By Dennis MaGee Fallon.
Screenwriting guru and story consultant Michael Hauge sat down with Creative Screenwriting to talk about his “blueprint” for building excellent scripts. After all, we can talk great ideas, heartwarming characters and shocking story twists all day, but if you don’t know how to put your script together, it’s into the trashcan for your beloved story.
In this interview, Hauge breaks down his thoughts and theories on structuring the perfect screenplay, as well as summarizing many of the key points of structure found in his book The Hero’s Two Journeys.
In The Hero’s Two Journeys, you develop your own take on basic plot structure. Why?
I intended it to be simple. Often structure is thought of as some complex, mystical kind of thing. It’s really not. Structure just means the sequence of events. It’s simply about what happens and when it happens. Consistently, successful stories and especially successful screenplays break pretty predictably into six stages that are created by five key turning points.
Can you explain those stages and turning points for us?
I refer to the first stage as the SETUP, where you introduce your hero. The key is that we need to meet your hero- and by hero I mean man, woman, child or android- but we need to meet your protagonist living his or her everyday life. It’s critical to see the life that this character has been living so we can see how they change during the course of the journey.
Then, the first turning point is around ten percent. Some OPPORTUNITY must be presented to your hero. Something is going to happen to your hero that has never happened before, that will move them into some new situation. That takes us into stage two: the NEW SITUATION. Out of that situation, about fifteen percent later, something even more important is going to happen to the hero.
Aren’t these first stages of a script you’re describing really just a first act?
Yes. In other words, the whole first act of your script is all leading up to this point- the point when the hero begins pursuing the goal that defines your story. The whole first act is a run up to that moment – what I term the CHANGE OF PLANS. That is tough to realize sometimes, because writers are often told to get things going quickly. Those first ten pages are important to setup the story, but whatever that big goal is, the hero won’t begin pursuing it until the twenty five percent point of the script – not in the first ten pages. The second turning point will create a specific desire for your hero, with a clear, visible endpoint. This, by the way, is the most important structural principle. If you take nothing else away from this interview, take this: whatever your hero’s visible goal, she has to begin pursuing that goal at the beginning of act two.
Got it. So, before I interrupted you, we were at stage three in your description of plot structure…
Well, stage three- what I call PROGRESS- is where the hero begins pursuing that goal. He devises a plan and the plan seems to be working. Then the third turning point is right at the midpoint – the POINT OF NO RETURN. That is when your hero is going to do something to show or declare their intention out loud, and fully commit to it. So as a result of that we get to stage four, which is what I call COMPLICATIONS AND HIGHER STAKES. Stage four is really where the outside world starts closing in, and the obstacles start getting bigger and bigger.
Then the fourth turning point, the MAJOR SETBACK, is at the end of act two. Act two is the middle fifty percent of the story. This follows the ¼ – ½ – ¼ three act structural model originally defined by Syd Field, and to whom all of us still owe a deep debt of appreciation. Something has to happen at the end of act two that is so bad that it seems to your readers and audience that all is lost. That moves into stage five, the FINAL PUSH, where your hero retreats, temporarily, or tries to go back to where they were at the beginning. They usually take an action where they are retreating from their goal, and then they realize that they’ve got to go for it, give everything they can until they reach the climax of the movie. That’s the final turning point: that’s where you resolve the story. Then the final stage, what I call the AFTERMATH, is showing the new life the hero is going to live, having completed that journey.
You talk a lot about percentage points in your approach to plot structure. Ten percent introduction, turning point at fifteen percent, middle fifty, setbacks at seventy five percent. It sounds like you’ve got it down to a mathematical equation.
I get a lot of heat for those – for declaring that every turning point occurs at exactly the same moment in a story. But the six-stage structure isn’t a set of hard and fast rules, it’s a guide. It’s based on the consistent elements of a thousand successful movies. So I usually say, the closer you are to those percentages, the stronger your story structure is going to be.
So, those percentage points are something writers should build around when constructing their script?
I caution against worrying about these percentages when you write the first draft or two. I’ve worked with writers who are so concerned about percentages and turning points that it stifles their creativity. You can’t be editing before you’ve created. These percentages are tools to use after you’ve got your story laid out, so you can start adjusting and making sure things are happening in a way that will maximize the emotional experience.
You really make structure sound pretty simple when you break it down into stages and turning points– sort of a connect the dots for storytelling.
Overall, it’s really probably even simpler than I made it sound. Basically it’s stage one, show the everyday hero. Stage two, put that hero in a new situation. Stage three, have that hero pursue a goal. Stage four, have the outside world close in on them and try and stop them. Stage five, they retreat, and then put everything on the line to make a final push to the climax, and stage six, we see the new life they’ve now begun to live.
In addition to the stages, steps and turning points outlined above, Michael Hauge goes deeper into the “nuts and bolts” of good screenplay structure in his classic book Writing Screenplays That Sell, now in it’s new 20th Anniversary edition. After a screenwriter defines their three act structure and the main “beats” of their story (beats is a commonly used theatrical term for the timing and movement in a film or play, but it can also mean a pause in dialogue), Mr. Hauge presents a very detailed list of ways to structurally maximize emotion and momentum.
These “dos and don’ts” include: making sure every scene and event moves your story forward, building the intensity of the obstacles your hero faces, creating peaks and valleys in your emotional and comedic impact, making sure to create anticipation for upcoming events, surprising the audience, making your story internally logical by not adding in multiple unrelated fantasy elements, properly foreshadowing and echoing major events and dialogue to show character growth and change, and increasing the conflict by condensing a screenplay’s time span and creating a “ticking clock”.
It’s also important to note (and Mr. Hauge was very clear on this point), that while he may often speak in absolutes and words like “never” and “always”, he cautions against any rule being unbreakable. His principles of structure are simply very common patterns that have worked for decades to get screenplays made into films.
For an abundance of articles and guidance on creating emotionally compelling and commercially successful screenplays and stories, and to find out about his speaking schedule and his coaching and consultation packages, visit Michael Hauge’s website at www.StoryMastery.com.