Writing Screenplays That Sell, New Twentieth Anniversary Edition
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Writing Screenplays That Sell, New Twentieth Anniversary Edition

Michael Hauge

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eBook - ePub

Writing Screenplays That Sell, New Twentieth Anniversary Edition

Michael Hauge

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About This Book

For more than twenty years, Writing Screenplays That Sell has been hailed as the most complete guide available on the art, craft, and business of writing for movies and television. Now fully revised and updated to reflect the latest trends and scripts, Hollywood story expert and script consultant Michael Hauge walks readers through every step of writing and selling successful screenplays. If you read only one book on the screenwriter's craft, this must be the one.

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PEOPLE DO NOT GO TO THE MOVIES SO THEY CAN SEE THE CHARACTERS on the screen laugh, cry, get frightened, or get turned on.
They go to have those experiences themselves.
The reason that movies hold such a fascination for us, the reason the art form has been engrossing and involving audiences for more than a century, is because it provides an opportunity to experience emotion. Within the safety and isolation of a darkened theater or in the privacy or comfort of one’s own home it is possible to leave the real world behind or at a safe distance and experience emotions, thoughts, feelings, and adventures that would not be encountered in everyday life. In watching a movie or television show, we can feel the love, the hate, the fear, the passion, the excitement, or the humor that elevates our lives, but in a safe, controlled setting.
All filmmakers, therefore, have a single goal: to elicit emotion in an audience. Every director’s, every actor’s, every gaffer’s, and every production assistant’s ultimate objective is to create a positive emotional response in the audience. When the movie or TV episode does that, it is successful; when it doesn’t, it fails.


The screenwriter’s primary goal is even more specific: The screenwriter must elicit emotion in the person who reads the screenplay.
The effect of a screenplay on a reader must be the same as the effect of the movie on the audience: a positive emotional experience. All of the stated considerations of commerciality, big stars, hot topics, low budgets, high concepts, and strong demographics go out the window if this single objective is not achieved.
If the producer, executive, agent, manager, or star who can get your movie made doesn’t smile, laugh, cry, get scared, get excited, or get turned on while reading your screenplay, then your script will never reach a real audience.
In other words, for the screenwriter, the term reader and the term audience are synonymous.


Knowing what a screenplay needs to accomplish is simple; I can tell it to you in one sentence: Enable a sympathetic character to overcome a series of increasingly difficult, seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve a compelling desire.
That, in nineteen words, is what almost every successful feature film has ever done. The few exceptions are those films where the character fails to achieve the compelling desire, as in Brokeback Mountain or No Country for Old Men, or a film where the hero realizes that his compelling desire is a mistake, as in Rain Man or An Education. But the essence of all successful movies is still the same.
The difficulty is not in understanding what you must accomplish as a writer. The tough part is actually accomplishing each of the facets of that objective. How do you make a character sympathetic? How do you establish a compelling desire? How do you create and arrange the series of hurdles that must be overcome? How do you write this in such a way that the emotional involvement of the reader is ensured?
And finally (and probably the reason you bought this book), how do you get rich doing all of this?


Every aspect of writing your screenplay will be contained in one of the following four stages:
1. The Story Concept: the single sentence or two that identifies the hero of the story and what he or she wants to accomplish.
2. The Characters: the people who populate the story.
3. Plot Structure: the events of the story and the order in which they occur.
4. The Individual Scenes: the way the words are laid out on the page and the kind of action, description, and dialogue that will increase the reader’s emotional involvement.
This book will outline each of those four facets in detail, in the above order. You should note that beginning with a single-sentence story concept and developing that into a full, 115-page screenplay is one way to write your screenplay. It is very organized, logical, and left-brained, and it allows each expanded phase of the screenplay to grow out of the previous one. Its big advantage is in its safety, so to speak.
However, this logical, step-by-step approach is not the only way to write a screenplay. Of equal value, depending on what works for you, is the more free-form, right-brained method of writing FADE IN, and then simply seeing where the story takes you. In other words, letting the story “write itself.”
Like any other journey of unknown destination, what you sacrifice in safety and security you may get back in surprise and excitement. This approach may enable you to tap into your unfettered creativity more easily and provide a more effective, fulfilling screenwriting experience.
The key is to use whichever method, or combination of the two, works for you.
Regardless of the approach you choose, the outcome must be a screenplay that effectively elicits emotion because the story concept, characters, plot structure, and scene writing are all outstanding.
This book is going to give you a foundation from which you can depart in whatever direction improves your ability to get the screenplay written. If something’s working, keep using it; if it’s not working, find something better. My goal is to give you a method that prevents you from getting blocked at any stage of the process.


Throughout the process outlined in this book, you will repeatedly encounter the word brainstorming. This refers to the periods of creativity that require you to go for quantity and not quality, when you want to give your creativity free rein to extend its limits without fear of censure or criticism.
It is only after you have allowed your creativity to blossom through the nonjudgmental brainstorming phase that you enter the editing phase of screenwriting. This is the critical, evaluative phase that will determine which of the multitude of ideas that your brainstorming generates will best serve your screenplay.
Art Arthur, who was a successful screenwriter for more than forty years, used to say that there are two secrets to success as a writer. Secret #1: Don’t get it right, get it written. (Sorry, but you’ll have to wait until the end of the book to get the second one.)
If you wait for your writing to be perfect, it’s never even going to be good. You’ll become so frozen with fear and judgment that you’ll eventually give up on the entire process and start buying books on real estate investment. In other words, you’ll become blocked.
Writer’s block is the flip side of brainstorming. Brainstorming gives the mind freedom to go in whatever direction it chooses, holding back criticism and judgment so the writer can freely tap into her own creative source. Block is when the mind isn’t going in any direction at all because of some fear—of failure, of success, of change, of criticism, or of imperfection.
Writer’s block doesn’t mean that you’re staring at the page for fifteen minutes until you find the line of dialogue that works best. Block is when you haven’t worked on your screenplay in two weeks, and now you’re watching Jeopardy! and eating Hostess Snowballs instead of writing. Writer’s block feeds on itself, so the longer it continues, the less the chance of escape.
So even if you choose to follow the logical, ordered, step-by-step process outlined in this book, you will still need to depart from it occasionally and move around a bit.
For example, there might be situations where you are working on the character development stage of your script, but you just can’t get a handle on your villain. Instead of waiting for perfection and blocking yourself, a better solution would be to jump over to the scene-writing stage. If you know there’s going to be a terrific confrontation between your hero and the bad guy, and you know how that scene should look, then go ahead and write it. Writing the scene will then reveal to you things about each of those two characters that you can take back to the character development stage in order to re-prime your pump and keep the story flowing.
Writers often fear that the use of formula (of which I am an unapologetic advocate) will stifle creativity. But a formula is simply a method for consistently achieving the same result. If you consistently want to elicit emotion with the way you structure your story, or reveal your characters’ inner lives, and there are formulas for that, then it only makes sense to try them out to see if they work for you. A formula never tells you what to write—it only reveals the storytelling tools and patterns that have worked for decades of successful movies and television.
And a formula can actually enhance your brainstorming. If an element of your script might seem contrived or unbelievable, but you know that there are proven methods for overcoming that problem (which there are, by the way—they’re revealed in chapter 5), then you can start brainstorming ideas for creating those prescribed actions and dialogue.
Eventually, the four stages of your screenplay will only form a general pattern, and you’ll be jumping all over the map in order to ensure the flow of ideas and creativity, alternating between your nonjudgmental brainstorming and your selective editing. This will both prevent writer’s block and maximize your ability to elicit emotion in the reader and the audience.


Just one more major step before diving into your screenplay: you’ve got to see movies.
There was a time when I would have thought it obvious that screenwriters should see lots of films. But in my travels around the world, I am repeatedly astounded by how many people pursuing this career hardly ever bother to visit a movie theater or even rent a DVD. And when they do, it’s some classic film from the forties or fifties, a cartoon to watch wi...

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