A new feature of our site
While we work on novels, submit work to magazines, and create stories for independent collections, writing posts here about our progress and explorations in writing is our new way of staying in touch with our readers.
To start off, one of our writers has written about her study of story structure that includes links to resources.
Thanks for reading!
A fiction writer studies screenplay structure
by Vesta Clare
A gifted writer I know once told me the best way to master plot and story structure is to study screenwriting. 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.
This past summer I followed his advice. I’ve only written short stories, until one of them morphed into something with novel-length possibilities. Realizing that felt like standing by a very wide river looking at the other side. I could see it—sort of—but wasn’t sure how to get there. So I created my own screenwriting study plan focused on plot and structure.
The first step was reading beat sheets (film) and plot worksheets (fiction). Beat sheet templates feel queasily like a paint-by-numbers approach to story telling (on page 10 do this, on page 28 do that). On the other hand, reading one for a film you’re familiar with reveals the steps in that story’s propulsion. Also, the templates provide a sense of scaffolding for creating your own plot. 29 beat sheets & worksheet links (bottom of page) Plot worksheet links
What drove it all home was creating my own beat sheet for a film. I watched Michael Clayton with a blank template and a copy of the film script open on my computer (lots of hitting ‘pause’ involved here), and wrote the beats out in the template. It was like seeing a 3D X-ray of the film’s architecture. It was also a learning experience that really sank in and left me with a sense of how to structure a layered story with complex characters.
Finally, a way to build a canoe and get across that imposing river!
Next I researched books on screenwriting that fiction writers considered useful. This left out all the paint-by-number equivalents. The two I’ve found most useful are:
Dan O’Bannon’s Guide To Screenplay Structure . O’Bannon addresses the logic and rhythm of story structure in a way that translates smoothly to writing fiction. He also 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) and a 6-8 page analysis for each of 12 films that includes an exercise at the end. You can create a blank template based on his analyses and use that to study other films or fiction. Highly recommended!
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, The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters is catchy but doesn’t really signal how thorough the contents are.
Most helpful plot tip: decide on the theme and make sure every scene is related to it.
My takeaway here is that, at the heart of the story you want to write and the spark that ignited it, there 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!
You can also read excerpts by clicking on the story titles below.
Thanks for visiting our site, and let us know what you think.