Updating Screenwriting Books that Sell

It’s nine days since I kicked off The Actionlytics Blog with “The Critique of Impure Reason” post, and a week since my “Notes for Newbies
post. I’m still waiting for the reply with answers to my questions from an experienced screenwriter, in fact, a pair of them, which I emailed to the writer who asked me for a critique. I’m glad I held back on my comments and I hope I get a reply with all those questions answered. I look forward to seeing how much they lead the writer(s) to realizing they have — I’m sorry, but I am going to use these words — miserably failed, so far.

I’m writing this post in hopes it will reach someone just making up their mind to set out on the screenwriting path, in hopes that they can avoid the mortifying fate of being the topic of a similar post tossed off by some smart-ass blogger like me. I’m writing this in hopes that you will take learning the craft seriously right from the start. I’m hoping you’ll read, and learn from what you ready by earnestly practicing it and learning to keep your ego out of the way so as to best assimilate and surmount the criticisms you WILL receive as you try to land yourself a screenwriting career. And the best way to do that is to develop the most solid foundation in the many elements of screenwriting as possible, as soon as possible. That’s why I’m going to discuss a very worthy foundational book — at least my outdated copy of it.

I remember the first couple of times I received critiques from industry-connected people (for which I had paid). Let’s just say that, having made enough effort to get all the way from page one to “FADE OUT” is something of an investment of personal mental energy. Ego gets involved, naturally and unfortunately, and that leads to a lot of rationalizing. It’s hard to make all that effort and then disengage from it. It’s a Zen-like maneuver, and I’d suggest not trying to make it an instantaneous transition. Given some amount of time, it’s possible to pick up your own script and read it as if someone else had written it. It’s probably a good idea, whenever possible, to let a script rest a couple of weeks, not even thinking about it, before asking for someone to read it and give feedback. You might also be well-advised to read it once more, yourself, before you put in that request (and sign that check, if it’s going to be a paid critique). You might find you do not need another critic, yet!

As I write this, it’s also four days since my interview appeared on the Amateur Adventures in Screenwriting Blog, where I also enjoyed the chance to spout off.  There, I mentioned several layers of screenwriting craft books I think it’s a good idea to work with, in successive triads. Maybe thinking in triads is coming from the musician in me, but “third time’s the charm” seems true of so many things. For beginners, I recommended Viki King’s How to Write a Movie in 21 Days, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!, and Michael Hauge’s Writing Screenplays That Sell. I’m taking a fresh look at that last one today for the sake of this review. Let’s see if I can justify tossing out that title as a recommendation; after all, the book dates from 1988! Actually, there is a 20th Anniversary edition of this book for sale now, so the things I might cite as dated may well be updated in that new edition. But, purely for my own convenience and because I’m currently too shy of income to go buying every new edition of screenwriting books that come out (yes, I hear the booing and hissing, and I understand, but, tough!), I’ll be referring here to the older model sitting on my desk. Its title then was Writing Screenplays that Sell — the complete, step-by-step guide for writing and selling to the movies and TV, from story concept to development deal. The new version is titled, “Writing Screenplays that Sell: New Twentieth Anniversary Edition: The Complete Guide to Turning Story Concepts into Movie and Television Deals.”

Writing Screenplays that Sell

Writing Screenplays that Sell, 20th Anniversary Edition

It’s become a bit easier to break into TV than into features in our current times, so the emphasis of the book might also have shifted a bit more to television than the original when it comes to explaining structure and format. The first one might had some useful ideas for selling to TV, but the writing descriptions were very oriented to writing features.  At any rate, I’m pretty sure the basics of the book will remain much as they were back in the day.

I believe what impressed me upon reading this book, and it was pretty far from the first I read, are the logic and the range of its presentation. It takes a “first things first” approach that mentally prepares you for what you’re going to try to do, and then it goes into a pretty fair amount of depth as to how to do it. It tells you right on the first page what your job is: to elicit an emotional response from the audience. This is something a screenwriter should never lose sight of.  But, alas, it happens.

Hauge went on to explain your journey will proceed in four stages: concept, characters, plot, and scenes. I’d wager that’s never gonna change. All of these elements of screenwriting work synergystically, except that they can’t, unless you think them through and plan your work — then, work your plan. Along the way, you learn that not a single word you write is precious. You may have heard about “killing your darlings.” It is something you’ll have to learn. If it doesn’t fit, it must be unwrit… or something like that. If you’re going to come up with good drawings, you need not just a pencil, but a good eraser a lot of the time. If you’re using a PC to write, be prepared to wear the text off the “Delete” key. And, that’s if you DO conceptualize and plan well from the start! It’s much, much worse, when you don’t… or won’t, for dread of damaging your precious “creativity.”

Your creativity, on the quest for greatness, is not to be confused from one end to the other of developing a screenplay with spontaneity. Now, I love spontaneity. I’m an Aries! But, after the high point of the “Eureka!” moment, get ready for what comes between that high and the satisfaction of true accomplishment, which is a heaping helping of self-discipline. And, if you actually start to get anywhere, you’ll also find that discipline being imposed from without as well as within. But, first things first, learn to cultivate if from within so that you can learn to properly respond when it starts to come from without, as well. By guiding you around the bases, Hauge helps you avoid missing anything important. You won’t have to reinvent the wheel. And if you checklist your way through your scripts from now ’til Doomsday, it won’t hurt you or your creativity. It is more likely to help you get it recognized, because you will not have left any significant notes out of your symphony.

I do hope the update does a better job on one point. There’s one early principle Hague laid out about “Expressing the Concept” which is well, okay, but could be better, and, hopefully, is stated better in the new edition. He was trying to make the important point that the hero has to have a goal. This is because a passive hero is a common problem in causing lackluster-ness in amateur scripts, so he stresses having that goal. A story concept, he writes, correctly, can be stated in a single sentence, which he expresses as, “It is a story about a _______ who ________.”

Uh, that’s lame. It’s not wrong, it’s just rather lacking in context, so as to barely spark a thought. In my opinion, this precept needs to be ignited by the thought of the OPPOSITION the “hero” is going to encounter. I could fill in the blanks above and write, “It is a story about a man who applies for jobs.” Well, it’s something, but if done unimaginatively, it could be unbearably dull, perhaps a series of job interviews and no job resulting, and no reason given. Heck, that’s my whole life, these days. I wouldn’t pay to see a movie about it.

Screenwriter Jeffrey Schechter posited a much better, four-part concept construction you can find in the Contour software (formerly known as Totally Write). After all, let’s examine any successful movie. The timeline may be a bit scrambled in some clever films, but normally we see the hero doing his usual thing, then suffering an injustice. This is the setup and the catalyzing event that launches the adventure, which is what we’re really paying for, a vicarious thrill and intrigue. Choose carefully, and you might even rival the succinct brilliance of the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. There, we had Indiana Jones doing what he normally does, archeological exploration, which we see, in his case, to be one hell of an adventure. He proves his valor and wits against terrible odds in the first few minutes, manages to land his prize with amazing effort, and then — has it snatched away from him by a cool, collected arch-rival backed by overwhelming firepower at close range. Wow! Yes, that “delivers a lot of information,” as some would say it, but the important thing is that the information was carefully selected so as to manipulate our emotions and make it worth the price of admission. So we have the hero’s occupation slotting easily into exotic adventure and in tracing his adventure we find he’s imperfect (he sets off the final death trap sequence after ALMOST getting past all the traps standing between him and his prize), surpasses his flaws with valorous effort, and he can still lose. We’re rooting for him already. I’d say we could not have had an opening sequence of such brilliance unless the nature of Indy’s opposition had been knitted into the concept right away.

Schechter’s concept, without my spoiling the surprise for you by exactly spelling out his prescription for the four stages of a story if you make the small investment in Contour, takes the “injustice” element into account, the fact that it sends every movie hero into a quest to right what’s gone wrong, the fact that that leads into an escalated conflict as the opposition to success proves more difficult than the hero anticipated (bonus points if your hero realizes he’s got a blind spot or flaw of his own which is part of why it’s so hard to reach his goal). In the final act, victory at last seems near when a reversal of fortune occurs and the hero has to somehow give even more than he knew he had in him to win. Now, to be fair, I’ve heard Hauge in other contexts talking about screenwriting in much this same way. The important thing is to be aware that every scene in your movie script is going to hinge on one central question which will, indeed, depend on the goal of your hero. But I think there’s a better way to define your concept right from the start than Hauge included in this book, which is one of my very few criticisms of this work.  As I said, it may be worded better by now.

Let’s go back to, “It is a story about a man who applies for jobs.” Yeah, sounds dull. What if “it’s about a man who loses his job of thirty years who finds himself unqualified for every job on the market, so he enrolls in an online programming course, only to find the course work is updated daily with an entirely new language to learn.” He starts out with determination and hope, then discovers he has to start over from scratch every single day with an impossible cirriculum to learn in 24 hours! And then it’s gone! It seems like a comedy, and suggesting the genre is something a good concept (or logline) will do. It has the added advantage that it sounds something like the real world with which we’re familiar, while taking it to the extreme, twisting it just enough to just possibly make us wonder what the actual treatment of this guy’s plight will be like in the script. The concept, as stated now, may suggest a title like “Black Hole U.” And now we, at least, have a concept to do some brainstorming around. Maybe the online “U” even has software which tracks the hapless hero’s bank account when he finds he can’t de-enroll and switches bank accounts. We see him on the phone trying to get support, hearing new age music for hours, and only once asleep does a voice respond from the other end, hanging up just as our hero, having fallen asleep, wakes up and tries to talk,only to have his exhausted phone battery die. Maybe he resorts to using an online form to try to complain to the school, and receives only non-sequitur responses. He tries the police, only to be quickly convinced he’ll only be worse off waiting for them to achieve any results. We’ll all recognize ourselves in these situations and wonder how the hero will find his way to triumph. The path to escalation here is that the hero will end up, all other options exhausted, trying to physically locate the online swindlers and extract justice. Along the way, he’ll “man up” so much in the pursuit that he’ll end up starting a new business for himself, gaining the expertise to become a professional swindle buster. Because the core problem is not that he needs a job, as it appears on the surface (outer goal), it’s really  that he needs to gain the power to control his own life (inner need). The more exasperated we can make him and the more often he can “fall into” his solutions, the funnier the story will be. Now, this was not an idea I had before I started writing this post, and sufficient exploration may lead only to discarding it; the idea however, is to illustrate how much more galvanic it is to set the hero’s goal against some form of opposition right from the start, because it leads us to the spine of the story. In fact, a good screenwriter will explore that concept from several genre angles to determine how it might play out. A seemingly fine comedic concept might turn out to be a better dramatic concept, or vice-versa.

Anyway, let us now sing the praises of this overall worthy book. Hague laid out five sources for concept, how to select the best, select the medium, improve your concept, develop theme and how it relates to character growth, concepts and how they define the genre of your story. Everything he wrote about these matters holds up to this day. He explained fifteen points to cover in developing your 3-act story structure, which includes the pacing and interweaving of the internal and external conflicts your hero will encounter or cause with his actions. There is a recognition of scene purpose and structure, too. Just like your script, every scene turns on some question related to your great big central question, and the scene, too, has a beginning, middle, and end. Hauge caps his chapters with checklist summaries which make useful references in themselves. He covered format, among other things, in the section on how to write a screenplay, and then paces through a story analysis of The Karate Kid. A large section of this book, Part III, delves into marketing oneself as a screenwriter. It’s all basically still valid, and I’m sure the update for the digital age includes the fact that we’re all using computers, not typewriters, with some kind of dedicated formatting software, we’re submitting PDFs contests instead of printed copies (hurray!) and we’re writing our query letters as emails.

Hauge advised the writer to test a concept on himself personally before committing, by asking three specific questions. He provided five methods for modifying your concept. Nine ways to establish character identification. Four ways to give the character original qualities. The four categories of primary character in movies. The purpose of secondary characters. The difference between theme and message. A 17-point structural checklist of devices that make movie stories work. Basic scene-writing principles. How the script and the title page should look. Four principles for writing action, illustrated by examples. Five scene questions to answer before you write any dialogue. Six weaknesses to ferret out of your writing. Seven ways to make sure each scene fulfills a purpose. (A $75,000-per-minute purpose; it’s important to know this for that reason, if no other. Those development execs who will flash the traffic signals for your career are going to be thinking about your script in a different way than you do.)

All this was followed by action plans for marketing yourself, and advice on what to do as different scenarios develop.

The current version of this book will probably still not be as in-depth on every subject as some other books which are more specialized. But it was a great introductory book which has undoubtedly been developed and improved. After all, Hollywood is nothing if not a recycling machine for the classics, and I’m sure Michael Hauge is no exception to that rule. Properly applied, the advice in Writing Screenplays that Sell will help a wide-eyed wannabe get some solid scripts under his belt and prepare to develop from a solid foundation. If you’re starting out, I’d say this book remains a good buy, and probably an even better one now than it was in its original version; take it and use it in that spirit.

Peace out.

-Ron

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