NOVEL STRUCTURE vs. SCREENPLAY STRUCTURE

This month's article is taken from an interview I had with Juliet Madison of the Romance Writers of Australia.

Structure is essential. All structure really means is 'what's the sequence of events?'. A writer's goal has to be to create an emotional experience for the reader, and that applies whether you're a romance writer, a general fiction writer, or a screenwriter.

Certain structural patterns have proven to be effective and consistently present in successful stories, certainly since the beginning of the twentieth century, and some even further back than that, all the way to Aristotle. My six-stage structure is just an approach I developed by looking at lots of movies and novels, and working out how they were able to maximize the emotional experience. Other people have other structural approaches, and what I have found is all of the different approaches are fairly consistent. We don’t really contradict each other, we just have different ways of looking at it, and mine is developed in a way that I hope will be simple enough that it’s really easy to master, but still valuable enough that it gives new insights and people can really use it. It’s more than a three act structure, there’s a lot more to it than that, but it should still be simple and straightforward, and I have found in the reactions from people who’ve heard me lecture or clients I’ve had, that it has proven really helpful to them.

The basic six stages I talk about are going to be present in any kind of story, so long as it’s a story where there’s a protagonist pursuing a clear goal with a clearly defined end point.

For instance, in a romance novel, the goal of the hero or heroine (I don’t really distinguish between those two terms) is to win the love of another character. So once you have that goal defined (because we know what that would look like at the end of the story), it’s like having a destination to your hero’s journey, and now you can break that down into the steps it takes to get there, and the key turning points that they have to encounter on that journey.

The key difference between novel structure and screenplay structure is that in a screenplay, the turning points always occur at exactly the same place, the same percentage of time into the story. What happens twenty-five percent of the way into Avatar is the same thing that’s going to happen twenty-five percent of the way into Rango. But those percentages are much more fluid when it comes to novel writing, so novelists need only learn the six stages and have the awareness that they can be a bit more flexible about where those turning points might occur. Although usually, they’re not far off. When I’m teaching a class and I talk about what the mid-point is, which I call ‘the point of no return’, I’ll often ask if anybody has a novel with them, and somebody always does, so I’ll turn to the very middle page and read it, and almost always we see that it’s directly related to what should happen at the mid-point of the story.

"Michael Hauge's wise and humane approach to story and character development is the only one that consistently works for me."

- Bob Fisher, Co-writer: Wedding Crashers; Screenwriter/Executive Producer: Mixed Signals

"The only screenwriting instructor out there who might be truly wasting his time – because he should be writing screenplays instead. Higher praise I cannot give."

- Terry Rossio, Co-writer: Pirates of the Caribbean 1, 2, 3 & 4; Shrek; Aladdin; The Mask of Zorro; Déjà Vu

© 2010 Michael Hauge