STORY STRUCTURE: Novel Structure vs. Screenplay Structure

The term ‘Story Structure’ simply refers to the sequence of events in a story. A writer’s or filmmaker’s goal has to be to create an emotional experience for the reader or the audience. That rule applies whether you’re a romance writer, a a screenwriter, a director or a documentarian.

Certain structural patterns have proven to be effective and consistently present in successful stories, certainly since the beginning of the twentieth century, and some all the way back to Aristotle. My own 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, but what I have found is all our 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.

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. Though usually, the percentages aren’t far off, they 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.

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 copy of a novel. 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.