Learning story structure from screenwriters

I’ve thought for several years now that screenwriting books teach story structure and plot more clearly, practically, and fully than many books for novelists, with more insight and in a way that works (though I’ve also learned a ton from fiction writing techniques–but not so much on structure). So I’m glad I went to the Toronto Screenwriters’ Summit this past weekend with some fellow children’s and YA writers.

I got a lot out of the weekend-long conference. Perhaps because I’ve worked on writing technique for years, and because I think I already have a strong voice in my writing, I found John Truby and Michal Hauge’s speeches that delved into more advanced plot and structure techniques the most helpful.

Linda Seeger emphasized the importance of finding one’s own voice, and of learning as much as you can about your own creative process and doing what works for you–both of which I really agree with. Something I hadn’t thought about in a long time that made me rewrite a part of the manuscript I’m working on now was her talking about choosing the right season for your work–that seasons can be metaphorical. She also recommended several books–her own, of course, since she’s a successful script consultant, including Making a Good Script Great–as well as Experiences In Visual Thinking by Robert McKim and Put Your Mother On the Ceiling by Richard de Mille to learn to think, and thus write, more visually.

I like that she talked about the need to have some unconscious time with your work, or incubation, which I tend to do naturally.

John Truby talked in depth and in great detail about how to structure a story so that it works on a deep level. I highly recommend his book The Anatomy of Story to really understand and successfully structure a book. It makes the whole process easy to understand. He talks about 7 basic steps, and then 22 steps–and all of them made sense to me, including the hero’s weakness and need (weakness: one or more serious flaws that hurt the hero’s life, and needs which are based on that weakness), desire (the hero’s goal–what she wants in the story), the opponent or antagonist (who tries to prevent the hero from reaching her goal and who wants the same goal as the hero but for different reasons), and the self-revelation. (Check out his book for all the steps and much greater detail.)

John also talked about figuring out which genre your story fits in (or which meld of genres), which will change or add to the seven steps. I think here is where novels may differ. I found myself thinking that my novels are drama, with some suspense and some love thrown in–but drama was not one of the genres.

John offered such a wealth of information that I almost couldn’t write fast enough! Though it was like a review for me, since I’ve read his book, it was a great reminder, and I found myself absorbing the information.

Michael Hauge also talked about structure, with some similarities to John Truby, and some differences and different emphasis, so both talks built on and complimented each other. I also couldn’t write fast enough with him! I really liked how Michael said that the one thing we must know to be a good storytelling is how to elicit emotion through our writing. I know that when I’m emotionally involved with a character, I care more about them and I keep reading. Michael said that story structure is built on three basic elements–character, desire, and conflict–as well as an outer, visible journey for the hero, and an inner, invisible journey. I think the inner journey helps bring meaning to a story. Michael also said that conflict is what keeps us interested (and conflict is not or does not have to be physical). I really enjoyed and identified with what he said, and I’m going to buy his book Writing Screenplays that Sell and probably some of his other books, too.

All three talks sparked ideas and things I want to change or add to in my current work-in-progress.

I attended the workshop with fellow children’s and YA writers Erin Thomas, Lena Coakley, Karen Krossing, Jennifer Gordon, and Urve Tamberg. It was such fun to sit together, pass the occasional note, and have our own row of kidlit writer seats among a sea of screenwriters!

If you’d like to read more about the conference and the various things we each got out of it, check out these writers’ blog posts:

About Cheryl Rainfield

I write the books I needed and couldn't find as a teen. I write teen fiction--paranormal fantasy and gritty realistic fiction. I'm the author of SCARS (WestSide Books, 2010) #1 ALA QuickPicks, and Governor General Literary Award Finalist, HUNTED (WestSide Books, Oct 2011), STAINED (Harcourt, 2013), The Last Dragon (HIP Books, Sept 2009), and Walking Both Sides (HIP Books, 2011). I also enjoy drawing, surfing the web, connecting with people I like, doing crafts, and being with my dog.
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4 Responses to Learning story structure from screenwriters

  1. Pingback: 6 Children’s Authors Infiltrate the Grown-up World of Screenwriting | Lena Coakley

  2. Pingback: Structure, Structure and More Structure | Erin Thomas

  3. My favorite book on structure is William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade. I agree there is so much to learn about story, three act structure and how to mess with it, from screenwriters. Goldman’s book, including his screenplay of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – which is included – are must reading. I haven’t looked at structure the same way since.

    Thanks for the great post, Cheryl.

  4. I haven’t read that one; thanks for telling us about it, Joe!

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