The Importance of Movie Structure in Novel Writing…
By P.J. Flie, author of the Legacy of Seven series
The Ah-ha Moment!
When I reflect upon my journey as a writer, it has had setbacks, triumphs, twists, and turns. But all of the time, it’s required hard work and perseverance. This past year I bought a complete fixer upper bungalow—the only way I could afford one—and discovered that everything I had experienced as a writer held true for renovations. More than that, I realized just how similar they are. Structural pillars and beams are to a house, as a good story outline is to a strong narrative. Without it, everything falls apart, and with it, it supports your creativity: all your design choices, big or small, only get a chance to shine within a strong framework.
Story structure has its place, though it’s not everything. My teachers always emphasized story outlines as an essential first step. Before we get to that, let’s start at the very beginning, as many stories tend to do. Inspiration hits! You immediately sit down with your phone, iPad, computer, or (for those of us old enough to remember) pen and paper—and start recording your thoughts, hoping to stay ahead of a racing mind in the throes of creation.
Step Number One?
Next: the structure of your story. That’s what any teacher that knew anything at all about writing had taught me. Write a story outline that is your road map from the first moment to the last image, formulate character arcs that are attached to the major plot points, and when addressing movie structure; write out a ‘beat sheet’ that spells out all moments, step-by-step, that string your story together into one continuous piece.
There is a reason for this, and it makes good sense. Like the blueprint of a home, you have to design it before construction. It’s how to build strong and stable structures that make sense for human use. You wouldn’t plan to have only one bathroom, and then place it on the third floor, at the very top of a narrow set of steep stairs—the worst thing possible for your knees!
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Who would build a home in such a manner? Certainly not I! That is, however, what many writers tend to do when they completely ignore structure. Once you write that story and love everything about it, just one piece doesn’t work; it will ruin the rest. I mean, the bathroom is already on the third floor. What is the sense of tearing it all down? The only other place it could possibly fit is in the kitchen, and that’s just gross! This is when a design, a plan, makes perfect sense. It saves you from hours of hard work only to discover that your story doesn’t work at all.
Structure Isn’t Everything
Although… sometimes you just have to get to work and see where the story takes you. When I had renovated my first home, there was a lot I didn’t know that I learned along the way. I made a number of mistakes, but learning is a process, a journey that doesn’t necessarily go in a straight line. One of the mistakes I made: white oak floors with a deep chocolate stain. They looked amazing! After two months, the scratches and chips caused by normal wear and tear were visible from miles away. A good satellite photo of my living room would prompt the response, Ow, that’s not good. We’ll call this the first draft.
I learned from that experience and corrected those design flaws in my next home. This is the second draft, and also brings me to the most important thing that any teacher ever told me: ‘writing is not writing, writing is rewriting.’
I completely understand, at this point, if you are confused. Is he telling me to renovate a home? Or write a story? Sweat equity is always recommended, and when applied to writing, it’s invaluable.
The Real Step Number One
Here’s my idea for your first step so that you never stifle your creativity. Just write. Let the story flow and let the characters take you where they want to go. The process should surprise you. Let it be exciting, a journey of discovery. Allow yourself to maximize your creativity. After all, relying on structure to make a great story, brings the danger that it becomes paint by numbers—the last thing that any good writer wants. And when it’s done, accept that it’s only the start. This is where you get to behave like an ultra-rich person. You’ve finished the renovation and you hate it. Start again! Double the cost? So what! Money is no object. I’m not actually advocating for you to throw away your newly written story. But if you can give yourself the freedom to write whatever you want, then also give yourself the freedom to change everything. Nothing is too sacred. It can all be modified, as long as it’s to the benefit of your story.
Now you can apply whatever structure you prefer to use. I use screenplay structure and it works exceedingly well when applied to novel writing. Don’t believe me? Check out Blake Snyder’s story structure, Save the Cat. Here it is, applied to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, one of my personal favorite books. I don’t believe that Douglas Adams actually applied screenplay structure here. But, it does work. Why? Perhaps all good stories have this structure, whether they mean to or not. I actually learned a similar screenplay structure that also incorporated the hero’s journey. But that’s another story.
Putting it All Together
Focus on creativity first, the single most important ingredient to any compelling story. Then, look at structure. Examine your character arcs. Look for opportunities to improve or perfect the narrative. Let structure be the way you objectively investigate your story, pick it apart, and consider how the woven narrative strings together.
For anyone who uses editing services, this just makes sense. If your book isn’t the best it can be, but you decide to pass it off to an editor, get ready to pay for many more rounds of editing. Exactly like redoing costly home renovations, that is one way to go, but an expensive one. Structure can not only be a tremendous help in creating the best story possible, but also the most polished version. There are, of course, many stages to the writing and editing process. Just don’t let structure be the first step.
P.J. Flie is a science fiction and fantasy author whose first book, Legacy of Seven: A Guardian Rises was released in October 2021. The second book in this series, Darkness Falls, is set for release May 16th, 2023. Find out more at www.pjflie.com, https://www.instagram.com/p.j.flie/