Guest Post: Nancy West

Welcome back Nancy West, who asks what screenwriting can teach novelists.

Telling Stories: Screenwriters’ Secrets

I don’t have the foggiest notion how to write a screenplay. But I noticed that many screenwriters become successful novelists.

What can writers of movie scripts possibly teach us? They have two hours of screen time which gives them barely enough minutes to devise a meaningful plot, much less tantalizing characters and lyrical prose. Exactly. Every screen shot has to have purpose, meaning and move the story forward. And novelists write stories.

When Christopher Vogler heard Joseph Campbell speak about his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, he realized Campbell was articulating life principles embedded in all memorable stories and myths.

The Writer’s Journey became the design tool for all storytellers: playwrights, screenwriters and novelists. Vogler consults on hundreds of screenplays while they’re in the developmental stage. His book has been called “the screenwriters’ Bible.”

Alexandra Sokoloff wrote Stealing Hollywood, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors. She worked as a screenwriter for ten years, sold original scripts and wrote novel adaptations for major Hollywood studios before writing novels. Her stories have won Thriller and Bram Stoker awards and an Anthony nomination. In Stealing Hollywood, she builds on her experience and the knowledge of other scriptwriting gurus, including Christopher Vogler. She uses a three-act, eight-sequence structure geared for novelists and refers to familiar films to illustrate her points. Her index card method helps writers devise a visual chart of their storyline as they create the novel. She teaches writing workshops and college courses to film students on story structure. High school and college teachers use her book as a writing text and a textbook for film and story analysis.

Jill Chamberlain, screenwriting instructor and screenplay consultant, points to the central unifying system at work behind great screenplays in The Nutshell Technique: Crack the Secret of Successful Screenwriting. She says getting from a good idea to a story that works requires using eight elements and, most importantly, understanding the interdependence between these elements. Like the other authors, she refers to Aristotle’s basic three-act structure and uses familiar movies to illustrate her points. Writers can use the Nutshell Technique to “get straight to the guts of their story and make sure it works before they even start a screenplay or treatment [or novel.]”

With these short descriptions, it’s impossible to do justice to how valuable these books are for novelists. Each book builds on the others, but a writer who reads and absorbs any of them will be rewarded with new understanding of how to tell a story. It’s nice to know what we’re trying to do before we begin.

          Have you used these or other screenwriting books to help you write stories? What did you learn?


Nancy G. West was a business major who discovered that writing mysteries is more fun than accounting. She wrote the biography of an artist,  a poem featured on NPR, and a suspense novel. Her Aggie Mundeen Mysteries have each won or been nominated for an award.

Aggie faces her most recent and greatest challenge in The Plunge, a short novel of suspense. She and  SAPD Detective Sam go to a lakeside cottage for a  relaxing weekend, only to be caught up in crime and an epic flood that washes away clues and threatens their survival. The Plunge, the first Aggie Mundeen Lake Mystery, is a spin-off from the first series and propels Aggie in a new direction.  

The Plunge is at Wildside Press

Visit Nancy on her website

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To learn what Aggie Mundeen thinks about Nancy’s steps and missteps, read Aggie Blogs:       


22 thoughts on “Guest Post: Nancy West”

  1. Wonderful post, Nancy.

    The Hero”s Journey has been the Holy grail of my writing for so long that it’s automatic now. I also use a form of. Save the Cat beat sheets and an index card system that let me go from scattered pantser to happily structured pantser.

    Looking forward to catching up with Aggie in her new venue!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Hi, Keenan. Thanks for having me back on Mysteristas. Yes, using Save the Cat, I have to go back and see where to add deeper characterization and description, maybe another plot line or point of view, since I tend to “write short.” Congratulations on having your book nominated for an Agatha Award!

        Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Kait. I like Save the Cat, too. I’ve learned something from each one of those books. That’s what makes writing so much fun, right? We can never learn enough about it.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank, you Liz. I love being back on Mysteristas. In a class Alexandra taught, she said the producer would give her a summary like “A man goes West to find a new direction for his life.” She’d have to come back the next day with a complete story line. Yikes. I wouldn’t be sleeping that night.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Welcome, Nancy! I’m familiar with Chris Vogler and Blake Snyder materials but haven’t looked at the other ones. In fact, last night when I was watching Agatha Christie and The Truth of Murder on Netflix last night, I was counting off the hero journey steps before I fell asleep. Kind of like counting sheep. (It was late.) The Blake Snyder model is especially good for thrillers, I noticed.

    I have noticed that former screenwriters move the story along efficiently. Thanks for the suggestions! I’ll add those books to my library.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The question I can’t help but ask is, do those formulae kill innovation? Wonder what response I’d get it I sent a four act novel to an agent? And I think that darn cat has been saved too many times. He needs to get out that tree by himself… 🙂


    1. Hi Becky, I like Save the Cat, too. From each book, I’ve gotten something that made enough sense for it to stick in my brain. Usually, when I’m starting a new book, I’ll read highlighted parts from those books again to get back in the mindset.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes! I’m trying to stretch myself as a writer. That was my goal for The Plunge – more action, adventure, suspense for the new lake mysteries. I’m also working on a stand-a-lone with totally new characters, an invigorating challenge.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi, Tom. I understand your concern about formulae killing innovation. I really think what these screenwriters offer is a framework for the high points of your story and the types of situations your characters can face. Like the basic plans for building a house, you add your own deviations–memory, experience, style and your own distinctive characters, setting and dilemmas. The house becomes yours, and the framework recedes into the background.


  5. Yes, I’ve studied those methods, and they’re wonderfully helpful! They’re great kick starters and also inspiring. Another wonderful approach is (was?) the online course Discovering Story Magic. Being more of a pantser, I often get derailed if I develop too much detail before I write, but these methods are especially helpful for me once the first draft is done and I see what needs to be done in the revision.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi, Sue. I didn’t know about Discovering Story Magic. I wonder if it’s still available. For me, the first draft is the hardest. If I can put it away long enough before I come back to it, I see all sorts of things that need fixing.


  7. Hi Nancy and welcome! So great to see you here.

    I confess that I don’t know any of these books, save for The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which I studied in college, and Save the Cat, which others have mentioned. I’m fascinated with cross-discipline approaches to writing. I have a good friend who’s a playwright, and I’ve learned so much from her, especially about pacing. I’m definitely adding some of your great suggestions to my library.

    Congrats on The Plunge! So excited to see where Aggie goes next.


  8. Kathleen, it’s great to hear from you! I missed Thousand Faces in college, so Chris Vogler’s book was a real eye opener for me. Yes, their approaches are quite similar, but each one has a little different way of saying it that grabs you. I envy you your playwright friend. Are there some she mentioned that you particularly enjoyed?

    Yes, I’m excited about Aggie’s new direction. She sees things differently after her experiences in The Plunge changed her.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So exciting about Aggie, Nancy! I love seeing where characters go after a transformative experience.

      My playwright friend has penned some great plays, but my favorites are Couple Dating and Who Shot Jennifer Lopez. She writes comedy and has an incredible knack for not only funny lines, but multifacted characters who make us laugh and cry. I’m learning a lot from her!


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