Using Screenwriting Techniques to Plot Your Novel with Catherine Ryan Howard
When I came to write my first novel, I discovered that the tricky bit was not coming up with an idea or a good opening or a cast of characters, but figuring out what to do with the 80,000 words in the middle. When you have a beginning and you know how it ends, just how do you figure out what’ll happen in between?
Reading “How to Write Books” book is excellent procrastination, and I’ve spent a good deal of the last ten years reading as many I could find. But none of them told me how to plot my novel. They told me how to keep my plot organized, waxed lyrical about Post-It note systems, cork-boards, flow charts, index cards, ring binders, and offered trouble-shooting solutions for when things stray off course, but I couldn’t find any that actually told me how to get a workable plot in the first place.
Then, a couple of years ago, I happened upon a book called Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by the late great Blake Snyder and, in it, the tried and tested system Hollywood screenwriters use for figuring out just what happens (and when, and how) in their plot-driven blockbuster movies: the beat sheet. This is your entire story boiled down to 10-15 sentences and divided into 3 acts, a roadmap of sorts for your novel.
Lots of writers of all mediums use beat sheets, but Snyder’s was different: it was simple, fun and easy to use, and watching any successful movie or reading any commercial, plot-driven book, I could see exactly where these “beats” occurred.
Adapting Snyder’s beat sheet for novel-writing, mine looked a bit like this:
1. Opening Scene
2. Establish setting/Introduction characters/Set-Up
3. Catalyst/Inciting incident
4. Debate (the characters ask, “What do we do about this?”)
5. Act II begins with the introduction of the B Story
6. Midpoint (halfway, a false “high” or “low”, an opposite of the finale)
7. Fun and Games (think: the scenes from your book that would appear in the trailer were it a movie, the “promise of the premise”)
8. Imminent threat elevated/danger gets closer
9. “All is Lost” (protagonist’s lowest point)
10. Act III begins (headed at full speed towards the ending now)
11. Finale/Climax/Resolution of all plot threads
12. Final scene or epilogue/aftermath.
(A full explanation of all these beats appears in Synder’s book.)
Start by filling in the bits you do know and then take a step back. What’s missing? In order to have a workable plot for a commercial novel, you need to at least touch on all of those beats.
As for pace, start with the midpoint: that should – obviously – be in the middle of your book. With the average manuscript being 100,000 words, that’s at 50,000. I allow myself around 10,000 words for introduction/set up, with debate starting no later than 10,000 words. (The sooner the inciting incident occurs the better; I normally mix in it with the set up.) Of the three acts, Act II will take up the bulk of your book, so Acts I and III should be shorter – for me, this means a breakdown of around 15,000 words/65,000 words/20,000 words.
These are all just guidelines, of course – signposts that get me through writing the first draft. When it comes time to write the second, the structure is already in place and so I don’t worry too much about where things are happening, only that they are and in a fashion that will keep the reader turning the pages.
Other screenwriting books that may interest novelists:
Story by Robert McKee
How to Write a Movie in 21 Days by Vicki King
Screenplay by Syd Field