In each fortnightly session you’ll learn to read like a writer, analysing extracts from key authors to get under the bonnet of the novelist’s storytelling and sharpen your technique. You’ll also read and respond to the work of your peers in every session, following our critiquing guidelines, to hone your judgement and editorial skills.
Session 1: What is a Story? – Discover the eight essential ingredients every successful story needs. We’ll look in detail at the first three building blocks: your protagonist, their desire and how to set up effective forces of antagonism from the outset of your story. Meet your fellow novelists and introduce the novel idea you’ll be working on to the group and tutor. For those starting the course without a set idea, we’ll do some practical ideas generation. At the end of the session, you’ll introduce us to your protagonist, and we’ll watch a TV drama with a prompt sheet, to spot great character set-up. Live group webchat with your tutor.
Session 2: The Bones of Your Story – Building on the essential building blocks, we’ll look in detail at the journey you’ll take your protagonist on, exploring your inciting incident and how to guide readers stage by stage through your story to its climax and resolution. You’ll share an outline synopsis with the group, and use John’s screenwriter template to express your story idea in a sentence, to test its skeleton. We’ll watch a canonical film together with a prompt sheet, to spot the elements of a perfect story in action.
Session 3: Laying Foundations – In this third session you’ll try out the screenwriter’s technique of ‘breaking a story’ into its constituent parts, questioning the different elements of your story using John’s formula to diagnose which need more attention. By the end of this session you should be able to deconstruct any story, spot common story holes, and know what to do to fix them. We’ll also look at novel openings, and think about how to best introduce your protagonist to your reader. You’ll share your opening pages with the group (up to 2,000 words) and receive tutor feedback as an MS mark-up. We’ll watch the opening of a film with a prompt sheet, to think about successful beginnings. Live group Q&A with a guest author.
Session 4: Thinking in Three Acts – Uncover the role of the act in storytelling, and what the Hollywood model of beginning, middle and end can offer novel-writers. Think about the turning points in your story, and how they help you order your thoughts and generate drama. How will you use this story DNA in your novel? You’ll share your story in three acts with the group. We’ll watch a short three-act film with a prompt sheet.
Session 5: The Secrets of Five Act Structure – Now you’ve cracked your beginning, middle and end, we’ll streamline your storytelling and help you exert more control over the middle of your narrative by dividing your story into five acts. A look at the importance of obstacles – internal and external – and how to create five acts by focusing on particular moments in your character’s journey which show them changing. Map out your story in five acts to share with the group. We’ll watch Jane Eyre and Inside Out with a prompt sheet, to pinpoint the five acts and show that this is essentially the same story. Live guest Q&A with a screenwriter.
Session 6: No Going Back – We’ll turn to the exact middle of different novels and look at what happens there. And find out why pinpointing your midpoint is such a valuable storytelling tool. Why this moment of no going back for your protagonist is so vital for audience-engagement, and how to use that to power through to the end of your story. Identify the midpoint of your story and share that passage with the group. We’ll watch One Day with a prompt sheet, to look at midpoint construction. One-to-one with your tutor to discuss your novel and progress so far.
Session 7: Building With Scenes – Introduces the basic building blocks of acts – scenes – and their properties. What every successful scene needs, and how to sequence them to progress a story, build tension and vary pace. Discover your secret narrative superpower: fractal storytelling. Map the scenes in your novel, and share a scene where something small changes. We’ll watch scenes from The West Wing and Fleabag with a prompt sheet. Live group webchat with your tutor.
Session 8: Writing for Your Reader – Why you need to turn your reader into a detective to keep them reading on – whatever genre you’re writing in – and how to do that using scenes, and John’s Roadmap of Change. Learn about the different types of cliffhangers from the best screenwriters out there, and how to create chapter endings that are surprising yet totally plausible. Think about your reader’s genre expectations and what you need to do to meet them. We’ll watch some classic cliffhangers with a prompt sheet, to analyse the different ‘cliff’ techniques.
Session 9: Show Not Tell – What you can learn from the screenwriter to help readers connect the dots and paint pictures in their own heads. Dramatising information, and how to write dialogue that drives a story forward. Try out the Kuleshov Effect and learn from Alfred Hitchcock on how to avoid unnecessary exposition by focusing on dramatic need. Work on a passage of dialogue to share with the group. We’ll watch a cop show with a prompt sheet, to look at clever ways of imparting information through dialogue. Live guest Q&A
Session 10: Editing and Rewriting – A session focused around John’s basic rules of narrative structure, with his top tips and checklists to work through when editing and rewriting. From ways to ‘get your hooks in early’ and defer gratification, to advice on maintaining reader empathy and working out the theme or ‘big idea’ of your story. You’ll revise a chapter to share with the group. We’ll watch a recent novel adaptation with a prompt sheet.
Session 11: Quiet Writing Time – This is a four-week session focused on private writing time as you prepare to submit the first 8–10,000 words of your novel and synopsis for tutor review. The forums are open for discussion and peer support and critiquing. We will host a live Writers’ Room group session at the midpoint of this month to help you work on common stumbling blocks: wants and needs, passive protagonists, setting up adequate forces of antagonism, showing character change in scenes.
- You can write as much of your novel as you would like during the course. But at the end of the course we invite you to submit (up to) the first 8–10,000 words of your novel (from the start, not selected excerpts) for tutor feedback.
- On finishing the course you’ll have everything you need, (synopsis, polished 8–10,000 words based on expert feedback and one-to-one guidance), to move onto the Finish a Draft: Advanced Skills course or Edit Your Novel course.