As a Hollywood script-developer, Michael Hauge is on par with Robert McKee and John Truby. Hauge has worked as a story consultant, author and lecturer. He works with writers and filmmakers on their screenplays, novels, movies and television projects. He has coached writers, producers, stars and directors on projects for Will Smith, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez, Kirsten Dunst, Charlize Theron and Morgan Freeman, as well as for every major studio and network.
Back when I was preparing to make the transition from corporate yoga teacher to full-time writer, Michael Hauge’s Writing Screenplays That Sell was the very first ‘how to’ book that I picked up. Imagine my delight when, barely two years later, I was given the opportunity to work closely with the man himself! Thanks to support from Inscription and the SA Film Corporation, I was able to immerse myself in Hauge’s methodology in three different ways: a one day workshop; a four day intensive; and then approximately eight hours of mentoring (via phone and email).
I must confess to a dollop of cynicism when I first encountered Hauge. I had been around the block a few times with my current screenplay and had analysed it from the U.K. Script Factory angle, then the Stephen Cleary angle, as well as responding to input from my producers and other readers – so I sat back a little wearily to observe yet another developer’s approach and to learn the accompanying lingo. However, Hauge’s patent respect for writers, his humble style, and the clarity of his method, soon won me over.
Hauge is unashamedly ‘Hollywood’. That’s his specialty. That is the story world he knows and loves. Hauge defines Hollywood stories as being distinct in this way:
The hero pursues a clear, visible goal (outer journey) and faces visible obstacles…
Hauge is also the first to admit that successful Hollywood movies are simple – until you try to write one – and that they are built on only three basic components: character, desire and conflict. A Hollywood plot structure is about determining the sequence of events (and seemingly insurmountable obstacles) that lead the main character towards their objective.
Such stories, too, have one of four clear objectives:
1. To win…for example, the ‘big game’ or the love of another character.
2. To stop…something bad from happening.
3. To retrieve…a treasure or abductee.
4. To escape…to get out of a threatening or negative situation.
Screenwriters, therefore, must master the art of constructing the plot/story clearly around the visible goal. That’s all. It’s simple.
Simple but not easy!
Hauge has a clear formula with which to analyse stories. And before you baulk at the notion of formula writing, rest assured that this is not what Hauge means. Formula should be there to stimulate creativity not stifle it.
Creative flow is like water – without structure it dissipates and evaporates; with solid structure the flow can be directed, gathered, deepened. You may not want to start with such a formal structure, but at some point, somewhere in the process, it is useful to check your story against the formula to ensure that the Acts are appropriately apportioned and each action is in the correct place.
Hauge describes a story as having six distinct stages:
2. New Situation
5. Final Push
Each stage is allocated a particular percentage of overall story-time. Novelists don’t have to adhere to these percentages but still need to address the six basic stages. Commercial screen-writers, however, mess with the allocations at their peril. As audience members we can feel where each stage of the story should end and the next one begin. It is the pattern of our Western story-telling. It’s in our bones.
Stage 1 0-10%
SET-UP: This is when we get to know and choose to side with the protagonist. We need to believe that this is who the hero has been for some time, and we must feel empathy for them. Establishing empathy is done by employing at least two of the following methods: create sympathy (they’ve suffered an undeserved misfortune), put them in jeopardy, make them likeable, funny or powerful.
Stage 2 10-25%
NEW SITUATION: Along comes an opportunity (what other story analysts call the ‘inciting incident’). The hero is thrust into a new world. This is often literally a change in geographical setting. It is during this time that the protagonist is acclimating to the new situation.
Stage 3 25-50%
PROGRESS: Following a ‘change of plan’ turning point (more about them shortly) at the end of Stage 2, progress is made towards the goal. Things are seemingly going okay until…
Stage 4 50-75%
COMPLICATIONS: What the protagonist has been doing turns out to be inadequate as the complications increase and the stakes get higher. These build to the end of Stage 4, until a major setback is suffered and all appears to be lost.
Stage 5 75-90 or 99%
FINAL PUSH: The hero comes to their senses and realises that they still want to achieve the goal. (This can take a while!) The hero ‘pulls out all stops’ – at which point they win or lose the goal.
Stage 6 99 – 100%
AFTERMATH: Following the hero’s loss or success, we glimpse the aftermath. We see the life that will be lived after the climax. It is here that the hero’s existence is visibly transformed.
Do you recognize it? Can you feel it? Conscious or not, we have profoundly ingrained expectations of mainstream stories. There is great comfort and familiarity in the structure, in having our expectations satisfied, in seeing problems solved, and in witnessing the transformation of our hero.
Conversely, we experience disappointment, frustration and confusion when these expectations are not met. If nothing has happened at the 10% mark, we start to get edgy. We wait for the opportunity. We look for it. So if you have a 100 page script, open it to page 10. What’s there? A reader will be looking for that Stage 2 NEW SITUATION, whether they call it that or not, and it’s in your interests to make sure it is within close ‘cooee’ of page 10.
Pivot points and Story Concept
There are other layers to the Hauge formula. In any good story, there are points around which the protagonist’s journey pivots. Even though these turning points are usually marked by external influences or events, each one provides an opportunity for the protagonist to make decisions, respond, react, to show what progress (or otherwise) they have made on their journey of transformation. There are five turning points that fit neatly within the previously described six stages:
#1 is the OPPORTUNITY/INCITING INCIDENT that really kicks off the protagonist’s journey. (10% mark)
#2 the CHANGE OF PLANS forces the protagonist to re-evaluate their expectations of their new situation. (25% mark)
#3 is the POINT OF NO RETURN and demands a commitment by the protagonist. There is no going back. (50% mark)
#4 is when the protagonist suffers a MAJOR SETBACK. All appears to be lost. Nothing they did seemed to work as the stakes rose and the obstacles increased. (75% mark)
#5 is the CLIMAX. Everything has been building to this point. This is crunch time. The protagonist wins or fails to win their goal. (90 – 99% mark)
If your story trundles along happily in this framework, it should be possible to fill in the blanks of Hauge’s story concept template:
When hero, a role who empathy/set-up is opportunity, s/he decides to new situation/preliminary goal. But when change of plans s/he now must outer motivation/primary goal by hero’s plan as well as second goal [if there is one – it’s not a necessity, except in most Romantic Comedies] in spite of the fact that outer conflict.
I know it looks easy enough, but I was rather alarmed that by Draft 3, my screenplay was overloaded with goals and changes and motivations…and the outer conflict was still not clear! Now that is obviously a failing on my part as a first-timer, but in my one-on-one sessions with Hauge it became clear that mine was not a unique problem. Simplifying is not easy.
As a writer I was flush with ideas and variations on the story, yet I had failed to address the fundamentals of story structure. Letting go of my ideas proved to be a microcosmic hero’s journey and required a far greater sense of detachment than any spiritual philosophy or ham-string stretch that I had toyed with in my yoga-teaching days.
Hauge’s approach was reminiscent of Shane McNeil’s (writer/director Smoking Gun Productions) nifty little summary:
“Once upon a time there was a protagonist who lived in normality. One day when the protagonist was doing something normal, there was a departure from normality or strange event – the disturbance – which made the protagonist decide to devise a way to cope with the disturbance-induced crisis – the plan.
But suddenly, without warning, a surprise happened which created an obstacle hindering the protagonist for the rest of the story. The protagonist tried many, many ways to overcome the obstacle and encountered many hindrances, complications, subplots and even more surprises and obstacles until he/she finally arrived at the climax, resolving the problem triggered initially by the disturbance. The end.”
The elements of story are so familiar and so much a part of our culture that it would be easy to dismiss them as simplistic. However, it is these very elements that give our story a strong and viable structure – one to carry it all the way to the box office!
I recently asked a five year old about the Disney/Pixar release Wall-E. Without hesitation she said: “It’s about a robot who lived on Earth after the humans had gone, and then he discovered another robot…” promptly filling in all the blanks of Hauge’s story concept template.
Inner/Outer and Identity/Essence
So with all this going on in the outer journey, how do we address the inner journey? According to Hauge, the inner journey is as formulaic as the outer journey. And don’t despair – if your stories are very character-driven, the inner journey can help construct the outer journey. You can approach the outer via the inner by asking:
- What do you want to bring out in the protagonist?
- What circumstances would do that?
- What would be the toughest obstacles for the character?
The answers will guide you to establish the setting, the opportunity, the complications and so on.
Clearly, it is important to know your characters well. Although not every nuance and aspect of back-story is necessarily apparent in the final draft, Hauge stresses the importance of knowing:
- What is your hero’s wound (their unhealed source of continuing pain)?
- What is the character’s self-limiting belief?
- What is their fear (that stems from the belief, that grew out of the wound)?
- What is your hero’s longing, what is the deeply held desire to which they are only paying lip-service or are too frightened to express?
Hauge has a unique – and I think, elegant – take on the inner journey that employs the notions of ‘identity’ and ‘essence’. Anyone with a penchant for psychological or even spiritual growth will find that these notions resonate.
IDENTITY is the role that the protagonist adopts in life. It is donned as a form of armour, a protection against the vagaries of life, and is essentially the cicatrix that has grown over their deep life-wound.
ESSENCE is the protagonist’s potential. It is who your character is when stripped of their protective armour. It is who they are when they have finally overcome their inner battles, their resistance to their true calling, their destined relationship…etc.
The Character Arc therefore becomes the movement of the protagonist from living fully in their identity to fully in their essence. Returning to the Six Stages, we see that there is room for this inner journey:
1. Set-up: the protagonist is fully in their identity
2. New Situation: the protagonist glimpses their essence
3. Progress: the protagonist vacillates between identity and essence
4. Complications: the protagonist is fully in their essence but reverts to identity once more
5. Final Push: the protagonist is fully in their essence
6. Aftermath: the protagonist’s existence is transformed.
The inner conflict is a tug-of-war between identity and essence. The characteristic of a tragedy is when that arc is not fulfilled. And, of course, it’s terrifying. The role/identity is where we feel safest – though emotionally dead. Finding and remaining in our essence is scary and challenging. A lot like life, really…and a lot like a writer’s journey!
The force that prevents us (and our characters) from moving easily from identity to essence is what Steven Pressfield calls “Resistance”. In his kick-in-the-pants book The War of Art, Pressfield describes the characteristics of Resistance thus:
“Resistance can not be seen, touched, heard or smelled. But it can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating from a work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work.”
True for our personal lives maybe, but our task as script-writers is to make Resistance visible. These are the obstacles, both inner and outer, that give our protagonist’s journey its dramatic edge. Overcoming Resistance (read also as fear, self-sabotage, procrastination, ill-health, addictions, the odds) leads us/our characters to the essence of being, to fulfill our/their potential.
The notion of identity versus essence is particularly clear in love stories. The romance character has the ability to see beneath the hero’s identity and to connect with their essence. The tug-of-war then provides real emotional hurdles that must be overcome before the love story can be resolved. Think Dorothy in Jerry Maguire: “I love him for the man he wants to be…and almost is.” She loves his essence. Happily, the romance character is the hero’s reward for moving from identity to essence.
Taking it apart…Putting it back together again.
Having carefully noted Hauge’s methodology, I prepared myself for some intensive mentoring on my current screenplay. I tried to have all the answers ready – and there were many more questions than I’ve detailed here. Poor fool me! Hauge’s first piece of advice was to look at all the elements of the story: each character, every setting, the theme…AND SET THEM ASIDE.
Then, work out what is sacrosanct. Is there a character or single aspect of the story (maybe genre) that you are most attached to?
For me, it was the protagonist.
Choose one more element. I chose the setting.
The process then truly begins. From that metaphorical basket of ideas, pull out only the ideas that connect the dots in the story.
Sounds easy. Seems straight forward. It wasn’t.
For a start, I couldn’t grasp the concept of the blank slate. Set aside everything? EVERYTHING? Then, I pulled things out too quickly. I rushed to slot them back in their original places – effectively solving nothing.
And it got worse.
Stephen Cleary (of Arista) says: “Writers are like Border Collies…don’t let them off the leash ’til they’ve done their short documents.” My inner Border Collie was straining at the leash for the three months of mentorship that I had with Hauge.
Hauge’s method is to encourage the writer to use an ‘outline’ based on the Stage 1 – 6 formula. The beauty of this method means that the writer is not writing draft after draft, that problems are being solved before there is a deep personal investment in the ‘new’ draft, and that inconsistencies and weak spots in the story are clearly visible in the 3 – 5 page outline. The agony, of course, is that the writer is required to resist writing a new draft until the outline is satisfactory. And so, I wrote outline after outline.
One of the striking things about working with Hauge was his lack of ego. He seemed to feel no urge to dominate the process. Not once did he say: “You should do this…”. He gently and persistently asked questions, questions and more questions: Is x necessary? How does this enhance the story? What would it look like without x? Why does this happen? What if it happened sooner, later, not at all?… and so on.
Each session with Hauge was thorough, personal, intense and direct. I caught whiffs of Jungian analysis and an innate understanding of what Process Psychologists call ‘the field’. He was intensely observant. He took everything seriously – me and my work. He set achievable tasks and remained familiar with my work so that very little time was spent re-hashing what came before.
So…what was the result?
I took my screenplay apart and carefully put it back together again. When my producers left for filming in Iran my ex-alcoholic, flash-back suffering protagonist had a husband, two new step-daughters and gave birth at the end of the screenplay. By the time they returned three months later, the husband was dead, there was no pregnancy, the daughters were hers, everything happened for the first time and there were no indications of alcohol abuse!
At the end of the process I could confidently fill in the gaps in the story concept template, and answer Hauge’s 20 Key Story Questions and many others! After eighteen months of development, I also felt that he had somehow helped me to reclaim the story as my own.
The producers are happy. I’m happy. The story is stronger and simpler.
Interestingly, when my inner Border Collie was finally let off the leash, the actual re-write took just over five days. I used the outline as a guide. Every scene had its logical place (included or omitted), and the characters had space to move and express themselves. The dynamics between them grew clearer and more potent.
There is another bonus to this process. If, as a writer, you can see the bones of your story and really understand what makes it structurally sound, you can also learn to distinguish bones from other layers. If a director says to me: “I think it needs more back-story” then I might be able to take the flash-backs out of my metaphorical basket of ideas and offer them up as a solution. Need a stronger emphasis on fertility? Hey, she could be pregnant!
The necessity of repetition
When I taught yoga, I was constantly amazed at the necessity of repetition. I had a range of ten to twenty instructions for each pose that I taught. With only a little variation or a change of emphasis, my regular students would have heard the same instructions hundreds of times. I thought they must get seriously bored but after twelve years of teaching I was also hard-pressed to come up with new ways of saying ‘extend up through the outer edges of your arms’.
Every so often, though, a little light would go on. A long-time student would say: “Wow! That instruction was amazing…extending up through the outer edges of my arms really worked!”
Maybe all of us need repetition to help us learn.
I was first introduced to the notion of the ‘Three Act Structure’ in Drama at high school. Yet here I am, decades on: “Wow! The three act structure really works!” The same applies to character arcs, inner and outer journeys, turning points, complications…Even though I’d heard much of it before from different sources – and I really thought I was listening – working with Hauge enabled a few more lights to go on, a few more pennies to drop.
The value of fresh eyes on old work should not be discounted, too, especially if those are experienced, eagle-eyes like Michael Hauge’s.
The final push
After multiple turning points and the many stages of the script-development process, there is still one final push – the pitch. A well-established writer might be lucky enough to get a ten to fifteen minute meeting with a film industry representative. The rest of us have to hope for a two to five minute pitching opportunity. This is often described as an ‘elevator pitch’, but is much more likely to be a ‘telephone pitch’.
Hauge says there are two main aspects to pitching: preparation and presentation.
Preparing to pitch involves reviewing the key elements of your story that are easy to reveal. Pick those that are most important (the hero/cause of empathy/opportunity/outer motivation/complications/antecedents for the story…)
Write them down, clearly and succinctly.
Research the people most likely to be interested.
Rehearse the pitch. Practise saying it.
One of the most comforting things that Hauge said is that nobody passes up a good story just because the writer was nervous! I intend to keep that in mind during my next big pitch.
Hauge also says that when the big opportunity to present your idea comes, be prepared for a few awkward moments. Awkward moment #1 will probably emerge as you try to establish a rapport. Try to create an emotional connection either by referring to a common experience/connection (ie you were referred by…) or acknowledge something that they have done.
Awkward moment #2 occurs as you find a way to reveal how you got interested in the idea behind your script, how it got you wondering ‘what if there was a person who…’. This is a good time to slip in a successful antecedent. If you’re really prepared, you may even find a way to end with your log-line.
If they are still listening, the next thing to do is to make your request. “So do you have any questions about my story?” or “Would you like me to send it to you?”
Let them respond. If they say ‘no’ – don’t push it, although you might feel confident enough to offer to pitch another story. If they say ‘yes’, wind it up quickly. If they ask questions, keep the answers brief.
Between the lines
I’ve heard some criticisms of formulae such as Hauge’s. There is the rather cynical idea that by following a formula, a writer is creating a story ‘painting by numbers’ and that that results in a soulless piece of work. My recent experience felt more like I was learning to colour between the lines…and those colours were most definitely my own.
The reality is that if you want to enter the commercial market, an understanding of structure is essential. I know there are film-makers who can bend and even break the rules, but I bet they spent years familiarizing themselves with the rules first.
If you can’t get to a Michael Hauge workshop or afford some one-on-one time with him, then at least pick up his publications. Writing Screenplays That Sell is a great place to start. For an in-depth analysis of the hero’s outer and inner journeys, Hauge teamed up with Christopher Vogler to create The Hero’s 2 Journeys – which is available as a three hour seminar on an audio CD. Refreshingly, Hauge also provides plenty of free material, too, via his e-newsletter and website: www.screenplaymastery.com
Hauge is a developer who respects both the artistic and commercial potential of stories – though he stresses that if your story concept lacks commercial potential you must have enough passion for the story to see the long process through. He asserts that as long as you find the process of writing and development fulfilling, you should go for it! If you have talent and stick around long enough you will be noticed.
Hauge’s first job in the film industry was as a reader for a major Hollywood literary agent. He reports that most scripts fail to be worthy because they have a lousy format and/or they have an overwhelmingly weak concept and failed this fundamental test:
Can you express your story concept in a single sentence?
It’s a story about a ______________ who wants to _____________.
Writing successful, commercial material is simple. But far from easy!