What Screenwriters Can Learn from Romance Writers
Through snow, and hail, and wind, and rain, I travel the globe.
It’s all part of my mission: the bringing of da Cat!
And I love it!
Last week my peregrinations took me to Austin, Texas and Charleston, South Carolina and apart from an unexpected layover in Atlanta (thanks a pantload, Delta!), my trip was like so many of my adventures: an opportunity for me to learn as much as teach.
I was in Austin on behalf of Final Draft (that I will have more to say about shortly). In addition to attending a fascinating educational conference, I got to speak to Stuart Kelban’s screenwriting class at University of Texas. A fantastic group of writers! A great get-together.
By Friday, I was in Charleston, which I’d never visited before. Though I was unable to take more than a cursory look around, what a gorgeous city!
And by Saturday morning it was just me and 10 women locked in a country-club banquet room.
Am I a lucky guy or what?
These 10 ladies represented the very successful members of the Lowcountry Romance Writers of America (LRWA), the local chapter, and one of hundreds of the national organization, the Romance Writers of America (RWA). As we went around the room Saturday morning, as I do every workshop, introducing ourselves and listing our accomplishments, these were writers with multiple books in print, and all in demand by agents and publishers.
As the weekend proceeded, it was clear why they are so successful and what screenwriters can learn from their method.
For one, these are writers who embrace story structure as part of their writing routine. To sell to the many categories that fall under the heading “Romance Novel” (and be impressed because 50% of all paperbacks sold in the U.S. fall into this category) — from suspense thrillers to erotica to series writing with a pre-established format — writers wanting to succeed embrace the challenge of structure. And though each genre is a little different, RWA writers know the ins and outs of every one. Most of the writers I met discovered Save the Cat! as part of their discipline, and like screenwriters, find the BS2 to be a great help.
Nina Bruhns, who organized the event, is pure delight! An award-winning writer in both series and single title novels, she told me another secret of success for romance writers is networking. The national RWA approves and oversees all of its local chapters and their activities.
And what a positive, proactive organization they are.
Under the RWA aegis, writers meet on a regular basis to pitch and share their stories, but also share resources. My agent may not handle a particular novel I’m working on, but she may be able to help you is their attitude. And I saw examples like this throughout the weekend.
In my experience coming up the ranks as a screenwriter, this kind of networking was unheard of. I was the anomaly in my crowd, forever the guy who would call you up on the day your movie premiered to offer real, heartfelt congratulations — often a gesture met with more suspicion than gratitude. But I really think it’s the kind of reaching out that is vital — and these writers prove how effective networking can be.
The other thing I realized as we worked through our stories was how good these writers were at problem solving. It is due in large part to their study of structure — studios take note! By Sunday afternoon, we had 10 great pitches, complete, well told and target-marketed stories that were each vastly different in style and tone, but hit their marks perfectly!
The proactive spirit that pervaded our weekend was eye-opening to me; it is something I hope we can emulate in our Cat! screenwriting groups — and one of many lessons screenwriters can learn from this very well-organized and results-oriented organization.
I will be speaking to the RWA convention in San Francisco this summer and look forward to meeting up with these writers again. I had a ball in Charleston!
And I learned a lot too!
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When you talk at the conference in San Francisco, can I crash your speech? I don’t want pay $500 for the whole conference.
- Mike Rinaldi
I think writers are unique, especially in Hollywood, in that the cooperative spirit is often as pervasive as the competitive one. It’s nice to see this among novelists as well.
Let me tell you, folks, Blake is an amazing teacher AND person! What a privilege it was for me to work with him in Charleston. His joy in the process was so evident…and so infectious. I wish him all the success in the world–he deserves it.
- cj lyons
Hi Blake! He’s being much too modest folks–I’m one of the Charleston Cats and a lot of what was accomplished was due to Blake’s leadership and his ability to cut to the heart of a story, get us all focused in the right direction.
Of course it didn’t hurt that the stories being pitched were fantastic to start with–a few of them I could “see” unfold as the writers pitched them. Wow, what a great group to be a part of!
Even though I write primarily suspense/thrillers, I’ll forever be grateful to RWA for taking me in–every writer could learn a lot from these hard-working professionals who truly believe writers don’t compete with each other because readers out there are starving for good stories and can’t get enough!
Thanks Blake for traveling to Charleston and sharing da Cat with us!!!
See you in San Fran,
I was glad to read in your post the nugget of truth about competition being, erm, unnecessary, due to the volume of stories consumed by the public on a daily basis. I mean, that seems to me a void un-fillable, yes? I do re-read novels often, and I do re-view movies often, but I’m always hungry for more!!! One thing I love about Blake’s classes is he teaches you to be less precious about your stories – to offer them up for dissection and critique in the hopes that the additional perspectives will only serve to enhance the experience – not expose your gold to the story pirates slavering over your hard work.
- cj lyons
If you believe in your voice, there’s no need to fear competition.
- Nina Bruhns
Thanks, Blake, for all your lovely words about the Charleston Cats! We were absolutely delighted to have you all to ourselves for the weekend. :D Thanks for all you shared about STC and movies and story structure. I know we all learned tons (I sure did!), and our stories are all so much better from being viewed through your STC and screenwriter’s filter. It’s amazing how differently novelists and screenwriters think about Story, and yet…how similarly. Just goes to prove what you said, a great story is a great story, regardless of medium.
I also want to thank you heartily for the serious plug you gave RWA and romance writers in general. We’ve always been the brunt of jokes and condescension among “serious” writers and it’s refreshing for someone of your stature to recognize that we actually know what we’re doing, and that a huge percentage of the reading (and viewing!) public love and support our work in all its infinite forms (actually 52% of all new paperbacks are romance). It is a real pet peeve of mine that Hollywood never thinks to consult the true experts when trying to put together a movie that appeals to a female audience, or even a good date movie. We’ve got the corner on that, baby. And like you said, we’re willing to share. ;D Next time one of you is considering killing off the hero at the end of the movie (a thing I know you would never do, Blake), you should call us and save yourself millions. Seriously.
Anyway, thanks again! Fabulous weekend, and I’m looking forward to getting together in SF in July! (and Christina, you could do worse than spend that $500…I guarantee you’ll learn lots about writing — yeah, even screenwriting).
- Nancy Holder
Seeing the esteemed Nina B here, must hello from another proud romance writer. I’m writing at the moment for Silhouette Nocturne.
I emailed Blake asking about how to structure the pacing of the beats in something other than a feature screenplay and he immediately replied via his iPhone while he was in Austin. I followed his advice and just turned in a 40-page outline to my YA horror editor using the principles of STC and she loved it. I had a blast putting it together. I intend to use STC in my writing classes and I’m buying the software for myself. Thanks, Blake.
- Nancy Holder
Didn’t see the other familiar romance names here…shoutout! Romance writers never stop trying to learn. I took a fantastic class from CJ Lyons.
- cj lyons
Thanks, Nancy!!! I love teaching, wish I had more time for it–but Nina did recruit me to teach at the LRWA Master Class Week….hmmm, teaching on the beach, sounds like heaven to me!
We’re trying to talk Blake into joining us, too!
Nina, lol, I was kidding! If I decide to attend – and I may, since I live in SF – of course I’d pay.
- Stephanie Bond
I drove from Atanta to take Blake’s workshop in Charleston and consider it a learning highlight of my writing career. I look forward to writing a screenplay later this year, but in the meantime, applying the beat sheet to the novels I’m contracted to write. Blake is a warm, intelligent, generous, enthusiastic instructor. I’m looking forward to hearing him speak again at the RWA conference in San Francisco. If you’re a working writer and his workshops come within traveling distance of where you live, do yourself a favor and sign up!
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Blake, this sounds like such an amazing opportunity to learn – I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at these sessions. To hear people who already really understand structure apply that knowledge to the litmus of STC to see if they’ve got the right “reaction” – wow. I bet there were some real gems being tossed about like baby potatoes, ready to be grown into true Idaho Russet Burbanks. [thank you, Wikipedia] (Russet Burbank, great name for a character, by the way.)