Screenwriting Techniques For Novels

This past weekend I attended a workshop given by screenplay consultant Michael Hauge.  At first I was a little skeptical, wondering how movie techniques really related to novels, but I have to say, the workshop was enlightening.

Obviously, I can't cover everything from the all day workshop, but I do want to share some of the big points that I gained from the class.


First, is the opening.  With our culture now being so immediate gratification oriented, we're told to start our books in the middle of things, right at the point of change.  However, in the article I linked to a while back on The Biggest Bad Advice About Story Openings, this can be a problem.  If we don't care about the character or know anything about them yet, then who gives a flip if in the opening paragraph the MC is being chased by angry monkeys?  In fact, in that case, I may tend to side with the monkeys.

So, according to Mr. Hauge, the answer is simple: do what they do in movies, have a setup.  Here's how he defines the setup stage:

The opening 10% of your screenplay must draw the reader, and the audience, into the initial setting of the story, must reveal the everyday life your hero has been living, and must establish identification with your hero by making her sympathetic, threatened, likable, funny and/or powerful. (source)

This does not mean loads of backstory, this means giving a glimpse of who the person is and what they are like day to day BEFORE the big bad change flips their world on its head.  Think of some of your favorite movies.  Often this setup scene starts as the opening credits are still rolling.  Here are examples from 80s movies I'm sure everyone has seen.

  • Dirty Dancing - she's in the car reading a book (so we guess she's smart), vain sister is looking in a mirror, Baby hugs her dad and we can tell she's a daddy's girl, her family looks happy, we hear that she's going to join the Peace Corps, all in literally the first minute of the movie (although some of it is telling and now showing, mind you).  Here's the clip if your interested.
  • The Breakfast Club - Before we're ever in the detention room, we see most of the kids arriving with their parents, giving us a glimpse into their everyday life.  If you'd like to see how the brilliant John Hughes wrote it, you can view the screenplay here.

So this doesn't have to be pages and pages, but a glimpse gives us a baseline to start from.  Also, don't forget the second part of Michael's quote above, in the setup you MUST help the reader identify with your character through one of those ways he listed.  

In the workshop, he went into each of those ways to create a connection to character.  I can't list all the details, because I'm sure that would be a copyright no-no, so I would suggest buying his book--the information is so worth it (no, he's not paying me to say that, I don't even know the guy.)

Log Lines & Unique Ideas

Another point I learned was about log lines and story ideas.  Wednesday I mentioned that the agents/editors said they wanted familiar ideas with a new twist (so same but different.)  Mr. Hauge reiterated this point.  He said that when you are trying to come up with your pitch, if you can't think of any movies/books that are similar, then your idea is probably not going to sell.

When he first said this, I kind of bristled--like wait, isn't originality the name of the game?  Yes and no.  Ever see a movie or read a book and you're left going--what the hell was THAT?  Most of the time it's because the idea was so off the wall, you couldn't relate to it.  It's not to say that it didn't have some merit, but people (in general) want something that is at least a bit familiar.  And chances are if something is a really good idea, it probably has been done before. 

He used movies as an example, he said that 90% of stories (movies or books) follow the same general structure.  That structure is the crux of his plotting technique.  Click here for a detailed article on his structure. This is the part of the workshop that hopefully is going to change how I think about my stories.  This is the perfect simple outline for me (the avid pantser).  But what this structure shows is that we all know what to expect in a movie even if the plot elements are different--and we like having the comfort of that structure.

Now I'm not going to say that there aren't some out there things that have totally worked.  And maybe you are the person who is going to create a whole new genre or style of writing.  However, the chances of that are slim.  As I like to reference from the movie He's Just Not That Into You--most of us are the rule, not the exception (despite how much we try to convince ourselves otherwise).  So if you're going to do something experimental, just know that it's probably going to be a tougher road ahead.

Log Lines and Word Vomit

Alright, and the last point that really resonated with me from the talk was:  the more words in your pitch/logline the more problems you have with your story.  He said that you should be able to say in 2-3 sentences what your story is about without adding--"well you'd understand this better if you read the book because really there is a lot of other things that are hard to explain and blah blah blah."  He said he can sum up almost every movie out there with one sentence.  

I've referenced this before but lists log lines for movies and can be a great tool to see the straightforward pitch we should be going for.

Here's an example from the movie Knocked Up:

For fun loving party animal Ben Stone, the last thing he ever expected was for his one night stand to show up on his doorstep eight weeks later to tell him she's pregnant. (source)

This log line thing has been an issue for me in the past, so this is something I definitely am going to work on.  So just remind yourself when you start spewing all those words, to dial back and keep it simple.

Alright, I know that's a bit of a mishmash, but I wanted to hit the points that stuck out the most for me.

Can you think of a great setup scene in a movie?  What have you done in your opening to make the reader care about the character?  What do you think of the whole idea of the setup vs. jumping write into the action sentence one?