Emon Hassan: What are the top 3 myths screenwriters have about their craft and business? Why do you think they exist?
Michael Hauge : Myth #1
I guess number one is that the biggest obstacle a screenwriter faces is either getting an agent or getting his screenplay read. By far the biggest obstacle is writing a great commercial screenplay. Writing a screenplay that will attract an agent and make buyers take notice is the most difficult and the most important thing a screenwriter can do by far. Getting material read pales by comparison and getting an agent isn’t even necessary since a screenwriter can approach producers on their own, acquire a manager, or, if there’s interest, hire an attorney.
Myth # 2
Formulas are antithetical to creativity when it comes to screenwriting. Screenplays follow a fairly rigid consistent pattern when it comes to plot structure, length, commercial considerations, character empathy, et cetera. But somehow screenwriters believe that even though thousands of movies have been made and have been successful following those same patterns, it’s still not possible to make something original within that structure.
The formulas movies follow actually free up a screenwriter to focus on character depth, individual elements of plot, character, and theme, so they can create stories that are original and still meet the requirements for eliciting emotion in the mass audience.
Myth # 3
That screenwriting is easy (HA! WHO WROTE THESE QUESTIONS?) I know if you ask a screenwriter trying to launch her career, she’ll say that screenwriting is difficult, and maintain that she doesn’t think it is, and yet, repeatedly I encounter screenwriters who think that their first screenplay, or even the first draft of their screenplay should somehow attract financing or an agent. Even the most successful screenwriters I know write no less than a dozen drafts of any screenplay they’re working on before they let anybody, before they submit it to anybody, and when you ask working screenwriters how they broke in, consistently you will hear, that it was their fifth, or eighth or tenth screenplay that finally got them attention, or got them their first deal. This is not to say it can’t happen the first time out of the gate, but someone pursuing a screenwriting career must see it as exactly that, a career, if someone chose a career as a doctor or lawyer-professions which make an income probably comparable to the average working screenwriter-they would know they needed seven to ten or more years of education. For screenwriters it doesn’t necessarily take that long, but it certainly takes an equal level of commitment and tenacity.
Myth # 4 (I know I was supposed to name the top three, but all four of these are critical).
Commerciality can be ignored. Far too many screenwriters think that just because they find a story interesting, Hollywood’s going to do cartwheels about it. You must ask yourself, what are the antecedents to my story? What are the movies I can point to and say, “because those movies made money, mine will make money.” These have to be recent movies, in the area you’re pursuing (Hollywood studio film, low budget independent film, TV movie, etc.) The only reason any agent will represent you or any producer will want to meet with you or work with you or buy your script, is because they think your project will turn a profit. If you have taken on the erroneous belief that commerciality is beneath you, or that you can write a movie that breaks the mold and is unlike anything that Hollywood is doing, you’re headed for a lot of disappointment. Besides, if you’re a screenwriter, your goal is to touch people, to connect with people in a meaningful and powerful way. The greater the commercial appeal of your screenplay, the bigger the audience you’ll be able to touch.
EH: How are you able to understand the Screenwriting craft and business with such clarity not coming from a screenwriting background? How have you educated yourself differently?
MH: I began my career in Hollywood as a reader and then became a development executive for several independent production companies. From the time I began teaching and consulting, it was always based on the idea that I could read screenplays and give insights from the point of view of someone who is on the receiving end of screenplays, not someone who has written screenplays. In other words, I’ve read, and responded to, thousands of screenplays in my career. When I first began working with writers, I used the consistent elements of successful screenplays and the consistent weaknesses of screenplays that got rejected in order to formulate the elements screenwriters’ need to know. I also used my experience working with writers on development and translated that into working with clients one-on-one. Finally, though this may sound a bit simplistic, I see lots and lots and lots of movies and have for my whole life. I watch many of them twice and I pick them apart to see the consistencies in the ones that work, and determine the “rules” for different genres, markets, etc.
EH: How much should a writer be aware of structure, story, and theme when a burst of inspiration hits and one sits down to write the first draft?
MH: A writer should be oblivious to structure, story and theme whenever a burst of inspiration hits. When that form of creativity is in gear, the last thing a screenwriter should do is worry about whether their idea is structured or even useable. When you’re in what I call the brainstorming mode, tapping into that creative source, you just want to get down on paper, or onto your computer, whatever ideas arise. Just let the creativity flow, and come up with as many ideas and go as far as you can with the ideas you generate, as possible. It’s after the burst of creativity is finished and you have something to work with, that you can begin to apply the principles of structure, character empathy, dialogue, theme, character arc, et cetera. The writing process is a continual back and forth process between brainstorming and what I call editing, selecting the best of the ideas and applying the principles of good screenwriting to them.
EH: You’ve often stressed reading should be an integral part of a writer’s life. Besides reading screenplays, what else should writers be reading or learning from?
MH: When it comes to originating ideas, researching material, and simply becoming a more educated, more well-rounded individual, just about anything a writer can read would be valuable. Newspapers, magazines, novels, non-fiction, et cetera. A screenwriter should also read some resources to provide information on the business of screenwriting: the trade papers; websites like Done Deal, Box Office Mojo, the Internet Movie Database, or any number of other sites for finding out who are the people making movies, what are the projects in development, what movies are doing well at the box office, et cetera. But when it comes to the craft of perfecting screenwriting, it’s really only necessary to read screenplays because that’s the form that needs to be mastered.
EH: You’ve written that successful scripts have a hero, desire, and conflict. Is it a universal rule for successful films or your own observation of what have made Hollywood films successful?
MH: It’s a universal rule.
EH: You teach lessons on the 3-minute pitching, but add that a 60-second pitch is even better. Wouldn’t having two more minutes make a pitch more effective?
MH: As I preach repeatedly in my book Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read, 60 seconds is very often the maximum amount of time you will have on the telephone, at a conference, or at a party to tell a potential buyer or agent about your screenplay, in order to get them to read it. At a pitch fest, or pitch mart, writers are given a minimum of five minutes, or on rare occasions ten. But during that five minutes, you not only have to pitch your project, you have to establish rapport with the buyer, and then you have to allow time for them to respond to your pitch, ask questions, and answer your questions. And if they have no interest in the story you’re pitching, you want enough time remaining to pitch a second idea. So when your goal is simply to get your material read, you always want to be able to pitch it in under a minute.
EH: What can writers who do not wish to write for Hollywood or decline to write the traditional narrative stories still learn from your classes/books/lessons?
MH: If what you mean is, what can writers who want to write low-budget, independent, or “art house” films, take from my classes, books and coaching?
Even stories that are seemingly way outside the Hollywood formula are built on elements of the protagonist, the desire, and conflict. Otherwise the story simply won’t work, since that’s the foundation in all story. In addition, the people who “break the rules”, or at least bend them, most skillfully, are those who understand the principles, the formula, and the techniques that mainstream Hollywood movies use the elicit emotion. Then those writers can move away from those consistent approaches, if they feel their story will elicit greater emotion, or elicit the response they’re looking for, by taking their own path. But the best writers are still those who know the principles, rather than those who ignore them entirely.
4 TIPS FOR SCREENWRITERS
• Often the best dialogue is no dialogue at all. After you’ve completed your first or second draft, go through the dialogue, and look for all the places where silence, a gesture, or some kind of physical reaction will convey the drama or the emotion much more skillfully and effectively than talking will.
• Avoid on-the-nose dialogue-dialogue where the characters say exactly what they think and feel and need. You want to employ subtext-dialogue that hides the emotion underneath. To do this, write dialogue where the characters announce their feelings, just so you have it down, just so you have emotional content on the page, then go back and ask yourself, how would this character convey this emotion in a socially acceptable way. For example, rarely will we express directly express our desires or our feelings. We’ll go at them tangentially, or try to hide them underneath some kind of small talk. That’s the kind of dialogue you want to employ for your characters.
• Similarly, avoid “announcing” dialogue-dialogue where the characters seem to be talking more for the audiences benefit than to each other. This is dialogue where a character says something like: “Jim, you’re my brother, and I think you should quit your job at the factory.” The problem with dialogue like this is, Jim knows the speaker is his brother, he knows that he’s working in a factory, and it is very unlikely if they’re talking that his brother will address him by name (which people rarely do). Readers would rather feel like they’re eavesdropping on real dialogue, even if they don’t fully understand it, than to hear stilted dialogue just so they can understand expository information. Trust that the reader will be able to keep up and you can reveal important elements of the dialogue later when it sounds more natural.
• People speak in contractions. Use them.
• When you’re rewriting your screenplay-the second or third draft, go through the script and remove at least one sentence from each speech, and at least one speech from each scene throughout the screenplay. You want to streamline your dialogue as much as possible, and this exercise will force you to get rid of the fat.
On writer’s block
• Writer’s block is caused by fear: fear of failure; fear of success; fear of not being good enough; fear of leaving one’s comfort zone. To overcome it, first of all acknowledge, of course, if you’re writing, you’re doing something new, or you’re stuck on a part of your script. Then stop asking how you cannot be afraid and say, “Am I willing to be afraid?” In other words, are you willing to be uncomfortable for a while, waiting for the writer’s block to pass, which it will.
• Writer’s block almost never occurs at the computer. Writer’s block occurs before you go to the computer. We’re most likely to get blocked before we start writing, instead of sitting down to spend our day sitting down for our daily writing regimen, we get distracted by emails, mail, television, food, or simply, other work that pays more quickly. So do whatever you can to get yourself in the chair, at the computer (or at the legal pad if that’s how you write). Once you’re there, don’t leave until the time you’ve allotted to write has passed, even if you’re simply staring at a blank page or a blank screen.
• If nothing comes to you at all, go back and rewrite the scene you’ve completed the day before, or simply write: “I can’t think of what to say, I’m trying to think of dialogue for X character,” or “I’m trying to figure out what this character will do in this situation.” In other words, start writing about the scene, and what it is exactly you’re struggling with, but get your fingers moving, get words down, even if they’re seemingly irrelevant to your screenplay.
• Also, if you find yourself getting blocked or distracted, I recommend that you make writing the first thing that you do during the day. You don’t allow yourself to go on with your day until you’ve put in your half-hour or hour or whatever your regimen is.
• Finally, if you truly struggle day after day, then continue finding another method of writing, for example, you might do better with a writing partner. You might do better if you dictate your story and have it transcribed, or transcribe it yourself, until you finish the first draft. You might do better if you write somewhere away from home, like Starbuck’s or the library. The key is keep changing your patter, and keep forcing yourself to sit down to write, until the ideas start to flow. I promise you won’t stay blocked for long.
• Your primary goal as a screenwriter-as a storyteller of any kind-is to elicit emotion. An emotion grows primarily out of conflict. It is not the desire your character pursues, but rather the obstacles she has to overcome, that make your story exciting, funny, romantic, suspenseful, sad, or tragic. The bigger the obstacles, both outer and inner, your characters must overcome, the stronger your story will be.
• One of the best questions you can ask yourself when you originate ideas and as you’re writing the story, is “What makes this impossible?” Have you come up with a story concept that identifies a hero, a visible goal, and something that makes achieving that goal sound impossible?
• Even after you begin writing your screenplay, repeatedly ask yourself: “What is the worst thing that could happen to my hero?” and then have that happen (just don’t kill them off, that will probably end your movie).
On being a screenwriter
In my experience, and in my opinion, these are the things successful screenwriters consistently do, and what you must do if you hope to make a living writing movies and television.
• Write every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s only for a half an hour, a regular regimen is essential to getting the job done.
• Read lots of screenplays for recent successful movies, particularly movies within the same genre you’re writing. It’s possible to download almost any recent screenplay from various websites (for links to some of these sites, go to my website www.ScreenplayMastery.com)
• See lots of movies. Again, at least an average of one or two a week, and see the good ones more than once so you can figure out how they were able to touch a mass audience so successfully and elicit an emotion so powerfully.
• Constantly improve your craft. Take seminars, read books on screenwriting, read articles on screenwriting, attend writer’s conferences, like the American Screenwriter’s Association Selling to Hollywood Conference, the Screenwriting Expo, or best of all, the Screenwriting Summit. [Might this “best of all” part anger some people such as Erik Bauer?] Go to screenwriting websites, like mine, like Wordplayer.com (Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio’s site).
• Keep abreast of the industry. Go to boxofficemojo.com periodically to see which movies are successful, go to DoneDealPro.com, or read The Studio Report: Film Development to see which projects are in development.
• Get help. Hire a script consultant to make sure your script is professional caliber before you go out with it. Join a writer’s group. Read other people’s screenplays in return for them reading yours and giving your feedback. Don’t try to work in a vacuum and don’t trust your own judgment about your script before you send it out.
• Finally, write the stories you love. Write stories that excite you, that touch you deeply. Write the stories you’re passionate about. You can’t ignore commercial potential, you can’t ignore the needs of the box office. But never write just because you think a movie will sell. If a screenplay doesn’t have your passion behind it, the chances of it selling are highly unlikely anyway, and you won’t have nearly as much fun.