A Novel Approach: The 5 Steps of Screenwriting Advice all Novelists should know

Novel Approach feature image

By Taylor Doyle

This is my writer’s origin story; how I went from burning through six story ideas in five months, to writing 85,000 words in just four. In this article, I share with you a variety of screen-writing resources from some well-known screenwriters, which have helped me immensely in my novel writing journey. From these resources, I will explore my learnings and key takeaways that have been translated into 5 clear steps.

I had always wanted to write a novel but had no idea where to start. After turning to the professionals, I discovered that novelists often have differing approaches to their craft. With the notions of character, plot and structure often discussed independently, I struggled to understand how they coexisted. I was getting nowhere.

After working in cinema for seven years, I realised that some of the best films I saw were based on books. Limited to a minute per page, screenwriters have to be efficient and effective in weaving narrative elements together.

Screenwriters may write screenplays, but they also adapt novels.

So, I decided to reverse-engineer this idea and take a cinematic approach to writing a novel. I learned screenwriting techniques to help explain the fundamentals of fiction, and to turn my vision into words.

Step 1: Establish a Connection

‘Make me care’ —Andrew Stanton

‘If we don’t . . . it’s going to be a very shallow story’ —Michael Hauge

My first step is to create an emotional connection from readers to continue, well, reading. The goal of every writer is to elicit emotion, says screenwriter Michael Hauge.

This piece of advice really tipped the scales of my understanding into what it meant to write a good story. Readers are audience members craving to be entertained, to feel something. To do so, screenwriters often begin with their protagonist. It’s all well and good to create great characters, but don’t forget your audience when you do.

Eric Edson says that before you start, you should write five pages about your protagonist. But these pages won’t make it into your book, they are for your eyes only.

I found this to be the best way to learn all there is to know about my characters, so that I may fully understand them. Move beyond their eye and hair colour; focus on their humanity, their memories, scars, their fallibility. But use these as reference only. Your character’s actions will impart more to the reader than pure exposition.

Ask yourself:

  • What are their quirks?
  • What makes them tick?
  • What makes them relatable?

Step 2: Make a Change

‘Add in a character who needs to change and does change by the end, and presto! You’ve got a story worth telling.’ —Jessica Brody

After reading Brody’s great insight into character, I realised that a protagonist must be able to evolve. Change is fundamental in story. To keep it pushing forward. Through active decisions and personal sacrifices, a protagonist can push far beyond their formative selves into their true self and what every reader waits to see by the end of their story.

For me, I wanted my hero to be a force for good, overthrow the baddies, save the day, that kind of thing… but her pride and impetuousness stood in her way. That is until fate conspires to shift her loyalties and an unexpected romance inspires her to transform.

Are you interested? Now you try.

Ask yourself:

  • Who would you like your protagonist to become?
  • What’s preventing them from changing?
  • What forces them to act?

Step 3: Promise Me

‘Convince your audience . . . its worth their time.’ —Eric Edson

‘The elements you provide, and the order you place them in, is crucial.’ —Andrew Stanton

Edson explores in great depth how to ensure originality and gripping story elements within your writing. My key takeaway after watching many of his workshops was that writers must hint at their character’s potential for change as early as possible, even just a glimpse. A good narrative should give you a promise. It’s all about trust. If the reader doesn’t trust you, they won’t follow you. Especially if they can see around the corners of the maze you think you have drawn up for them.

Predictability is a story-killer.

Ask yourself:

  • What seemingly impossible obstacles can you create?
  • Your hero must fail at times. What causes them to?
  • Are the antagonistic forces somewhat relatable in their actions?

Step 4: Pace Yourself

‘Don’t rush.’ —Eric Edson

‘Vary the emotional level as we move steadily towards the finish line.’ —Michael Hauge

You have an active protagonist and there are antagonistic forces in play. Now you need to identify your story’s key plot points. Use these key points as signposts through the story, but how you move from one to the next is entirely up to you:

The Inciting Incident: what kicks off the story?

Act 1 break: the call to adventure.

Midpoint: no turning back now!

Act 2 break: all is lost.

Climax: will they win?

But how do you weave character growth, plot development and pacing together?

Screenwriter Michael Hauge designed a Six-stage Plot Structure that achieves just this. As you look through his diagram you can see character arc in orange and story progression in blue.

The percentage markers act as a guide of when the key plot points should occur, leaving you to use your creative license to fill the space between them. It doesn’t matter what with, so long as they meet the next signpost at the right time. Keep in mind, your protagonist must remain active and decide for themselves how to move forward.

Ask yourself:

  • What are your key plot points?
  • How will your character develop through them?
  • Have you varied the emotional level of the story?

Step 5 . . . and Action!

‘Write badly with pride, because you’ll never know when the real ideas, the depth of what you are doing, will spark.’ —Eric Edson

A writer can feel much like their protagonist—facing what seems to be an impossible task, wondering if they will ever succeed.

Writing a novel isn’t easy, otherwise everyone would do it. But the tools and advice of these screenwriters have helped me understand the craft of storytelling, and I hope you find these screenwriters’ words of wisdom as enlightening as I did.

Now turn off your wi-fi, put away your phone, and write!

Photo by Taylor Doyle. Used with permission.

Further Reading and Resources:

Michael Hauge:

6 Stage Plot Structure

Why Story Structure Matters (and What Happens If It’s Not There)

Screenplay Structure In 6 Minutes

Screenwriting Plot Structure Masterclass

Jessica Brody

Save the Cat: Writes a Novel

Beat Sheet 1

Beat Sheet 2

Extended Book Summary

Andrew Stanton:

The Clues to a Great Story (Ted Talk)

Eric Edson:

The Story Solution

What A Screenwriter Should Know Before Writing A Screenplay

Taylor Doyle is a movie buff and story-lover obsessed with dumplings. She is currently studying a Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing and hoping to find an internship for the second half of the year. When she’s not working, she is usually playing with her puppies and trying to write her two novels. More of Taylor’s work can be found on our MZ blog here, her website or on Instagram @taylorwrites.

Cover image by Aaron Burden, via Unsplash. Used with permission.