A gifted writer I know once gave me this advice: the best way to master plot and story structure is to study screenplays. They’re action and dialogue segmented into the building blocks of scenes, and each scene is there for a reason. Studying them had forced him to look at, and cut out, the slack and excess in his fiction work.
I finally decided to follow his advice. Up until now I’ve only written short stories. Then one of them morphed into something the size of Texas. But realizing it had the potential for a novel-length work was like standing at a very wide river looking at the other side. I could see that other side, sort of, but wasn’t sure how to get there. So I devised a screenwriting study plan focused on plot and structure.
The first step was reading beat sheets (film) and plot worksheets (fiction). Beat sheet templates can feel queasily like a paint-by-numbers approach to story telling (on page 10 do this, on page 28 do that), but reading one for a film you’re familiar with reveals the steps in that story’s propulsion. The templates can also provide scaffolding for creating your own plot.
29 beat sheets & worksheet links (bottom of page, from Writers in the Grove)
Plot worksheets for writers (KM Editorial)
The most useful exercise was creating my own beat sheet for the film Michael Clayton. I watched it with a blank template and a copy of the film script open on my computer (lots of hitting pause involved here), and wrote out the beats into the template. It was like seeing a 3D X-ray of the film’s architecture, and gave me a concrete sense of how to structure a layered story with complex characters.
The second phase involved books about screenwriting that fiction writers considered useful. This left out all the paint-by-number equivalents. I read five books but will highlight the two I found most helpful.
The first is Dan O’Bannon’s Guide To Screenplay Structure. He addresses the logic and rhythm of story structure in a way that translates easily to writing fiction. In addition, he examines theories of storytelling and structure from Aristotle’s Poetics through Robert McKee. That section alone saves you reading about six other books, which is no small gift. There are exercise sheets to prompt your own scrutiny of films (that could also be used for fiction) as well as a 6-8 page analysis for each of 12 films that include an exercise at the end. You can create a blank template based on his analyses and use that to analyze other films or fiction.
The second book is by Karl Iglesias and is made up primarily of verbatim advice, broken down by topic, from about 20 career screenwriters. Its focus is firmly on writing and story structure. A little time is given to dealing with studios and the film business. The advice is realistic and helpful, including references to books and teachers that had most inspired the screenwriters who were interviewed. The book’s title, 101 Habits of Successful Screenwriters (2d edition) is catchy but doesn’t really signal how thorough the contents are.
Favorite writing tip:
“doing the 20s”
One screenwriter in 101 Habits lists or sketches out 20 ways that a scene or plot point could be done, then picks the best. “If you make yourself write twenty ideas, not worrying about whether they’re any good or not, often the ninth or tenth one will be golden because you didn’t settle for the first thing that popped into your mind.”
The lesson for me: the first thing that pops into my head is likely to also be the first thing that pops into a lot of people’s heads. Coming up with 19 alternatives will take each of us in a different direction, along our own neural pathways, and is a much more likely way to arrive at an interesting, as opposed to predictable, story.
Most helpful structure tip:
Decide on the theme and make sure every scene is related to it.
My take: at the heart of the story you want to write and the spark that ignited it, is an essential point you want to make or explore. That’s your theme. Don’t include an event or character that doesn’t relate, reveal, or lead to this core concept.
And that brings us back to the taut economy of screenplays, which is a good reason to study them!