3 Things Screenwriting Taught Me That I Applied to Fiction

1. Structure. Screenplays follow a rigorous three-act structure with a strong midpoint and an inciting incident somewhere in the first 10-15 pages. For fiction, I take this basic structure and emphasize the inciting incident and the midpoint. I think of them as smaller turning pointsalmost like adding “mini-acts” to the traditional beginning, middle, and end set-up of a screenplay. For me, this has been a great way to break up the plot into manageable chunks so I can orchestrate the pace of the story before I even start writing.


Guest column by Josephine Angelini, author of
the YA debut Starcrossed (May 31, 2011;
HarperTeen), the first in a trilogy.
See her website here.


2. Beats. Once I have an outline for the plot that follows this modified three-act structure I break it down even further into beats, just like a screenwriter. Beats are basically just an enumerated list of everything that happens moment to moment in the screenplay/book. They are the nit-picky “this happens, then this, then this” that I follow while I write, and unless I’m writing an action sequence, it usually works out to a be new beat every two to three pages. Doing this is crucial to the way I work because it keeps me focused on moving forward with the story rather than wandering off on a tangent. Every three pages the reader either learns something new about a character, something new happens in the plot, or if I’m really doing my job right, both.

3. Character. One of the first things I learned was to write detailed character bios before I even thought about tackling any other part of the play/screenplay. I can’t stress enough how much this has helped me in writing fiction. I don’t know about you, but a story could have tons of action and really great twists and turns, but if I don’t connect with the characters I don’t care what happens to them and I inevitably lose interest. Characters can be complex, flawed, even evil and I will still love them, but only if the author truly understands them and makes them understandable to me. Knowing my characters backwards and forwards before I get into the technical aspects of constructing the plot keeps me from making unreal choices for them and I think this keeps the plot “real” no matter how fantastical the subject matter is. Plus, I love doing it. It’s like getting to know a new person.

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2 thoughts on “3 Things Screenwriting Taught Me That I Applied to Fiction

  1. Alexis

    I took a Screenwriting class at my University last Spring and I found it extremely helpful for novel writing as well. All 3 of your points are exactly what I found helpful. I also found that writing dialogue was easier to do when in screenwriting mode than in novel writing mode. It might be a great exercise to first write a scene in a more bare bones way similar to screenwriting before adding in the descriptive bits.

  2. giora

    Thanks Josephine for the 3 tips, but maybe we need some flexibility with the beats. We can’t write all the beats in advance because some of them come to us as we write. The 3 videos in your website are worth watching and I laughed reading about your amazon sisters and you know how to run fast. Best wishes from Canada to your new book. Giora