From Screen to Page, Part 3 by Miko Johnston

Miko Johnston is the author of Petals in the Wind.  
She first first contemplated a writing career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no ‘help wanted’ ads for poets in the Sunday NY Times classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from NY University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. You can find out more about her books and follow her for her latest releases at Amazon.




FROM SCREEN TO PAGE, Part 3

 

Today we wrap up our discussion about the basic rules of screenplays that would benefit fiction writers. We’ve already covered the four story questions every writer must be able to answer (see post from September 9), and how your protagonist must undergo a transformation (see post from November 4. And now the final point:

 

ü  Use the three-act structure in novels

 

Most plays and films are written in three acts. It’s a time-proven method to follow when writing any long form fiction, including books, because it provides structure without limiting creativity.

 

In a novel, Act I begins with Once upon a time and ends around the first crisis, or inciting incident – the event that launches the story. Act II follows and is often divided into two scenes with a second crisis point in the middle. This mid-point crisis lifts up the middle of the story and raises the stakes. Act II ends around the final crisis point, the story’s climax. Act III resolves the climax and takes us to the story’s resolution and ideally, a satisfying ending.  

 

Here is a simple diagram illustrating the three act structure as it appears in novels:

  

            

The four segments represent the acts and scenes, divided by vertical lines denoting the three major crisis points, each higher than the previous one. The peaks and valleys track tension, and the horizontal line at the bottom represents the story synopsis.

 

As the diagram shows, if you write your novel with the three-act structure in mind, it creates a solid foundation, a floor on which to build your novel –the protagonist’s arc, the plot – and a firm base to plant your crisis points. The structure provides guidance in finding where the story needs to be cut and where it needs to be fleshed out. If you want to create well-defined crises, steadily increase the tension throughout, and avoid the dreaded ‘middle act slump’ that dooms so many tales, use the three-act diagram like a map to lay out your first draft or direct you through a revision.

 

One way to see if your novel fits into the three-act structure is to take a sheet of paper, fold it in half twice lengthwise and twice widthwise. Open it; you’ve created sixteen crease boxes on your paper. See if you can summarize your novel in the sixteen boxes. Ideally the first row would cover the beginning through the inciting incident, the second row would end at the mid-point crisis, the third row would end at the climax, and the fourth row would include the story’s resolution and end. You can see by this exercise that Act II, or the middle of your story should be approximately the same length as the beginning and the end combined. If one section is bloated and another is skimpy, it can indicate your pacing is out of balance. Maybe the beginning drags, or you rushed the ending, or the middle isn’t developed enough. The crease box exercise works like GPS to identify problems in your manuscript.


A related screenplay rule that is especially relevant to short form fiction writers is: Keep the story simple. Unlike novels, where you must have at least three crisis points, in short form fiction there are only two – the inciting incident that launches your story, followed by a steady build-up to the climax and resolution. Don’t overcrowd your flash fiction or short story with too much plot or sub-plot, too many extraneous characters or locations. Instead, add complexity with multifaceted characters, crisp dialogue that drips with subtext, and vivid bites of description. Very short pieces can consist of a single scene – think of a standout commercial on TV as a visual form of flash-fiction.

 

Here’s a bonus: If you have scraps of ideas floating around but nothing firm enough to write about yet, try planting the idea on the diagram above. Often, when you decide where the idea should fall in the story structure, you ground it enough to work out more details and launch a story concept.

 

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If you have found this series helpful, we Writers in Residence would like to hear from you. If you didn’t, let us know that as well.

 

 

FROM SCREEN TO PAGE, Part 2 with Miko Johnston

Miko Johnston is the author of Petals in the Wind.  
She first first contemplated a writing career as a poet at age six. That notion ended four years later when she found no ‘help wanted’ ads for poets in the Sunday NY Times classified section, but her desire to write persisted. After graduating from NY University, she headed west to pursue a career as a journalist before switching to fiction. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. You can find out more about her books and follow her for her latest releases at Amazon.




FROM SCREEN TO PAGE, Part 2

 Today I continue our discussion about the basic rules of screenplays that would benefit fiction writers. In my last blog post (September 9), we looked at the four story questions writers must be able to answer. Today we discuss the second rule:


 ü  At least one key character has to undergo a transformation.

 Often referred to as the character arc, this concept has been underscored by notables such as Joseph Campbell, Christopher Vogler, and Syd Field. If plot is the external story, then the character’s arc is the internal version of events.

 The arc can be as intimate as a widow coming to terms with her loss, or as monumental as an everyman summoning his courage to save the universe. One of Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Eight Tips on Writing a Great Short Story’ is: “Every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.” The character we meet at Once upon a time is (or becomes) driven by this want. He’s shaped and formed, or reformed, by the conflict he endures, usually with the help of the supporting characters, but ultimately he must face the final challenge alone. Who he is by happily ever after depends on how he’s changed through the course of the story, and what has occurred to cause those changes. Whether she’s a factory worker who takes up a cause (Silkwood, Norma Rae), a dutiful son who reluctantly shoulders a crime family (The Godfather), or a hardened cynic who sacrifices love for a nobler cause (Casablanca), watching the characters transform before our eyes, on screen or throughout the pages of a book, transforms us as well.

 That change almost always occurs in the protagonist, but there are exceptions – if a 
narrator is telling your story about someone, or if the protagonist is steadfast, but inspires change in another character. We’ve come to learn (with regret) that Harper Lee’s novels are examples of the former, while High Noon is an example of the latter. Stories featuring animal protagonists, like Marley and Me, can be examples of both exceptions.

 If you outline or use another form of story organization, you should plan the character arcs before you begin writing. If not, a technique I’ve found very helpful is to complete my novel or story and then read through it several times, searching for individual components of the manuscript with each pass. One read-through is dedicated to character arc, first for my protagonist, and then for each key character. I look for a pattern, for inconsistencies, for triggers and reactions – for ways to smooth the transition into something natural and realistic. I also identify the characters who shouldn’t change and check to insure they stay the same throughout the pages.

 In the final part of this series, we’ll exit the movie theater and examine a screenwriting concept adapted from live theater – the three-act structure.