Screenwriting advice for novels & stories

In our Library writers’ critique group, with a couple of exceptions, we all are writing novels and short stories. Yet we’ve recommended to one another the works of screenwriting gurus Syd Field, Robert McKee, John Truby, Blake Snyder and Michael Hauge. Why? They offer nuts-and-bolts advice about building a story. Using the volumes available in the Library, here’s a quick rundown of their most prominent ideas.

Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. Key idea: Field’s Paradigm is a three-act structure with antecedents in Aristotle: Set-Up in Act I, Confrontation in the longer Act II, and Resolution in Act III, with Plot Points—incidents that turn the story in a different direction—moving the story from one act into the next. Book style: Tome-ish, long-running text sections; straight-forward and, to me, rather bland. My favorite movie analysis/script excerpt: “Chinatown.” (What can I say about my choices? I’m a middle-aged white guy, not a 21st-century teen.) 

Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. Key idea: Inciting incident upsets the balance in the protagonist’s life, he identifies an object of desire that will restore that balance, and he struggles against antagonistic forces in himself, in others and in his environment while seeking that object of desire, which he may or may not achieve. Book style: Multi-layered, somewhat tome-ish; cites many specific movies; uses boldface highlights and line diagrams; jargony. Favorite movie analysis/excerpt: “Casablanca” (above).

John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. Key ideas: The seven steps of story structure and the 22 building blocks of every great story. Book style: More accessible than first appears; uses familiar film examples to illustrate jargony terms; breaks up text sections with a hierarchy of subheads. Favorite movie analysis/excerpt: “The Godfather.” (Local angle: Part-time Connecticut resident and bestselling mystery author Robert Ellis gives a shout-out to Truby in the Acknowledgments pages of his novel The Lost Witness.)

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Key idea: The Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, a.k.a. the 15 sections of a successful story. Book style: Fun, conversational, jargony, with worthwhile substance. Favorite movie analysis/excerpt: “Miss Congeniality.” (Not actually a favorite; I’ve never seen it. But it’s the one movie the late Snyder breaks down into his 15 beats.)

Michael Hauge’s Writing Screenplays That Sell: The Complete Guide to Turning Story Concepts into Movie and Television Deals. Full disclosure: The Library does not have any of Hauge’s books. I’ve read some essays on his website, which lay out a six-stage plot structure with five turning points, and I’ve talked about his advice with my workshop colleague Lauri Brett, who attended an all-day workshop he led. So I feel confident in the following. Key idea: Essential component of a successful story is the hero’s pursuit of a compelling desire. Style: Concise, somewhat jargony. Favorite movie analysis/excerpt: “Erin Brockovich” or “Gladiator” (take your pick).

So what can these books do for you as a narrative-prose storyteller? They can help you with story structure. They can help you with character arc. They can help you with scene crafting. They can help you with building dramatic momentum. In short, they can help you get your storytelling organized. And that is no small thing!

One big caveat: Sometimes I think the screenplay gurus—with the exception of Field—are descendants of whoever wrote the Introduction to Sociology textbook I studied in college, so adept are they at coining new terms to describe basic screenwriting steps or patterns. McKee’s buzzwords include: Archplot, Miniplot, Antiplot, Multiplot, Nonplot; Symbolic Ascension; Ironic Ascension; the Mind Worm; and the Gap. Truby uses Story World, Symbol Web and Scene Weave. Among Snyder’s 15 beats are Fun and Games, and Dark Night of the Soul; and among his Immutable Laws of Screenplay Physics are The Pope in the Pool, Double Mumbo Jumbo, Watch Out for That Glacier, and, of course, Save the Cat, a rule that says “the hero has to do something when we first meet him so that we like him and want him to win.” Hauge’s Ten Simple Keys to Plot Structure include More, Bigger, Badder; Something Old, Something New; Before and After; Lines & Arcs; and Secrets & Lies.

Don’t get hung up on the whacky jargon, or the horizontal, rising-angle, and overlapping-circle line graphics, or the formulas about which minute of a two-hour screenplay should correspond with which structural milestone. Instead, absorb the universal characteristics of dramatic storytelling and incorporate them into your own story.

Stephen J. Cannell, the prolific TV show creator/writer (“The Rockford Files,” “Baretta,” “21 Jumpstreet” et al.) and novelist (King Con, Vertical Coffin, The Tin Collectors, et al.),  posted a 21-part online writing seminar on his website several years ago. I followed it from week to week. Here’s his final thought from that course:

“Don’t let this excessive list of Do’s and Don’t’s make writing seem more complicated than it is. Remember, writing should be fun.”—Alex McNab

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Interesting piece, Alex. There’s so much advice out there that it can get confusing. This helps to sort through it. I also recommend a website by Larry Brooks: http://www.storyfix.com. This concentrates on the structure of stories and is focussed on novels. His last deconstruction was The Help, which was fascinating. When I reread the book I saw it in a different light.

  2. A couple of weeks after I posted this entry, I came across the following thought from novelist Robert Ellis, who I mention in reference to John Truby above. In a 2007 Publishers Weekly interview, Ellis said, “The key to a great film is a great story. . . .But if the story structure sucks, none of that matters. . . .You can feel it. The push of story. You know when it’s working and when it’s circling the drain. And that’s why I think every writer, no matter what medium he or she is working in, must be a student of film at least at some level.” Indeed, it behooves us to give the screenwriting guides a look.


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