Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Plotting Your Story Using Screenwriting Tools: Soth versus Schechter

Publishers will want to wrangle every last penny of revenue from anyone’s first novel. One of their best sources is the movie that can be made from a novelist’s first publication. The major reason is that movies drive incremental book sales for the author, years after the book has backlisted.

With that as their reasoning, for decades, book publishers now tend to read every potential book with their eyes imaging it in a movie theatre. The inevitable result is that novelists have started studying screenwriting to ensure they can fulfill the publisher’s unstated demand: Could a movie be made from this manuscript?

Since the most important way to develop character is through dialogue and stage direction of the character (what they do when they feel something), screenplay writing skills have become increasingly important. Teachers like Eric Witchey use tools like E-D-A-C-E (Emotion leads to Decision leads to Action leads to Conflict needs to another Emotion), and A-B-C (agenda leads to backstory leads to conflict) where dialogue and behavior driver character development.

My literary agent returned from meetings with NY publishers with a third and fairly new requirement for fiction manuscripts, based on what they feel is commercial: Eliminate all set-up and backstory (except what can be medicine-dropped into the dialogue of the characters), and have the story be solid action with no breaks. This is what you see when you’re at the movies.

There are two superb teachers of screenplay writing, Chris Soth and Jeffrey Alan Schechter. Soth (www.milliondollarscreenwriting.com) has a PDF eBook called Million Dollar Screenwriting: Make Money with the Mini-Movie Method, available from his website for less than $50. Schechter wrote a PDF eBook called Totally Write Guide to Bulletproof Screenplay Structure Guide, which he made available from his website, but it was later turned into a software product called Contour, available from Mariner Software (http://www.marinersoftware.com/products/contour/) for less than $50. Each one has a system that is far advanced past the old three act structure that Chris Voglar (The Writer’s Journey) suggests for story development. The objective is to produce two-minute scenes, ideal for a movie.

I reviewed Schechter’s system and started using it several years ago as a result of a conversation with Dennis Phinney of ActFourWriters.com. Linda Rohrbough (a former ActFourWriters.com member) suggested Soth’s system and I examined it last year. While there were similarities, I found the mini-movie system offered a simpler design to my plot. But, it wasn’t complete. When I cross-indexed the two systems, I finally had a product I could use, complete with a way to justify the times when I would have to break the rules. I developed a Microsoft Excel workbook that you can use, complete with the cross-index embedded within, called BLANK Outline and Grading Sheet.xls.

I use the tool to craft the early stages of my story. The instructions are simple. Enter your chapter and page number and the Description of the scene into columns A, B and F, and ensure they correspond to the aspect of your novel’s theme related to the scene in column G. Do this for all 44 plot points, all 8 mini-reels. Each scene should be about two minutes of real-time action in a movie, since the 44 plot points would then become an 88 minute movie. The other way to see it is that all 8 mini-reels would become a 96 minute movie. Examine the spreadsheet and do the math. It works. In effect, your time line becomes what a movie of your story would require in terms of minutes.

When you are finished, write the manuscript. When it has gone through all of the critiques necessary to complete its improvement cycle, review it against the Excel workbook and make corrections to the workbook so they correspond in all aspects (page number for each chapter, and all plot point descriptions. Send the workbook out with the manuscript to your test readers, and ask them to enter letter grades (column H) and comments (column I), enter evaluations (letter grades and comments) for every principal character (rows 66 through 7), and grades and comments for every aspect of the manuscript (rows 92 through 167). When you receive the returned workbook, review their comments and make your final changes.

If you are working on plotting a novel and want to use the BLANK Outline and Grading Sheet.xls, you can download it from my web site (http://dskane.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/BLANK-Outline-and-Grading-Sheet.xls).




  1. Would you be considering exchanging hyperlinks?

  2. Possibly. Describe what you want.

  3. The link to your Outline and Grading Sheet is broken.