Playwriting & screenwriting books every fiction writer should read

Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun

When I discuss fiction with other writers, I’ll often turn the conversation to playwriting and screenwriting. (My writing friends are kind of sick of the topic.) I talk about these other genres because I believe there’s much for a fiction writer to mine from them.

Plays and film are different narrative forms than a novel or a short story, and so not all their nuances translates well. However, like comics and graphic novels, I believe the similarities outweigh the differences. What’s more, the practitioners of these other narrative arts have approached them with different assumptions and focuses than fiction writers. Different perspectives on the same art is a great way to learn more.

What I respect about plays and film are their emphases on structure. Structure is woefully under-emphasized in creative writing programs. Far too many MFA students are exiting programs without a working definition of crucial fiction elements like plot and character under their belts. Thankfully I was exposed to excellent playwrights in my education who exposed me to a world where narrative structure is not treated as a necessary evil but rather the primary focus.

From stage plays I explored books on screenwriting for largely the same reason: to better understand narrative structure. I cannot be overemphasized: scripts, both stage and film, are not defined by characters or setting or genre or dialogue. Scripts are structure. What I’ve learned is, the same applies to fiction, from short stories to novels.

What follows are various texts I’ve read over the years that have influenced my thinking.

Playwriting

Aristotle’s Poetics: Not the dry, dusty book you might think. Aristotle was a fan of stagecraft and his Poetics are an ancient fanboy’s attempts to understand why plays make us laugh and cry and why some plays “work” while others “fail.” If nothing else, read the Poetics for Aristotle’s definitions of plot, character, and spectacle. You will walk away with a workable definition of plot and character and comprehend why Aristotle thinks story should be plot-driven, not character-driven—and it will drive your MFA friends nuts.

The Playwrights Guidebook (Stuart Spencer): Spencer lays out the same elements as Aristotle but in terms more practical and less theoretical. Too often craft writers think “how-to-write” books are restrictive or push formulas with the ultimate intention of producing a blockbuster. Spencer’s more thoughtful approach breaks those expectations. If there’s one lesson to take away from Spencer, it is understanding the backbone of all playwriting, the beat as the fundamental unit of drama (action, conflict, and event).

Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (John Patrick Shanley): A play in two acts featuring a pair of characters who are alternately in each other’s arms and at each other’s throats. Shanley’s humanist play is a model of economy and character-building. Fiction writers should look to Danny for its effective dialogue, the use of ambiguity, and creating characters through the steady accretion of detail—the naturalism of two highly protective people revealing their soft underbellies to one other.

A Raisin in the Sun (Lorraine Hansberry) and Fences (August Wilson): It’s difficult for me to pick one over the other, so I list both. In some ways, each play is constructed in a by-the-book manner: each act made of scenes, each scene made of beats, and all beats and all scenes propelling their stories forward. You can put your finger on a random page of either of these plays and discover all the elements of Great American Playwriting in action. This is why I’ve written on both plays before (here, here, and here).

Film & Television

Adventures in the Screen Trade (William Goldman): Although much of this breezy book regards the insanity that is the movie business, Goldman spends valuable pages discussing the creative decisions he made penning screenplays for such classics as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men as well as lesser-known films like Harper and A Bridge Too Far. Most instructive is Goldman including a short story of his own and the script he developed based on it. Goldman is an accomplished novelist (he wrote The Princess Bride!) and his insights into screenwriting often “sound” like they’re coming from a fiction writer. Plus, let’s face it—reading the inside scoop behind these great 1970s films is a treat for any movie aficionado.

Screenplay and/or The Screenwriter’s Handbook (Syd Field): The former is “the Bible of screenwriting” and the second is the New Testament. Yes, both books focus heavily on script specifics, but Field’s discussion of narrative structure made me re-think how the novel is constructed, so much that I’m working on a series about it.

Unlike plays, I can’t recommend hunkering down and reading any particular movie script. That may sound strange since I’m recommending books on writing them. Film scripts are so concerned with camera work, it often hampers getting to the meat of the script fiction writers should be concerned with—dialogue, conflict, scene structure, and so on.

Often it’s instructive to read plays adapted into movies, especially if the films are loyal to the source text. A good example of this is Glengarry Glen Ross, which features easily the best case ever assembled for the play (trust me, I’ve seen a few productions).

Otherwise, consider watching a film as a writer instead of an audience member. Keep the remote handy so you can go back and re-watch key scenes and study their dialogue and construction. Go even further and watch a film scene with your computer open so you can transcribe their dialogue. That may sound nutty, but you will really come to appreciate the use of language in film—and your own dialogue will improve for it.

For scripts more dialogue-heavy and less involved with the camera, look for television scripts, in particular those set before a live audience. They tend to focus on characters with well-defined motivations and generating conflict, much like plays, while writing to a different audience than theatergoers. (An old theater saying that applies to any great performance: “When someone walks on stage, it better be trouble.” Take that saying to heart in your fiction as well.) Unlike plays, television scripts are usually harder to locate. A used bookstore with a well-stocked Film & Television section may be your friend here.

Fawlty Towers: John Cleese’s and Connie Booth’s sitcom regularly tops British polls as funniest show ever, and for good reason. While the comic acting is one-of-a-kind, the show’s writing is also superb. The first episode and “The Hotel Inspector” are heavy on wordplay and farce, with each character well-defined in their role.

Aside

If you’re going to break the rules, break all of them, not only the “cool” ones

L'Avant-GardeEvery so often I meet a writer who proudly proclaims he or she is anti-Aristotelian—maybe not in such formal terms, but that’s what they’re saying. “Stories don’t require a beginning, middle, and end,” they announce, or “I don’t write plot-driven fiction. My characters don’t do anything. They exist on the page.”

Then, at the next writers’ group meeting, they bring in a short story that meanders and goes nowhere. Six or eight intelligent people squirm in their chairs trying to find something positive to say about a story that bored them into a coma.

Once I knew a guy who only smoked unfiltered cigarettes, a pack a day. “If you’re going to smoke,” he told me, “smoke for God’s sake.”

If you’re going to break the rules when writing fiction, break all of them, not only the “cool” ones. Don’t use fiction to signal your artistry. Be an artist. Write these stories:

  • Employ a deus ex machina. Trap your characters in an unwinnable situation and then have an all-powerful entity arrive and deliver them to safety.
  • Write a plot-driven story. Make your characters complete cardboard.
  • Tell a story using only summary and exposition.
  • Don’t give your characters an internal subjective logic, that is, they can’t even defend their actions or beliefs to themselves. Doing something to be cruel or for immediate gratification has an internal logic; your characters should do things randomly and wantonly.
  • Write a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Lop off the beginning and end. Or, lop off the beginning and middle.
  • Resist in medias res. Don’t start your story in the middle of things. Start it hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands years in the past. Or, start it hundreds of years in the future and never return to the main events, i.e. no flashbacks or time travel.

Write these stories, then write them again. And then write them again. After a year of breaking the rules, you’ll know if you’re an avant-garde writer or not.

At least you’ll have a better idea of what avant-garde really means in the realm of fiction, and not its surface interpretation so popular in our times. And, you’ll learn that the rules of fiction are not rules as much as hard-earned lessons of what succeeds and what fails when telling a story.

Writing better fiction with Syd Field’s three-act screenplay structure

Syd Field

Syd Field

If you’re a writer, consider if this sounds familiar:

An idea snaps into your head—a character, a situation, a setup, a name—and you dive in, pumping out a promising first chapter in no time at all. You clean it up and bring it in to a workshop or writing group. You get some input and take away some praise and criticism. Back at home you move on to the second chapter, and the third, and then…kaput. You’re out of gas. You make a couple of aborted attempts to keep at it, but it’s just not in you.

Months later you pick up the manuscript, tinker with it, and slide it back in the drawer. And that’s the end of your novel.

The frustration goes beyond hard work being “wasted.” (I don’t think any writing is a waste, it’s merely practice for the next round of writing.) No, the frustration is the hollow feeling that, with just a little more inspiration or skill, you could’ve pushed on and completed that novel. The frustration is the suspicion that, with just a little more planning, you would have a clear path forward.

I’ve not outlined or plotted every story I’ve written. I’ve completed a few stories without any serious planning at all that I would say I’m proud of. I might even say they’re “successful.” But I also know how many failed and false starts I’ve accumulated, a frustrating pile of corpses that simply didn’t pan out. I started thinking about how to outline a story and realized I didn’t have a definite idea of how to do it. I had a couple of notions, but nothing concrete.

Some time ago, when I was first coming to grips with how to write fiction—especially longer forms—I grew interested in the three-act structure screenwriters use. It’s a form Hollywood follows slavishly. Books on screenplay writing are almost entirely devoted to the structure, going deep into the mechanics and timing (that is, the page count) of each act. They detail what questions must be posed in each act and when those question should be answered, even breaking down each act into smaller subunits. It’s much more rigorous than anything I’ve seen in the world of fiction or poetry (which has an encyclopedia’s worth of its own forms).

My experience has been that fiction writers disdain the three-act screenplay structure. Actually, most disdain any manner of plotting or outlining, usually while murmuring something about “plot-driven fiction.” For them, the three-act structure isn’t a revelation, it’s the reason for all the pandering crap Hollywood churns out year after year. Others seem to have the attitude that outlining a novel is somehow “cheating.”

I’ve taken a fair number of playwriting classes and workshops. In them I was struck how theater, just like filmmaking, emphasizes structure over any other craft element. We found structure laced through plays as diverse as A Raisin in the Sun, Glengarry Glen Ross, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Noises Off, Cloud 9, and Fences—brilliant work, all of it, and nothing I would call “pandering crap.” But it’s right there on the page: structure, structure, and more structure.

The Headlight Method

Between all the fiction classes, workshops, writing groups, and how-to books I’ve read, it’s rare to find anything approaching screenwriting’s or theater’s level of emphasis on narrative structure. When I have, it’s usually a method for writing thrillers or “guaranteed” bestsellers, something to the effect of putting the character into deeper and deeper holes and forcing him or her to make harder and harder choices. Oh, and be sure to end each chapter with a cliffhanger. In the case of romance novels, structure is defined in terms of the types of motivations and the types of problems the characters will face. Others argue that most (or all) proper stories follow the Hero’s Journey, although I find that dubious, especially looking back on the literature of the last one hundred years. These are not the kinds of narrative structures I’m talking about.

Freytag's PyramidThe only vanilla structure I’ve seen consistently taught in fiction is the classic rising and falling action cliff ledge (also known as Freytag’s Pyramid). There’s tons of criticism of the pyramid out there. For my purposes, I ask if rising/falling action is an organizing principle or an observation. There’s a difference between a cake recipe and a photo of a finished cake sliced in half. In my mind, the cliff ledge is that photo.

Inevitably when discussing fiction and structure or outlining, E. L. Doctorow’s maxim makes an entrance:

Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you make the whole trip that way.

Like opening a story with weather, this quote has become another scrap of writing lore, that body of accepted thought on the shall’s and shall-not’s of writing fiction. But reread that quote. Doctorow isn’t advocating structureless fiction or railing against the idea of outlining a story. All he’s saying is, you’re not going to know every little detail about a book before you start writing it. Even if you can only see as far as the headlight beams, there’s nothing wrong with having a map handy before you set out on your trip.

Last year I got serious about understanding how screenwriters craft a three-act movie script. In the process of researching the topic I molded the three-act screenplay structure into a form geared for fiction (novels and short stories) rather than movies. This process produces a rough guide for your story, disposable, and nothing more. I’ve applied it on a number of projects and found myself surprised at the results. And, yes, my writing has improved for it.

Syd Field

There’s countless guides, how-to’s, manuals, videos, and seminars on successful screenwriting. Syd Field’s Screenplay is, as I understand it, the Bible on the subject. First published in 1979, Field articulated his three-act structure (he calls it “the paradigm”) as a framework for telling a visual story via a series of scenes. Like literary theorists from Aristotle onward, Field recognized that most stories are built from roughly similar narrative architectures, no matter their subject or setting. In Screenplay he set out to diagram that architecture and explain how it applied to film.

Although Screenplay is the Genesis document, I recommend his Screenwriter’s Workbook (1984). It picks up where Screenplay left off, detailing discoveries and new thinking on his three-act structure. Syd Field made a lifetime career out of teaching people how to write movies; these two books are where he started.

Not everything Field discusses directly corresponds to fiction. Film is a different medium, after all. What I’ve tried to do is pare down and re-shape his three-act structure into something more appropriate for writing novels and, to a lesser degree, short stories. I’ve used this modified paradigm to write a four-page story (“The Last Man in San Francisco”), to revise a long novel that I thought was dead and lost (Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People), and now a new novel (tentatively titled Bridge Daughter).

Let me be clear: this is not a robotic recipe for writing fiction. Syd Field did not lay out a formula for writing blockbuster movies, nor am I laying out a formula for fiction, bestselling or otherwise. This isn’t telling you how to write, it’s suggesting a creative process to engage with before you write. Basketball players take practice shots before a game; artists rough out ideas in their sketchpad before approaching the canvas; musicians practice their set before going into the recording studio. What I’m suggesting is for you to get some basic ideas about your story out of your head and on paper before you start writing.

Part two: “The paradigm”