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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.
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.
- Hook. Something interesting happens that grabs the reader's attention. This is the very beginning of the story and it is important!
- Twist. The story goes off in a different direction. It's not what you thought it would be. This can come anytime before . . .
- Plot Point One. About 20% in. For our mythical 200-page books, this is around page 40.
- Midpoint. A watershed moment. You guessed it. Page 100 .
- Plot Point Two. Everything the heroine did is wrong. Page 160.
- Climax. The heroine solves the problem, or doesn't. This is less precise. Say around page 180.
- 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?
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.