[Podcast] Novelist Jaimie Engle on Becoming a Romcom ScreenwriterJan 31, 2023
Burnt out from a subpar publishing experience and the COVID-19 pandemic, novelist Jaimie Engle decided it was time for a change in her writing career: from book writing to screenwriting.
Two months after completing a screenwriting course, Jaimie submitted her screenplay. And landed a contract with UP TV and the Great American Family Network! (Her debut screenplay airs Spring of 2023, and her correlated novel, Just Jake, publishes in late 2023.)
Book writing and screenwriting are similar, according to Jaimie. But, in order to become a (romcom) screenwriter (and land a contract with a major television channel), Jaimie learned two important lessons: how to structure a screenplay, and how to write a fresh story.
Even though Jaimie’s advice is geared toward screenwriters, novelists, memoirists, and even narrative nonfiction writers will find these tips useful as well!
Read on to learn more about plot structure and writing a unique story idea.
What Structure Do I Use?
Most writers are familiar with the three-act structure: breaking a book into its beginning, middle, and end with correlating plot points to each act. The three-act structure is a staple for book writing. But it’s ineffective for screenwriting.
Television screenplays require a different structure. The most commonly used structure is the nine-act structure. As its name suggests, the nine-act structure breaks a screenplay into nine acts. (Surprising, right?) The nine acts correlate to commercial breaks, so each act ends on a cliffhanger.
Cliffhangers are why we binge the latest Paramount or Netflix series. They keep the audience (viewer and reader alike) captivated. Say you end a scene with your couple together and happy, and then a commercial break hits. Your audience will consider this a partial resolution and won’t be conflicted if they turn off the TV.
You want your audience to watch your movie from beginning to end. You want them to bemoan the commercials because they’re eager to see the climax and resolution of your screenplay. So, you must always end with a cliffhanger. Instead, end with the couple in a dispute—even a minor one can create some tension that keeps your audience glued to the narrative.
The same is true for books. The most effective cliffhangers occur at the end of each chapter. It’s a moment in your scene when your reader can’t stop reading. They have to continue onto the next chapter because they need to know what happens next.
A Breakdown of the Nine-Act Structure
Becoming a romcom screenwriter requires a firm understanding of the nine-act structure. Here’s the breakdown, according to Jamie.
Act One is your longest section. It’s about 18-20 pages long and introduces your main character/s, your main character’s goal, and an introduction to the major conflict. If we compare this to the three-act structure of a book, Act One includes both your hook and the inciting incident.
Act Two lasts 12 pages. This act compels the main character to accept the call to action and begin their journey to accomplishing their goal. In bookish terms, this is referred to as Plot Point One. It’s a major point in the three-act structure in which your character’s life is altered.
Act Three is 10-12 pages. Throughout this act, your main character endures a multitude of conflict, but also finds the necessary encouragement to face their problem/antagonist. Because this act takes you to the 40-minute mark, you must end on a cliffhanger. This cliffhanger should threaten your main character’s goal. (This also correlates to the end of Act One in the three-act book structure.)
Act Four lasts 8-10 pages. It propels the story to the midpoint. The stakes are high. And concludes with a major plot twist. Comparing this to the three-act book structure, this point occurs halfway through Act Two, and concludes with the Midpoint Plot Point.
Act Five is another 8-10 pages. Your main character is starting to lose hope. They’re still trying to accomplish their goal, but they’re struggling. (This also correlates to the end of Act Two in the three-act book structure.)
Act Six lasts another 8-10 pages. It builds the conflict and escalates the problem. This act concludes with your main character making a decision that has terrible consequences and worsens their situation. If we compare this to the three-act structure, this scene ends with Plot Point Two. Most of the conflict leading up to Plot Point Two is disastrous, but your main character is still focused on achieving their goal.
Act Seven is 8-10 pages, and concludes with your main character giving up. This is the moment when you want your audience to empathize with your main character; you want your audience to root for your character. This act ends with the audience asking, Will the main character really give up on their dream, or will they keep fighting?
Act Eight is 8 pages long. Your main character learns new information that reinvigorates their quest to accomplish their goal. This act ends with the climax. (In the three-act book structure, the climax is the big clash between your main character and their antagonist.)
Act Nine—the final act—is also 8 pages. In this act, your main character achieves their goal. Everyone is happy. The audience celebrates. This is the resolution; all loose ends must be tied up so that your audience leaves the movie feeling satisfied.
As you’ll notice, the nine-act structure keeps the plot moving forward. And presents challenges to your characters so that they’re forced to develop by the end of the story.
Freshen Up Your Idea
To freshen up your story idea, pay attention to your thematic message. As a book requires thematic nuance to engage readers, a screenplay also requires a strong overarching theme, specifically one the audience connects with.
In her screenplay, Just Jake, Jaimie’s main theme concerns fulfillment in life. Her main character, Jake, is a country superstar. But when he reconnects with his high school sweetheart, a music teacher to underprivileged kids, he realizes he experiences greater joy doing the same. It’s a theme most people can relate to—fame and fortune can only get you so far, but a good heart and personal relationships will bring you true happiness. And while a rockstar love story isn’t a unique idea, Jaimie’s thematic message creates a fresh twist for her story.
When you tie a social issue into your story (books and movies alike!), you give your story more meaning. There’s an injustice you’re correcting, or an internal conflict you’re addressing. Think about the book/movie discussions you’ve engaged in. More often than not, you’re discussing a thematic point in the story (character morality, political relevance, cultural analysis, etc.). Audiences want a story with a deeper meaning, something they can reflect on, learn from, and be challenged by.
For Jaimie, she wants her audience to feel challenged to be a better person. For others, you might want to challenge your audience’s thinking on an issue. To leave your audience with a strong emotional reaction, your story needs a relatable, thematic message.
Whether you’re becoming a (romcom) screenwriter or an author, you have to invest in your writing. Think of it as a business. You might need to take courses to improve your writing, or join a writing community for weekly motivation. Set goals, and hold yourself accountable to achieving those goals. And most importantly, never give up. You could end up like Jaimie and land a screenplay contract within two months of your first screenwriting class!
Interested in Jaimie’s novel, Just Jake? Check out Jaimie's Goodreads account for more information on the publication date and more!