This month we’re pleased to feature sound advice from TWA’s own Harrison Demchick. With a strong foothold in the screenwriting world and a published novel, Harrison sure knows a thing or two about using film structure to write a better novel. In this post, he’ll share some tips about this approach.
One of the most difficult concepts to grasp when it comes to crafting a novel is plot structure. It seems so easy when we’re kids. When we’re kids, every story has three parts: beginning, middle, and end. But then we get older, and we take classes and read books on writing, and we learn about inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement.
And once we actually get to the writing, we learn that knowing what all these things are, and endeavoring to check the boxes of story structure, doesn’t mean actually sitting down and trying to craft that story isn’t really, really complicated.
That’s because knowing the terms isn’t the same as internalizing them. It’s not the same as understanding how and why they work. And one of the best ways to acquire a better understanding is to step back from novels and take a look at film structure.
If you think novel structure is hard, you should try writing a screenplay. Screenplays are remarkably consistent, and remarkably strict, when it comes to structure. Here are some basic facts about screenplays:
- Your typical screenplay is 120 pages.
- That screenplay is divided into three acts of 30, 60, and 30 pages.
- By page 15, the premise should be established.
- Major turning points occur at page 30 (end of Act One), page 60 (midpoint), and page 90 (end of Act Two).
- The turning point at page 30 should be a point of no return. The turning point at page 90 should be the hero’s lowest moment.
While none of these rules is absolute, and while length will certainly vary based on genre and, simply, scope of story, most films you’ve ever seen follow this general structure. And while it seems rigid and formulaic—and in the wrong hands, absolutely it can be—what’s interesting is that this same format can be used, and used effectively, to tell an incredible variety of stories. And that’s because screenplay structure is based on centuries, even millennia, of storytelling. There’s a reason behind it, and that reason is what we can utilize for our novels.
So let’s consider Act One. When we talk about establishing a premise by page 15, what we’re really talking about is creating a direction for the story, and direction is important because it provides momentum. Once something happens to establish the direction of the story, we have the start of cause and effect, each subsequent action causing the next. If you wait too long to begin this process, you’re not really telling a story, and viewers will lose interest.
We have a name for this moment in both screenplays and novels: inciting incident.
So film structure tells us that the inciting incident must occur early to propel the story into motion. It’s a useful lesson, and one that guides us toward our first major turning point—the point of no return. And why do we have a point of no return? Because when you can’t go backwards, you can only go forwards, which inevitably changes and advances the story.
And we have a name as well for the sort of action that follows that inciting incident: rising action. Film structure teaches us to begin rising action in that first act and accelerate quickly to a point from which action can only continue to rise. It’s that continuous rise, not only in action but also in conflict and tension, that enables a story to build and engage.
In film, the second act is as long as the first and third act combined, and there’s a reason for that. Despite the parabola often used to illustrate plot structure in fiction, rising action actually encompasses the majority of any story. It’s not difficult to determine why. The higher the action rises, the farther our characters have to fall. That turning point right in the middle of the story encourages us to keep things moving and changing—and escalating, which keeps a reader engaged.
But what about that lowest moment at the end of the act? That can come across as formula, but really it’s just good drama. We know we have a climax coming in the third act, and the climax will bring with it victory or, if this is a tragedy, defeat. But the closer our characters come to failure before their victory, or as close as they come to overcoming failure before being defeated, the more powerful the climax. Crafting the hero’s lowest moment at this point in the story makes success feel anything but assured. It’s formula, but it’s designed to make the action to follow less predictable, and it works.
So in Act Three, action continues to rise from the hero’s lowest moment, leading into the subsequent climax, now rendered all the more dramatic from how close the hero came to failing to get there. But with film structure we can also see clearly how we’ve built to the climax—how we’ve maintained rising action through at least three major turning points. We’ve been building to the climax since that inciting incident no more than halfway through Act One.
After that comes resolution, and resolution is typically brief. In film structure, there’s simply not a lot of space after the climax, which inevitably shortens the amount of time that can realistically be applied to falling action and denouement. The message to screenwriters is clear: The story is basically over after the climax, so wrap things up, satisfactorily but quickly.
Not all forms of writing are meant to be so absolute, and the experience of a novel versus a screenplay is very different. But what we can utilize for novels is the rationale that defines screenplay structure. We can use the format to gain a clearer understanding of why story structure is the way it is, and how its elements create a more dramatically satisfying story.
Because that’s what’s really important. Knowing terms is great, and having guidelines can be helpful, but none of these alone provides an understanding of structure. When structure is understood, and internalized, then the craft of your stories will begin to emerge far more naturally. And your novel will be stronger for it.
Developmental editor Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing and along the way has worked on more than fifty published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. An expert in middle-grade, young adult, and adult manuscripts in categories as diverse as science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, literary fiction, women’s fiction, and memoir, Harrison is known for quite possibly the most detailed and informative editorial letters in the industry—if not the entire universe. He is also an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners (Bancroft Press, 2012).