of cancer and makes it fresh and unique. There is tragedy but also humor. There is sadness but also joy. It is the kind of well-rounded story that any writer would be proud to have their name attached to in the end credits.
The conversations in Garden State include inspiring dialogue that makes you want to go write a similar scene.
4. Garden State (2004)
Synopsis: A young actor returns home for his mother’s funeral and tries to make sense of his past.
Why It’s Inspiring: This emo story is very hipster and sometimes quirky, but there is a universal message sprinkled throughout. We cannot go through life numb to emotion in order to avoid pain and suffering. The plot of this story is difficult to explain without taking the audience from scene to scene. Instead, it is a buildup of individual moments that leads to a realization and arc for the protagonist, Andrew Largeman. Any mid-20’s middle class American can understand the confusion that Andrew faces at that age. This is a time when you are still trying to figure out what you want to do and who you want to be with. A daily dose of mind-numbing pills can get in the way of making those decisions as can unresolved issues that need to come to light. This film provides some deep thoughts about how to handle these issues which are worked into conversations and monologues that other writers would kill to create.
The setting and characters of Girl, Interrupted provide endless opportunities for great scenes.
5. Girl, Interrupted (1999)
Synposis: A young woman is sent to a mental institution in 1960’s Massachusetts for treatment after being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.
Why It’s Inspiring: This movie is slow and steady with the audience experiencing life from Susanna’s disconnected perspective. At first, the scenes bounce between past and present, transitioning times and places in fluid but confusing segues. Susanna’s condition is hard to describe and even harder to confirm as a mental illness versus a simply an unorthodox personality. Regardless, she is self-destructive and in need of some perspective.
Once she has rested a bit, she becomes resistant to her treatment and to authority in general. She is easily persuaded by her friend and fellow patient, Lisa, to continue to resist that authority which blinds her from Lisa’s own intention to keep Susanna under her thumb, whether inside the hospital or out. We see Susanna’s perspective switch again as she finally accepts treatment and works her way to an earned release. This character arc shows what a writer has to do in order to show the struggles of a mentally ill and possibly unreliable narrator.
The book is very different from the movie and doesn’t follow a traditional narrative since it is a memoir and not fiction. So, it is interesting to see how the screenwriters were able to adapt non-fiction into a tonally similar but very different story. Both versions get their point across, and both are very truthful, even though some of the events of the film are mostly fabricated.
Good Will Hunting buries a gold mine of information that is slowly unearthed as the plot progresses.
6. Good Will Hunting (1997)
Synopsis: An orphaned genius is forced to see a therapist after getting in trouble with the law one too many times.
Why It’s Inspiring: This film sits on the shoulders of the conversations held between Will and his therapist, Sean, during their sessions. Dialogue is very important in this character-driven story, and much of the dialogue is spent trying to tear down the walls that Will puts up around others as the result of his traumatic past. He interacts differently with different characters while still keeping his cocky, guarded nature and cynicism at all times. This can exhibit itself as anger, humor, or intimidation from scene to scene.
With Sean, though, he is the most himself since Sean will not tolerate anything less. If Will is disrespectful, Sean puts him in his place. If Will refuses to talk, Sean won’t speak first. If Will dances around a question, Sean kicks him out. The basis of his treatment is to get Will exposed while still feeling safe, and he finally has a breakthrough in his second to last session which is cathartic and tragic at the same time.
Each scene shows a subtle progression of their relationship and Will’s treatment, just scratching the surface of Will’s issues, but Will is smart enough to put the pieces together once it is laid out for him. So, it is interesting how the script works around the characters’ motivations and shortcomings to wrap up the conflict in a messy but cathartic way. It also leans heavily on the relationships over the math, reminding writers to show the audience that it's important to focus on the most interesting elements of a story, the ones that are universally relatable and will induce the most emotion.
The Green Mile film shows that length isn't important as long as you keep the audience interested.
7. The Green Mile (1999)
Synopsis: A group of death row prison guards witness miracles performed by one of their inmates as he awaits execution in 1930’s Louisiana.
Why It’s Inspiring: Stories are supposed to inform audiences about lives and situations led that are very different from their own. This includes the best of circumstances and the worst. Everyone has wondered what death row would be like. This gives a very historical perspective of one of the most interesting and off-putting means of execution: the electric chair.
But the setting doesn’t make the story. This one throws in a supernatural element that has nothing to do with the politics of the situation or the moral issues of the practice of putting a criminal to death. Instead, it is about right and wrong, good and evil, action versus inaction. To mix history with the supernatural is unique and creates some interesting images and ideas.
When every story feels like it has already been told, it’s refreshing to watch a mash up of genres create something new and original. This movie is a long one, but because of its series of tales wrapped up into one large plot, it keeps audiences engrossed the whole time with its different but interconnecting elements. This reminds writers that every scene has a purpose, and every one should interest and intrigue the audience, not just serve as a segue to the juicy stuff.
The King's Speech makes history interesting by showing the human struggles of a well-revered figure.
8. The King’s Speech (2010)
Synopsis: When the crown is forced upon him by an abdicating older brother, King George VI must overcome a lifelong stutter in order to deliver inspiring speeches over the radio as his country heads into a second world war.
Why It’s Inspiring: Biopics these days are concentrated into a very specific moment or character in history. The King’s Speech takes a very personal issue and makes it the subject of a little known story at the time. While World War II is a very widely written about event, the internal war that King George fought with his stammer at the time is not. But the inspiration of overcoming this personal issue illustrates how he went on to become an inspiring figure for his country without diminishing the bigger picture around him. For writers, it shows that if King George could overcome his challenges, which were of great importance to the future of England and the world, we can overcome ours, which are typically less dire.
Finally. A story about the writing process.
9. Music and Lyrics (2007)
Synopsis: A washed up 80’s pop star convinces a reluctant woman with a gift for song writing to help him write a hit song for a current pop star.
Why It’s Inspiring: Many times, watching a writer work on screen is very unrealistic. You see them either blocked for long periods of time or on a roll, pounding out finished work in one draft and in record time. You never get to see the writing process at work from the first spark of inspiration to the final rewrite. This story takes you through the entire process from start to finish. From word choice to rhythm to additional verses, Sophie and Alex engage in the time-consuming task of writing a hit song that is both audience-friendly and has something to say. They draw from their pasts and sometimes have to climb over them to get to the end, but the story finds ways to keep the story engaging as the two write and rewrite until they have a polished, melodic set of lyrics.
Mental illness makes for some fun characters to watch and write.
10. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Synopsis: A man in trouble with the law chooses to carry out his sentence in a mental institution rather than prison and quickly comes to regret it.
Why It’s Inspiring: The group therapy sessions in this movie are long, drawn out, and interesting. You feel like you have a seat in the circle as the men share their troubles and seem to get nowhere with their nurse’s stone cold leadership. The dialogue is deeply layered, and the characters are diverse and constantly at odds, making for some fun and thought-provoking scenes to watch play out. These men don't know how to help themselves let alone each other so to watch them have to struggle through group therapy sessions with their individual mental ailments is a wonderful mess to observe. Watching these scenes can help a writer figure out what they are trying to say in their own dialogue and teach you how to further your plot when characters are merely sitting around and talking.
The Village is packed with clues and Easter eggs that I'm still finding to this day.
11. The Village (2004)
Synopsis: A 19th-century Pennsylvania town is terrorized by creatures that live in the surrounding woods.
Why It’s Inspiring: There is so much going on in this movie. I catch something new every time. Like a Where’s Waldo book, there are different looks, actions, and meanings to catch in each scene. At the same time, the story doesn’t feel like it’s weighed down by plot. These underlying side plots and motivations illustrate how to build a world and include both obvious and subtle ideas within it. It’s also airtight in how it is executed and full of questions from how much some characters knew about what was going on to what happens after the screen goes black.
This movie is not about how the story ends but how it started and whether or not the town is successful in its quest to be sheltered from evil and tragedy. It isn't about the monsters in the woods, it is about the hidden monsters within the seemingly safe village itself. It has a lot to say about human nature, and that, to me, is an inspiring topic.
Whip It is an inspiring sports movie and packs in a ton of thought-provoking coming-of-age side plots.
12. Whip It (2009)
Synopsis: A teenage girl from a small Texas town secretly competes on a roller derby team on weekends in between attending beauty pageants for her mother.
Why It’s Inspiring: This movie follows the underdog tradition of most great sports movies. However, it’s an unconventional sport with a unique plot packed full of side stories and themes without getting in the way of each other. Few sports are about women, and those that are don’t usually incorporate humor and fun into them. These characters take their sport very seriously, but they don’t take themselves seriously. They all are working towards a better life, but that doesn’t mean they don’t relish the fun and relationships in their current lives. It is how the characters act on their successes and failures that is inspiring in this story, making it not only inspirational from a writer’s perspective but from a woman’s in general.
White Oleander's themes of family and identity are great inspiration for writers.
13. White Oleander (2002)
Synopsis: A teenage girl is flung from one dysfunctional foster home to another after her mother is convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Why It’s Inspiring: Another movie on this list about women and how they view themselves is White Oleander. Also a movie based on a book, this movie is not so much a look into the horrors of foster care as much as how women can manipulate younger women into following their beliefs. It is also about the internal versus the external. Young Astrid is in constant conflict with her identity, taking on the traits of each woman who raises her. Her biggest critic and inner voice is that of her murderously manipulative mother, and it is a voice that she knows she will never be able to or want to shake completely.
This movie is not inspiring so much in being populated with admirable characters but in sympathizing with flawed and sometimes pathetic people. Many revelations come into play throughout the course of the story, and each one gives meaning to the motivations and philosophies that are introduced to Astrid. It is up to her to weed through them and pull out the lifestyle that she wants to lead. This deep dive into human behavior is one that all writers are eager to explore.
Wonder Boys showed me how to I can set a great story in my hometown.
14. Wonder Boys (2000)
Synopsis: A writer, his editor, and his student spend a weekend in Pittsburgh getting into mischief and trying to figure out where their personal and professional lives are going.
Why It’s Inspiring: A story about writers will always grab a writer’s attention, but where this story holds their attention is in the actions and flaws of the main characters dealing with each conflict and creating more turmoil for themselves and each other. They think like writers but speak to every audience member. They have interesting back stories which culminate into the events that go down over the course of one snowy weekend. The story is especially inspiring to me because it takes place in my hometown, showing me how I can take my everyday surroundings and build an elaborate plot and characters around that setting. Every hometown is worthy of such a great story.
You've Got Mail deals with the book industry, blending the past with the future, and how rivalry can turn to romance.
15. You’ve Got Mail (1999)
Synopsis: The owners of two New York book stores compete for business in the Upper West Side while at the same time unwittingly carry on a romance online.
Why It’s Inspiring: The plot of You’ve Got Mail centers around the book industry, a line of work very interesting to a writer. It also takes place at the beginning of the age of the Internet, becoming a time capsule of that era and where our modern day means of communication started. It is about anonymity as well as trying to figure out what you want in life, a universal struggle that we all face. Joe and Kathleen come from opposite ends of the same spectrum, and it’s fun to watch them banter in real life while growing closer online.
Modern day stories are told differently throughout the years because there are new lifestyles to build around them. This film is a remake of an original where letter writing was the means of communication between the two leads. If the story were to be made again, it would need to be altered even further since the technology of the 90’s was nothing like the technology we have today. The challenge is to evolve with the times while still keeping the characterization and plot the same. This film is a perfect example of that and inspiring to figure out what modern conveniences a writer can build a story around.
What are your favorite movies to watch when you need inspiration? Leave your answers in the comments below!
FlourishAnyway from USA on June 26, 2018:
You have some of my favorites here -- White Oleander, Good Will Hunting, Cuckoo's Nest, Good Will Hunting, Girl Interrupted. Great list!
Laura Smith (author) from Pittsburgh, PA on January 27, 2018:
Thanks for the comment. The Kings Speech does have a line where Churchill mentions his stutter. I'm hoping his new biopic is good and worthy of my personal list. Good luck with your writing!
Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on January 27, 2018:
I can see where you're coming from with this list, for me, the list would be slightly different, but the 'Green mile' and ' The Kings speech' would be on the list, along with a couple of others here.
By the way, did you know that Churchill also had a stutter that he struggled with all his life?
Thank you for reminding us of the inspiration we can get from others.