Thursday, July 23, 2009

Michael Hague's Screenwriting Tips

As I've mentioned so often, knowing something about screenplay writing is a great help in fiction writing. Michael Hauge is a screenplay writer in Hollywood and presented a full day workshop at a writers retreat I attended in Denver. Michael Hauge's Screenplay Mastery Newsletter is filled with great information for fiction writers so you might want to check it out by signing up. You can always unsubscribe if you don't find it helpful.
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One article in his newsletter deals with WRITING MISDEMEANORS and here is an example of another great article:


Whenever I lecture, I ask participants to share their story ideas, so I can answer their questions, provide examples and offer suggestions. And whenever I hear the reply, "Well, it's complicated..." I know that this writer's work is not going to sell.

Successful scripts and novels (meaning commercially successful, and likely to be bought by studios and publishers) are simple. They can easily be described in a single sentence, or at the most, two. Just look at any list of current movies or novels, and read the blurbs that accompany the titles. Almost without exception, those thumbnail descriptions of the plots tell you who we're rooting for, what they want, and what they're up against.

Here are some recent examples from the New York Times bestseller lists for trade fiction (all of these titles have been made into movies as well): "A girl sues her parents after learning they want her to donate a kidney to her sibling," (My Sister's Keeper); "A hacker and a journalist investigate the disappearance of a Swedish heiress," (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo); "An Afghan-American returns to Kabul to rescue the son of his childhood friend," (The Kite Runner).

Clearly, that last blurb doesn't begin to convey the breadth, or depth, or wonderfully deep emotional experience provided by The Kite Runner. But that's not what it's designed to do. The goal of a story concept is to reduce what might be a very involved plot down to the simplest possible statement of what we're going to read or see on the screen - to tell the potential buyer of the manuscript or screenplay or book or movie who they're going to root for, what that protagonist wants, and why that desire sounds impossible to achieve.

Stories are built on a foundation of character, desire and conflict. So if a description of your own story can’t simply, easily and succinctly convey those three elements, getting it read will become nearly impossible; getting it produced or published, even more so. Because buyers of screenplays and manuscripts must always consider how they will sell your story to the mass audience – to the millions of moviegoers, TV-watchers or book readers your story will need in order to turn a profit.

If you’re writing for Hollywood, or writing genre fiction (romance novels, mysteries, thrillers, westerns, sci-fi or fantasy), the desire your hero is pursuing must have a clearly defined finish line. Your hero must want to win the love of another character, win the big game, stop the serial killer or monster or demon, find the buried treasure, or save the world. So when you’re asked what your story is about, and you begin a complicated speech detailing backstory, inner conflict, multiple plot lines and epic scope, you clearly haven’t defined or streamlined your concept enough to make it commercial – or saleable.

Don’t confuse complicated with complexity. Lots of great movies and books have original, complex, layered characters, and plots that surprise and enthrall us with unexpected twists and turns. But these qualities must emerge from a story that is, at its core, simple and easy to envision.

LA Confidential is a wonderfully complex novel and film, with multiple heroes, a compelling mystery, a rich, conflicted love story, and a vividly drawn backdrop. But if you ask what it’s about, it’s very simple: three LA cops in the 1950s must risk their lives to solve a multiple homicide at a downtown cafĂ©, which forces them to confront widespread corruption in the police department. A second sentence could describe the love story and the conflict between two of the cops. But the basic story concept would remain simple, and much easier to sell.

So as you formulate any new idea for a novel or movie, before committing months or years of your life to writing and marketing it, try describing it in a single sentence. Create the blurb for the back cover or the TV listing. State, as simply as possible, who we’re rooting for, what goal she’s pursuing, how we will know when she’s achieved it, and what’s stopping her.

This simple sentence or two won’t capture all of your story’s richness, or its depth, or the theme, or the wonderful twists and turns and prose and dialogue you envision. But it will tell you if you’ve got a chance of getting it read – and sold.

-- approval to forward from Michael Hauge

Hauge points out an important issue. If you can't define your plot in simple terms you could get run over by the complex plot and miss the main point of the novel. It is easy to let a plot runaway with a story that seems to be buckshot, splattering in many directions and never hitting anything with a big impact. You want to write novels or screenplays that make an impact on readers or viewers. Keep this important tip in mind when developing a plot.

Don't forget to subscribe to Michael Hauge's Screenplay Mastery Newsletter at:


Teri D. Smith said...

Gail, This is so timely since I'm preparing my pitch for the ACFW conference.

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Hi Teri - Glad this will help you. Michael Hauge teachs a great class on writing a short synopsis.


popularculture - Totally PC said...

This is such a great tool! Brilliant!

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Thanks. I'm glad you found it helpful. I know I did. Even after 44 fiction contracts, I learn something new all the time and try to hone my craft. That's the only way we survive as writers.