September 18th, 2013

Adapting Screenplay Structure to Genre Novels

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Writers in the Storm welcomes back James Preston, author of the Surf City Mysteries to share how he uses screenplay structure.

James R. Prestonby James Preston

Today we’re going to talk about a big fish with a very bad attitude.  But first . . .

When I was working on Read ‘Em and Weep,  the second installment of the Surf City Mysteries, I had a wonderful experience. Two of my characters came to life and started talking to me.  Katerina Kohl and Heather Rubinski are two Las Vegas showgirls who wanted desperately to tell me about their lives.  It was great.  I loved it.  And they tried to kill my book.  To explain why, I need to talk about the seven-part screenplay structure, the skeleton that underlies most commercial fiction.

Fair warning, this is going to be full of spoilers.

If you have not seen the classic Stephen Spielberg film Jaws, I am going to take it apart as an example.  So, if you care about how the story goes and don’t want to know, be warned that I am going to give it away.  All of it.

Fair warning #2: Once I studied this and internalized it, I started to see it in much of the fiction I read.  Sort of like seeing the man behind the screen, so if you think that might spoil your reading, save yourself; it’s too late for yours truly.  However, I found that looking for the bones under the skin enhanced my appreciation for the craftsmanship of the writer.

Still with me?  Okay enough with the warnings.

Remember, a story is about somebody who wants something.  Something stops them from getting it.  They try to get it and either succeed or fail.

A Plot Point is something that changes the story, turns it into something unexpected, usually by changing the heroine’s goals.

Since I am talking about adapting this structure to novel writing, I will use page numbers to show locations in the manuscript.  Assume a 200-page manuscript.  We’ll see how it works as minutes.

Let’s talk about the bones, the skeleton that is one way of building your story.

  1.  Hook.  Something interesting happens that grabs the reader’s attention.  This is the very beginning of the story and it is important!
  2. Twist. The story goes off in a different direction.  It’s not what you thought it would be.  This can come anytime before . . .
  3. Plot Point One.  About 20% in.  For our mythical 200-page books, this is around page 40.
  4. Midpoint. A watershed moment.  You guessed it.  Page 100 .
  5. Plot Point Two. Everything the heroine did is wrong.  Page 160.
  6. Climax. The heroine solves the problem, or doesn’t.  This is less precise.  Say around page 180.
  7. Denouement.  Loose ends are tied up.  Everybody who wasn’t killed and eaten goes home.

So let’s see how this works in real life.  Hear the music?  Da dum.  Da dum.  Da dum.  Are you ready to go back in the water?

Hook.

Chrissie and her boyfriend are partying their brains out on the beach with a group of college kids. She talks him into going skinny-dipping.  (Personal note:  He’s reluctant.   Is he insane?  Did you see what Chrissie looks like?  I would have been in the water ahead of her, drunk or not!). Anyway, he passes out on the beach and she meets Bruce the Shark.  Bruce has a much better time than Chrissie.

Twist. 

Crissie’s remains are found,  but no one believes it’s a shark.

Plot Point One. 

Expect this to be about 20% in, and it is.  At 17 minutes in, Alex Kintner, a young boy on an inflatable raft, is killed.  Now we and everybody in Amity know it is a shark.

Midpoint.

At 58 minutes in, Ben Gardner’s boat and body are discovered by Brady and Hooper, but the Mayor still insists on keeping the beaches open, and this leads directly to the attack in the pond and the hiring of the irascible Quint.  The police chief, the marine biologist, and Quint go out on the Orca to hunt the shark.  The stakes get much, much higher — it’s a fight now.

Plot Point Two.

94 minutes in, Quint, never the most stable of individuals, smashes the radio.  Now they can’t get help.  Now it’s fight to the death.

Climax.

“I ain’t got no spit.”  In a last ditch effort, Hooper goes down in the shark cage.  (We’ll have to leave a serious discussion of foreshadowing for another day, but for a good example, think back to Hooper loading the equipment on the Orca, when Quint mocks the cage, hinting that the shark could get through it.)  Bruce the Shark bites right through the cage, probably thinking, “Oooh, crunchy on the outside.” Hooper gets away, maybe, and Sheriff Brody has to face his fear of water as Quint is killed and the Orca sinks.  He shoots the shark.

Denouement.

Brody and Hooper are paddling back to the island on a piece of wreckage.  Brody says, “I never used to like the water.  I can’t imagine why.”

So, will this structure work for your novel?  You bet!  To adapt it, keep in mind that you have more flexibility than a scriptwriter.  In Black Sunday, Thomas Harris puts his second plot point forty pages early.  His villain, the psychotic blimp pilot, comes down with viral pneumonia.  It works because it’s a big book with a lot going on.

On the other hand, in the awesome One for the Money, Janet Evanovich puts her midpoint right at the middle. (Morelli throws Stephanie’s car keys in a dumpster.  When she is rummaging through garbage to find them, she finds a newspaper article saying John Kuszack has been gunned down.  This expands the story because Stephanie now knows that witnesses are being killed.)

More things to remember when you are adapting this technique to the printed page.  You need to alternate between tension and relaxation.  Each incident needs to be more intense than the one before.  When the heroine wins it has to be by her own efforts, deus ex machina is handy but a trifle dated.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot.  Throw out all of these rules for a literary novel.  They don’t apply.  And if you’re a one-of-a-kind genius like Janet Evanovich you can use them or not.  For the rest of us, a skeleton is useful.

You may be thinking, how can I possibly remember all this and keep it straight when I’m figuring out the next scene?  Don’t worry.  Some folks map out their entire novel beforehand, others don’t.  For me, these guidelines come into play at the second draft stage.  I like to start up the bulldozer and move some earth before I fine tune the result.  (I borrowed the bulldozer metaphor from Stephen King.  Thank you.)

So, how did Katerina and Heather try to kill my novel when they were telling me about their lives?  They told me all about their lives.  I know about Heather’s abusive father, and how Trina went to a community college, studied accounting and hated it.  This background was fascinating, helped me get to know them, and they wanted to tell me about it, but it just didn’t fit.  No matter where I put it, it altered the structure of the book and failed to move the story forward.  So I didn’t use it.  My hope is that your characters come to life and speak to you, and that later, you will select what you need and file away what you don’t.  Just listen that first time around.

There are many variations on the structure I have described.  If you feel like sharing I would like to hear some of them, and examples from your current work.  Thanks, and I’ll see you next time.

James R. Preston writes the Surf City Mysteries, the most recent of which is Pennies For Her Eyes.  He has signed at Men of Mystery, where he appeared on the same bill as New York times bestselling, awesome writer James Rollins.  (That sound in the background is Preston’s own horn tooting.)  Check out www.jamesrpreston.com for more information.  And if your book club wants a live one, send an email.

Don’t forget that Thursday at 6p.m. PDT we’ll pick the lucky winner of a free class from commenters on Laurie Schnebly Campbell‘s post from last Friday, The Tricky Part. The winner’s name will be announced in two days, on Friday. Good luck to all.

24 comments to Adapting Screenplay Structure to Genre Novels

  • Brilliant, James. I’ve often wondered if I could do this. For a ‘once and done’ pantser, I think plotting would be required. Someday, when I’m not under deadline, I’m going to try this.

    For anyone wanting to know more – any of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! series will explain in very entertaining detail. LOVE those books!

    Thanks for visiting us today!

    • Thanks, Laura! I appreciate the kind words from someone with your credits! I have always been been very leery of doing this kind of plotting too early. For Correction, the book I’m working in now, I started with a “back of the envelope” outline, wrote 25,000 words, and now I see how the structure works. At least, I think I do . . . .
      Thanks again,
      James

  • I’m so pleased to have won!! Thank you! Love the rest of the post. Tweeted and reblogged.

  • Reblogged this on Ella Quinn ~ Author and commented:
    Want to adapt your book to a screen play? Then this is for you!
    Don’t forget to stop by tomorrow for Release Day!!!!

  • I’ve accepted this methodology completely. It’s what Larry Brooks covers in great detail in “Story Engineering” in the section on structure.

    I just can’t imagine writing without these waypoints firmly in mind. (And I need to go back to my totally-pantsed first mystery to see how close I came on any of them.)

    • Hey, Joel, thanks. He’s right, folks, the Larry Brooks blog has tons of good information on the craft of writing. Why didn’t I find it before I wrote the essay for WITS? Oh, well.

      • Because we needed to hear your version, too, James. And K. M. Weiland’s, and Joseph Campbell’s, and every explanation of this concept we can get until we get it straight and make it automatic. (Lest it appear I was in any way dismissive, I’m newslettering you so my readers get this take besides my weekly Larry Brooks Worship Session.)

  • I love your admission that you don’t start messing with structure until the second draft. Very few of us can write a structurally perfect first draft. Accepting that and vomiting some semblance of the story out on the page is a good way to get it done.

    • LOL, Catie. Yeah, barfing out that first draft is important. I think that is the best opportunity your characters have to come to life and tell you their stories. It’s like being at a party, meeting new people and they’re not boring and they never show you pictures of their pet lizard. Wait, that might be good. You know what I mean. The craft comes later.

  • Great article. The opening, ending, and sometimes mid-point, are easy for me, but not sure I nail the other turning points. Thanks for simplifying the process! Debbie

    • My guess is that if you have the big three, you will look at your first draft and say, “Oh, yeah, right there . . . ”
      And if you want to see a great cover, check out Ms Herbert’s Siren’s Secret.

  • Very nice article. I agree with your second-draft theory. I get the first draft down, then chisel it from there into what I want, and that might take another ten drafts or more – writing is a lot of hard work.

    This article’s headline caught my eye as I’m a screenwriter first and the two novels that I have are adaptations of screenplays. I find a screenplay a nice skeleton to write a novel from.

    • I think Michael is right on both counts. Writing is hard work, and the screenplay structure provides a skeleton. Writing is also the most fun you can have with your clothes on. I think it is clear from these responses that none of us want a “paint-by-the-numbers” novel, but as genre writers we all want some kind of scaffolding because our readers are used to it.
      Michael, congratulations on getting Blunt Force filmed!

  • I’m going to try this with a few novels and see if it works. This really cleared up a lot of things for me. Thanks!

  • John, thanks for the comment. I hope this skeleton helps you. I think what we do is such a balancing act between art and craft that sometimes it’s tough to draw the line. I looked at your blog and 2,000 words a day is ambitious, so quit reading my response and get back to work!

  • […] Adapting Screenplay Structure to Genre Novels by James Preston […]

  • Excellent post, James! I follow a similar plot sequence when I rough out my books. It helps to keep the basic structure in mind, preventing characters from running off on side paths that don’t lead where you want them to end up. Crazy people!

  • Yes, “crazy people” is a good description. Personally, I like to let characters ramble and then use what I can, most often at the second draft stage. This site is one place where I can talk about the voices in my head without making people very nervous. Heh heh heh. Thanks, Lyn!

  • I love how you broke this down. I’m still laughing about “crunchy on the outside.”

    http://www.chriscannonauthor.com

    • Thanks, Chris. This was a fun, challenging essay. I remembered Jaws well, and thought that the structure would serve as an example, but it had been years since I last saw it, so I watched it again, and I holds up really well. Congratulations on Going Down in Flames!

  • And thanks for the motion on your page! Sigh — tipoz r the ban of ur xistenz. Of course I mean “It holds up well.” Please add me to your mailing list for when Going Down in Flames is released.

  • […] the past I have talked about adapting screenplay structure to genre novels — Hook, Twist, Plot Point One, Midpoint, Plot Point Two, Dénouement.  And I talked about the joys of 4″ x 6″ cards, each of which has something […]