What I Learned About Plot and Story Structure From Screenwriting / Paul H.B. Shin

Writer’s block can be one of the most common problems that writers of all skill levels run in to. The question, then, is what to do when it happens. Sometimes, when we get to a point where we can’t continue to write anymore naturally, it can be a sign that the story may need some reformatting. This weeks’ guest blogger, Paul Shin, discusses his experience with cutting your losses and structuring your book efficiently.

Happy reading!
Clay Stafford
Clay Stafford
Founder Killer Nashville
Publisher / Editorial Director Killer Nashville Magazine

You know the adage, “Don’t try to reinvent the wheel”?

This can also apply to how to structure a novel. Not always, but often, especially if you’re not a literary genius who can break all the rules and still deliver a satisfying ride.

Sometimes what feels like writer’s block is your story telling you that it isn’t working on its current path. When this happened to me on a previous novel, I cut my losses and made a fresh start.

For the story that would become my novel Half Life, I wanted to give myself a road map — an outline — because I knew it would take me a while to finish the book. Aristotle’s insight that a story has a beginning, middle and an end didn’t quite get me to a usable road map.

But just before I started writing Half Life, I happened to take a class on screenwriting — mainly to see how other forms of storytelling deal with structure. In that class, I learned how to break down that three-act structure, so I could apply it in a practical way.

Three Acts, Eight Sequences

Here are the building blocks of a three-act play. You don’t have to cram your story into this if it doesn’t fit. But if it does, you’ll be tapping into a form that has stood the test of time and can be deeply satisfying for the reader, even if they’ve never heard of the three-act structure.

In addition to using Half Life as an example, I’ll refer to a movie many people may know — Unforgiven, the Clint Eastwood Western — so there’s a common point of reference.

Act 1

Sequence 1: Introduce the protagonist and define what he or she wants.

In Half Life, the protagonist is Han Chol-Soo, a North Korean diplomat based in the U.S. He considers himself a patriot, and he wants to use his knowledge as a nuclear scientist to protect his beleaguered country.

In Unforgiven, the protagonist is down-on-his-luck former gunslinger William Munny. He wants to live a quiet life on a farm and provide for his kids.

Sequence 2: The inciting incidentthe event that propels the story into motion.

In Half Life, Han’s wife runs away with their newborn son. Han must find her before his superiors find out or else risk dire punishment.

In Unforgiven, a cowboy cuts up a saloon hooker. Her friends pool their money for a bounty to kill the cowboy and his friend. In Unforgiven, sequences 1 and 2 are flipped. Changing sequence order happens quite often in storytelling. It’s one of the ways you can adjust the story’s pacing.

Act 2

Sequence 3: Protagonist’s first attempt to remedy the situation.

In Half Life, Han recruits his colleague, a man he suspects is an intelligence operative, to help track down his wife.

In Unforgiven, Munny decides to collect on the bounty and recruits his friend, Ned Logan.

Sequence 4: The second attempt to remedy the situation.

From here on out I won’t refer to Half Life since I don’t want to spoil the ride for those who haven’t read it, other than to say that Han’s friend cuts a swath of mayhem in the name of helping Han.

In Unforgiven, a gunslinger called English Bob tries to collect on the bounty but instead gets a brutal beating by the town’s sheriff, Little Bill. The same happens to Munny when he arrives in town.

Sequence 5: The third attempt to remedy the situation.

Munny’s posse kills one of the two cowboys.

Sequence 6: Fourth and final attempt to remedy the situation. At the end of Act 2, the protagonist either succeeds or fails in the original goal.

In Unforgiven, Munny and the Scofield Kid kill the second cowboy, thus ostensibly succeeding in their mission.

Act 3

Sequence 7: False resolution, a.k.a. the climax.

In Unforgiven, Munny learns that Little Bill has tortured and killed Ned. He goes into town and kills Little Bill and his deputies.

Sequence 8: Denouement. This puts the entire story into perspective.

            In Unforgiven, it’s a very brief text sequence explaining what happened to Munny afterward.

So, that’s the basic structure I used to create the outline for Half Life. I’m glad that I did, because I took me more than 10 years to research and write the novel, and if it hadn’t been for the outline, I would probably have lost my way.

In literature, plot is sometimes looked down upon as banal. But only a bad plot is banal. A good plot is driven by the desires and imperatives of the characters.

Plot is the trunk on which you hang all the other stuff — all the pretty words, all the insightful observations, all the intricately crafted sentences that are but one punctuation mark or preposition away from collapsing under its own weight.

Paul H.B. Shin’s debut novel Half Life was published in September 2016 and follows a career as an award-winning journalist for more than 20 years, most recently for ABC News. He was previously a reporter and editor for the New York Daily News. He was born in South Korea and lived in London during his childhood. He now lives in Brooklyn, New York. To learn more about Half Life, please visit the website at www.paulhbshin.com

(To be a part of the Killer Nashville Guest Blog, send a query to contact@killernashville.com. We’d love to hear from you.)

Thanks to Tom Wood, Arthur Jackson, and publisher/editorial director Clay Stafford for their assistance in putting together this week’s blog.

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