Film Courage: What are some common mistakes that writers make in the first two stages of writing a screenplay which compromises the first act and then subsequent acts? What are the first parts that end up compromising the entire work?
Michael Hauge: I would actually go a little further with your question. I would say, if you have problems in the first two stages, it’s impossible for your script to work.
I have this sort of motto and that is “If you’re having story problems, all roads lead to the hero’s outer motivation.” Because one of the biggest issues, one of the most difficult things for writers to really embrace is the idea that at the foundation of any story is a visible goal that the hero wants to cross at the end of the story. They’ll get so caught up in the inner journey, in the depth of dimension of the character or in the themes they want to deliver or they’ll just think the premise is good, so they’ll get lost in a thicket of events and plotting until finally they are just coming up with new ideas and adding idea after idea until it becomes so complicated and confusing that there is no story there.
“I think for those of us who write or are storytellers, we so want to get into character. We so want to get into deeper levels of meaning. We so want it to be original and different and complex and special that we lose sight of first I have to have this very simple through line.”
If you think about most Hollywood movies in particular are based on very simple story ideas. Even if you take a story idea that is fairly complex like INCEPTION. That seems pretty complicated. I have a little trouble grasping some of that but at it’s very core, it’s very simple. A group of people want to penetrate a person’s dreams down to a layer where they can change behavior without him knowing it. That’s it! I was able to say that in what, five seconds and one sentence? Everything is built on that goal. And if you have that kind of clear through line and if when you say what that goal is, everybody gets the goals of what achieving that goal is, then you’ve laid a foundation for what most scripts don’t honestly have.
It’s odd because it sounds simple but it’s not easy. I think for those of us who write or are storytellers, we so want to get into character. We so want to get into deeper levels of meaning. We so want it to be original and different and complex and special that we lose sight of first I have to have this very simple throughline. So, that is the number one thing. One of the biggest problems in one and two is that it doesn’t lead to a clear, visible finish line that anyone can envision, whether they are reading the script or watching the movie, they know what they’re looking for.
Second thing is not showing the everyday life of the character before they get into the story moving forward. We have to have a set-up. It can be very brief or the character can be on-the-move, so to speak, action wise. They can’t have just arrived into town and we see them going to a meeting or going to meet with a hit man or whatever it might be. Nonetheless, it has to convey that this is who this character has been for some time and it has to create empathy.
Film Courage: Like Rambo. He arrives….Brian Dennehy’s character sees him….
Michael Hauge: Yes, exactly. So we’ll find out what happened prior to that but the first big event that is going to happen to him doesn’t happen on page one. We first have to get acquainted and identify or empathize with this character. And that empathy must occur immediately. We have to empathize before we see what the flaws to the character are, before we start recognizing what this inner conflict is or what this identity is or what dark places they might go. First we have to just connect with them emotionally.
The third thing I would say is jumping from the set-up to the outer motivation. I think because screenwriters are inundated with the idea that you’ve got to grab the reader right away and you’ve got to get things going and Hollywood moves fast and so on….all of that is true bit it doesn’t mean you rush the story. What it means is you start building in conflict as soon as you can. But you don’t rush the story. It’s going to take all of act one to get your hero to the point where they really begin pursuing that visible finish line. And if you start at page ten with them pursuing the goal, your script is going to die around page 7, because you can’t sustain a single goal that long. So you’ve got to take the whole stage one and stage two just to build up, to create the opportunity in the new situation, to get them oriented, where they have the goal and then they take that first step and that is what has to happen at 25%.
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