September means back to school, and as it happens, I’ll be teaching my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workshop as one of the novel writing Masterclasses at Bloody Scotland this week.
I’ve been teaching this workshop for writing groups and conventions all over the US and internationally for several years now, to aspiring authors and bestselling authors alike (as well as teaching these story structure techniques to film students in Los Angeles). Because I have limited time to teach (I’m a full-time crime novelist and screenwriter) I’ve also compiled all the information from my workshops into three writing workbooks, to make the material in the workshops available to everyone, everywhere.
The newest (and biggest!) workbook is out this month.
I’ve found that writers at all levels catch on to the concepts instantly (really, within five or ten minutes!). Because what I teach is something you already know. You just need someone to point it out to you.
What I teach is how to write novels by learning from your favorite movies.
The thing is, film is such a compressed and concise medium that it’s like seeing an X-ray of a story. In film you have two hours, usually a little less, to tell the story. It’s a very stripped-down form that even so, often has enormous emotional power. Plus we’ve usually seen more of these movies than we’ve read specific books, so they’re a more universal frame of reference for discussion.
It’s often easier to see the mechanics of structure in a film than in a novel.
Film and television are based on a Three-Act, Eight-Sequence structure. The Three-Act Structure is a rhythm of storytelling that began thousands of years ago with the great classic plays of ancient Greece.
The Eight-Sequence structure is a variation on the Three-Act structure that evolved from the early days of film, when movies were divided into reels (physical film reels), each holding about ten to fifteen minutes of film (movies were also shorter, proportionately). The projectionist had to manually change each reel as it finished. Early screenwriters incorporated this rhythm into their writing, developing individual sequences that lasted exactly the length of a reel, so that as the reel ended, the sequence also ended, on a cliffhanger climax – so that as the projectionist was scrambling to change reels, the audience was in a state of high anticipation about WHAT HAPPENS NEXT – instead of being frustrated and pissed off about having their moviegoing experience interrupted in the middle of a key scene. Nobody likes having a climax interrupted, right?
And the eight-sequence structure actually translates beautifully to novel structuring, although we have much more flexibility with a novel and you might end up with a few more sequences in a book. But watching movies with the eight-sequence structure in mind is an excellent way to get familiar with this storytelling rhythm, and once you’re able to spot the sequence and act climaxes in movies, they’ll start becoming very apparent in the novels you read as well (you’ll be seeing these climaxes about every fifty pages in a 400-page novel.)
If you’re a writer, you are probably already unconsciously following this structure – that’s what most people in my workshops discover! They just needed someone to point it out to them and show them how to make the most of their climaxes (sorry, it’s impossible to talk about this without sounding like the non-fiction version of 50 Shades…).
Think about it. How many movies and TV shows have you seen in your lifetime? I’m willing to bet it’s thousands.You know this rhythm. Your readers know this rhythm. And here’s the thing: your readers unconsciously EXPECT this rhythm, and if you’re not giving it to them, they’re going to get worried that you’re doing something wrong.
So it’s very, very useful to get conscious about the eight-sequence structure yourself, so you can use it most effectively.
If you’re new to story breakdowns and analysis, then you’ll probably want to check out my sample breakdowns (full breakdowns of different movies are included in the workbooks) and watch several, or all, of those movies, following along with my notes, before you try to analyze a movie on your own. You can also sign up for my Story Structure Extras list and get free sample movie breakdowns.
But if you want to jump right in with your own breakdowns and analyses, this is how it works:
Take a film that is similar in structure to your own WIP (work in progress), and screen it, watching the time clock on your DVD player (or your watch, or phone). At about 15 minutes into the film, there will be some sort of climax: an action scene, a revelation, a twist, a big SETPIECE. It won’t be as big as the climax that comes 30 minutes into the film, which would be the Act One climax, but it will be an identifiable climax that will spin the action into the next sequence.)
Proceed through the movie, stopping to identify the beginning, middle, and end of each sequence, approximately every 15 minutes. Also make note of the bigger climaxes or turning points – Act One at 30 minutes, the Midpoint at 60 minutes, Act Two at 90 minutes, and Act Three at whenever the movie ends.
(NOTE: You can also, and probably should, say that a movie is really four acts, breaking the long Act Two into two separate acts. Hollywood continues to use “Three Acts.” Whichever works best for you!)
Screening one movie looking for this structure one will get you far, three will lock it in, and as you continue to practice looking out for it, this new awareness will open new worlds in your writing.
Best of all, it’s fun. And when the work is play, you’ve got the best of all possible worlds.
SCREENWRITING TRICKS FOR AUTHORS can be purchased in print textbook or 09/15 eBook format for/from: