I had the privilege of interviewing Michael Hauge via Skype recently, and today I am thrilled to share this interview with you on the RWA blog. Michael will be visiting Australia in March when he presents his Advanced Story Mastery seminar, which is sure to be a valuable day for all writers wanting to give their stories the structure, emotion, and authenticity needed to be successful.
MICHAEL HAUGE is a story consultant, author and lecturer who works with screenwriters, novelists, filmmakers and executives. He has coached writers, producers, stars and directors on projects for Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon and Morgan Freeman, and is currently on retainer with Will Smith’s company, Overbrook Productions, where he was involved in the development of I AM LEGEND, HANCOCK and THE KARATE KID.
Michael is the best selling author of Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read, as well as the new 20th Anniversary Edition of his classic book Writing Screenplays That Sell. A number of Michael’s seminars, including The Hero’s 2 Journeys with Christopher Vogler, are available on DVD and CD at bookstores worldwide, and through his web site below. For information on his consultation services, products or lecture schedule, go to www.StoryMastery.com.
1. Welcome Michael! Can you tell us why your six stage plot structure is so important in creating a great story, and how does the process differ for novels and screenplays?
Structure is essential. All structure really means is ‘what’s the sequence of events?’. A writer’s goal has to be to create an emotional experience for the reader, and that applies whether you’re a romance writer, a general fiction writer, or a screenwriter.
Certain structural patterns have proven to be effective and consistently present in successful stories, certainly from the beginning of the twentieth century, and even further back than that, probably all the way to Aristotle. My six stage structure is just my way of approaching that. It’s a way that I figured out by looking at lots of movies and novels, and working out how to maximise the emotional experience. Other people have other structural approaches, and what I have found is all of the different approaches are fairly consistent. We don’t really contradict each other, we just have different ways of looking at it, and mine is developed in a way that I hope will be simple enough that it’s really easy to master, but still valuable enough that it gives new insights and people can really use it. It’s more than a three act structure, there’s a lot more to it than that, but it should still be simple and straightforward, and I have found in the reactions from people who’ve heard me lecture, or clients I’ve had, that it has proven really helpful to them.
Now the second part of your question, how does it apply to novel writing… the basic six stages I talk about are going to be present in any kind of story, so long as it’s a story where there’s a protagonist pursuing a clear goal with a clearly defined end point.
For instance, in a romance novel, the goal of the hero or heroine (I don’t really distinguish between those two terms), is to win the love of another character. So once you have that goal defined (because we know what that would look like at the end of the story), it’s like having a destination to your hero’s journey, and now you can break that down into the steps it takes to get there, and the key turning points that they have to encounter on that journey.
The key difference between novel structure and screenplay structure is that in a screenplay, the turning points always occur at exactly the same place, the same percentage of time into the story. What happens twenty-five percent of the way into Avatar is the same thing that’s going to happen twenty-five percent of the way into Rango. But those percentages are much more fluid when it comes to novel writing, so novelists need only learn the six stages and have the awareness that they can be a bit more flexible about where those turning points might occur. Although usually, they’re not far off. When I’m teaching a class and I talk about what the mid-point is, which I call ‘the point of no return’, I’ll often ask if anybody has a novel with them, and somebody always does, so I’ll turn to the very middle page and read it, and almost always we see that it’s directly related to what should happen at the mid-point of the story.
No, not that I can think of. The outcome or the product will be different, but the way you get there is the same. As my father-in-law who was a screenwriter for fifty years used to say, “The key to success is the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair”. You’re either sitting down writing, developing characters, a plot, dialogue, action, and description, or you’re not! I’ve never got a feeling when I’ve coached novelists that they approach it in any significantly different way than a screenwriter does. It’s just all about getting in there and doing it.
3. Can you name two or three main elements that every successful novel must have?
I can name three elements that every story must have. Stories to me are built on character, desire, and conflict. Every well told story has to have a protagonist, or a hero – someone that we’re emotionally connected to, that we empathise with – who is going to be our vehicle for experiencing the events and the emotion. That character has to want something desperately. And they have to face seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve it. I would challenge anybody to think of a successful novel, movie, play, or opera that lacks any one of those three things.
4. Would you say it is more or less difficult to sell a novel than to sell a screenplay?
Less difficult. And the reason is only because of numbers. In Hollywood, there might be around two hundred movies produced in any given year, compared to the large number of novels published. If you just look at romance novels, the numbers are quite great, because of the method in which a lot of romance fiction is sold, with series titles and the rotating stock…etc, so just the numbers game favours novelists compared to screenwriters.
5. As many screenplays are adapted from novels, how can a writer give their book the best chance of it being optioned for film?
The first thing is to make absolutely sure that the novel has a visible goal for the hero to achieve by the end. It can’t just be about the character’s inner journey. It can’t just be about the transformation of the character. An additional thing I’ve noticed about a key difference between Hollywood love stories or romantic comedies and romance novels, is in romance fiction, the idea of winning the love of the other character seems to consume the bulk of the novel, and the obstacles that stand in the character’s way are primarily inner conflicts. They’ve been burned in the past, they’re reeling from a bad relationship, the person who broke their heart before has come back into their life…etc. Now, I’m not talking about all genres of romantic fiction. If it’s a romantic suspense, then you’re going to have something a bit closer to a movie. In Hollywood love stories and romantic comedies, almost without exception, the protagonist is pursuing another goal, and then they meet the love interest, who is intertwined with that goal. So both goals retain their importance throughout the story.
Take a movie like Working Girl, which is a classic, formulaic romantic comedy. The primary story concept is all about Tess putting together that deal, and although the romance becomes the most important thing in the end, the screenplay never loses sight of what her original objective was, which is to put that deal together and get credit for it so she can be a broker. Whereas, I’ve read a number of romance novels where there might be a visible goal for the hero besides winning the love of the romance character, but that original goal diminishes as the story goes on. That sort of approach makes it much more difficult to have a novel adapted in Hollywood, because movies aren’t just about inner conflict or love affairs. The most successful love story on the screen financially would be Avatar, followed by Titanic, and in both of those movies the goal is clear apart from the love story and it dominates each story.
6. Can you give some examples of good movies that are helpful to analyse for writers of romantic or women’s fiction?
First of all, narrow the search in terms of the genre you’re writing, because in romance fiction there are all these different categories. When I first went to the RWA Nationals Awards Night, I was astonished, because I thought there were just ‘romance novels’ and I didn’t know there were all these different categories, like inspirational, urban, paranormal, and Regency. I didn’t even know what Regency was! So what you want to look for are antecedents, or models that are as close in terms of genre and style, not necessarily the plot itself, to what you write.
Romantic comedies have certain elements that can be very helpful in eliciting emotion even if you’re not writing a romantic comedy. One of the particular elements in Hollywood romantic comedies is the idea of deception. Almost all successful Hollywood romantic comedies, at least of recent vintage, involve somebody either keeping a big secret, or lying to somebody about something. For instance in Working Girl, she’s pretending to be a broker and she’s really a secretary, so if the truth comes out the repercussions will be huge. And that’s true in Tootsie, and in The Nutty Professor, and even in a movie like Sleepless in Seattle which is a more serious kind of approach with more dramatic elements, but Annie Reed is still keeping a secret from her fiancé, that she’s searching for this other guy she heard on the radio.
If you’re writing contemporary women’s fiction, you also want to look for Hollywood movies that have been successful with female heroes pursuing goals. For example, look at Sandra Bullock in The Proposal or The Blind Side, or Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich. You need to ask yourself what the key elements of your novel are and then search out successful movies that have that element, and look at how they created conflict and how they dealt with the plot issues that they were facing.
One of the key questions I always ask somebody when I’m working with them is, what are the antecedents for this story? In other words what can you point to and say, well that made money, so mine will make money. The reason I ask writers to think in those terms is because publishers and producers think that way. Publishers and producers may not have a great story sense, so when they don’t, or even if they do, what they want to do is replicate success. It’s not for nothing that The Hunger Games got published and was a big success on the heels of the Twilight series, which came along on the heels of Harry Potter. The other reason I ask what the antecedents are, is that in my coaching it allows us to look at movies or novels that the writer is familiar with, and I can say, look how they dealt with this situation, or, the thing this movie does that you’re not doing is___, whatever that might be. And then we can see if that example would offer a helpful change to make in my client’s novel or screenplay.
7. Movies show us the action as it unfolds, whereas novels have to conjure an image in the reader’s mind. How can writers get that vivid movie-like imagery in their stories so the reader feels they’re watching it as it happens?
This may be simplistic, but I think you answered your own question because you called it imagery. The number one thing is, think about what we would be seeing if this were a movie.
There isn’t as big a difference as you might think between movies and novels, because screenwriters are not writing for an audience, they’re writing for readers. It’s just that their readers are the people who can say ‘yes’ to the screenplay, and then somebody else makes it into a movie. So, a helpful tip for novelists is to actually read screenplays. Because a screenwriter has to be able to succinctly create images that show what’s going to be on the screen, and they have to do this within length constraints and without talking about the interior thoughts of a character. And if you read a good action passage in a novel, that’s going to do the same thing.
It’s one of the reasons by the way that a lot of novels have been adapted into bad movies, because the novel is very good at creating imagery in the mind of the reader, and the reader feels like she’s just seen a movie projected inside her head, so she assumes it would make a great movie, but that’s not always the case. That’s not all that goes into creating a great movie.
What you’re doing is looking for settings, objects, and visible character details (like clothing or body language) that are not only vivid but are going to be reflective of the psychological make-up of the character that occupies that setting, or wears those clothes.
In the romance fiction that I’ve read, this hasn’t been an issue. I’ve rarely read something that hasn’t allowed me to picture what’s going on, so maybe that’s encouraging! Don’t dwell on what the characters (or you) are feeling about what you’re writing, don’t get caught up in words to describe that. Think of what we would see if we were in that situation, and what would convey the feeling, or create the emotion that you want to create.
8. As writers we know how important conflict is in a story, but you also mention the benefits of having a reflection character; someone who helps the main character achieve their goal. Is this something every story should have, and why is it important?
A reflection character isn’t something every story should have, it’s just a tool you can use. In the same way that every story doesn’t need a love story, or a villain. But the first argument for using a reflection character is that often it will add credibility to a story. Remember, the obstacles the character faces have to seem insurmountable, but they have to figure out a way to overcome them anyway, and if they have help, then that can make your story more believable. Take a movie like The Karate Kid – if he didn’t have Mr. Miyagi (or Mr. Han in the more recent movie), then he’s never going to be able to stop that bully and win that tournament.
The second advantage to having a reflection character is that it gives the hero someone to talk to. Because at times, we want to know what the hero is planning, what they’re struggling with, and how they feel about things. There’s going to be a lot of stuff going on in a love story that the hero is not going to want to share with the person they’re attracted to, so with a reflection character they can have somebody else to talk things through with. It gives you a way to provide exposition or get inside the character without resorting to omniscient author narration.
The third reason is that a good reflection character must hold your hero’s feet to the fire. To point out when the protagonist is reverting to what I call, her identity – when she’s retreating into the safe existence that she was stuck in at the beginning of the story. Her emotional armour is preventing her from going after what will bring real fulfilment (such as the love of the romance character). You’ll see examples of this again and again in movies. My favourite reflection character is Donkey in Shrek. He’s repeatedly encouraging Shrek to peel back all those ‘layers’ and go after Princess Fiona.
In Good Will Hunting, the reflection character is Sean, the Robin Williams character. Why is he there? It’s primarily to keep encouraging Will Hunting to stop chickening out, to stop pretending he’s not who he is, and to stop retreating from his feelings for this woman, and getting him to finally find the courage to open up and let people see him for who he truly is.
The thing I want to point out is, you predicated the question by saying we all know there’s a need for conflict, but I talk about the value of a reflection character, as if the reflection provides the hero with some kind of trouble free support. But a good reflection character is a source of great conflict for the hero. Just because the reflection character is supporting the hero, does not mean they’re not in conflict because a good reflection character is going to keep pushing the hero towards fulfilling his destiny, and towards being authentic, rather than living inside the emotional armour that is protecting him at the start of the story. I can’t think of any good love story that doesn’t have an arc for the hero/heroine. And that arc is about finding the courage to move out of that protected state and moving into a state of really being yourself and standing up for who you truly are. It’s the reflection character who’s going to push the hero toward that, and the hero does not want that. We want our friends to be there for us but we don’t want them to try and change us. But if they’re really good friends, they’re going to be pointing out to us when we need to stop what we’re doing and do what’s going to ultimately bring us the greatest fulfilment or happiness.
So if your hero has a sidekick or best friend that she gets along with wonderfully throughout your novel, then that reflection isn’t doing her job.
9. You have seminars coming up in Sydney and Melbourne in March, can you tell us the benefits a novelist will get out of these events, and for those who have been to your previous seminars, will you be presenting any new information?
The number one thing, for novelists as well as screenwriters, is that you’ll be hearing my particular approach to story, and I talk in terms of story principles that are applicable to novels as well as film. Another thing is, I think it can be very helpful to hear the principles of story presented from a different point of view than a frame of reference that has always been from romance fiction, because I’m taking a Hollywood point of view. I’ll be showing movie clips, and when you see these principles in action in something from another context, and see how directly applicable it is to romance fiction, I think that can be fun, different, and helpful, and help shift your point of view to look at what you’re doing in a new way.
The other thing, and one of the reasons I’m comfortable saying this, is the reason I first went to the RWA Nationals about five or six years ago in the US, the first time I’d ever spoken to a romance writers group, I’d been giving lectures on love stories and romantic comedies for screenwriters, and the principles seemed like they would apply, so I thought it would be worth a try. The reception was really positive, and since then I’ve been to numerous chapter conferences and other RWA national conferences, and I consistently hear how helpful these principles have been to novelists. So I can say with confidence that romance writers are going to learn stuff that they will be able to apply to their own fiction. And what most people, especially romance writers, seem to like is the way I approach the inner journey of the character and how it intertwines with the outer journey. In other words, the character arc or transformation and how that is intertwined with this visible journey of pursuing a visible goal, and then how that is essential to creating powerful love stories.
One of the things I discuss is what I consider to be the biggest weakness in most love stories, and how if you understand how a character arc works, you can solve that problem and avoid that weakness, and really create two people who belong together, rather than just two people who fall for each other because they’re sexy and because you want them to. Because it’s never about sex. Sex can be the spark that starts it, but it’s always about intimacy. Another way to look at it is that it’s never about getting naked, it’s about getting really naked; exposing the truth of who you are and finding the courage to reveal that to your partner. And I think people have found that extremely helpful.
For people who have been to any of my previous seminars, I wanted this workshop to be valuable for them, so I added new elements to it. I’m still presenting the core aspects of my approach which is the six stage structure, the intertwining inner journey and outer journey, character arc, and the idea of this tug-of-war between the identity of the protective self and the essence or truth that the characters are hiding. But I’m presenting the information in a different way, and adding elements to talk about scene writing, choosing concepts, what makes a high concept story, and pitching. One of my books is called ‘Selling Your Story in Sixty Seconds’, and I’m going to include a segment on those principles, about how to get somebody to read your manuscript when you’ve only got about sixty seconds or so to persuade them. And how to take advantage of that opportunity in such a way that will guarantee that the person wants to read your manuscript.
One of things I’ll say is that if you’ve got say five minutes to pitch, one of the biggest mistakes writers make is to take five minutes! That’s not what you should do with that time, so I talk about how you need to be able to pitch it in under two minutes, and what to do after that two minutes is over, and why it needs to be that brief. The other thing I’ll be adding, and this may not be as big a deal to romance writers as to screenwriters, but I’m going to use clips from an Australian movie, Red Dog, which was the most successful Australian movie at last year’s box office. I will also discuss an Australian television series as an example of creating ongoing characters and writing episodic scripts.
10. You also do one on one coaching for writers. What can a writer expect to receive from your coaching packages, and how might this differ from working with a freelance editor?
Although I always give a lot of style suggestions on manuscripts or screenplays, I’m not an editor, so when I work with novelists, what they usually want and what I feel is most valuable for them to get from me is dealing with their story. Not so much their style in presenting it, because there are editors who can really help them with things like wordiness, or typos and punctuation, or dialogue. What I’m doing is coaching novelists on the concept of the story at an early stage in the process. They’ve come up with an idea and they want to know if it’s going to work. Or, I’ll take their story concept and work with them to improve the structure of the story and the arc for the protagonist. Those are the things I feel are my strong points.
Often what I’ll tell a novelist that if they have a completed manuscript, instead of paying me for all the time it takes to read the whole manuscript, let me read two chapters and a brief outline, because that’s enough for me to get the tone of it and some sense of the style and how you want it to read, and enough so we can get down to the core issues of structure and character development.
What I’ll often recommend initially, instead of getting one of the coaching packages that you see on my website (www.storymastery.com), is to book an hour of my time first. Give me a one page outline of the story, and we’ll talk for an hour. We can accomplish so much in this time. I very rarely advise someone not to follow through with their story, but we can find the weaknesses in the concept if they’re there, and figure out if the story you want to do has commercial potential. In an hour I can usually get to the point where I can identify the five key turning points, and then if you know what that basic overall six stage structure is, and you know the concept is solid, and you know the kind of arc you’re taking the character through, then you’ve got a lot to work with and a lot more confidence going into the first draft of the manuscript. Then, after you get further into the story, you can get a package, send me some chapters and a full outline and we can go into more detail with it. Starting out with a one hour session allows writers to put their foot in the water and see if the process is helpful, and can save a lot of time by making sure the story is worth pursuing before putting all that time and energy into it.
Thank you, Michael, for taking the time to speak with us, I’ve learned a lot personally so I know the other members of RWA will find the information and tips you’ve given us very valuable.
This was fun! And you came up with some of the best questions I’ve heard. You never asked me how I got my start, or what I think the state of Hollywood movies is. I find all those things so boring. But you asked about story, and things that can actually help writers, and I think that’s really cool.
Michael Hauge will be presenting his one-day seminar, Advanced Story Mastery: Creating Stories that Sell, in Sydney and Melbourne in March. It has been designed for both screenwriters and novelists, and is very relevant to writers of romance fiction. For the Melbourne event, RWA members are entitled to a discount (please see the RWA forum for details).
Sydney: March 17th 9am-6pm at AFTRS http://www.open.aftrs.edu.au/course/mh02
Melbourne: March 24th 9am-6pm at RMIT http://www.epiphany.com.au/
Michael’s website: www.storymastery.com