Updated July 2023
This month’s interview and Industry Influencer spotlight is shining on Michael Hauge, a story consultant, author, and lecturer who works with screenwriters, novelists, filmmakers, and executives. Michael has coached writers, producers, stars, and directors on projects for Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, and Morgan Freeman, and is currently on retainer with Will Smith’s company, Overbrook Productions, where he was involved in the development of I Am Legend, Hancock, and The Karate Kid.
Michael is the best-selling author of Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read, as well as the new 20th Anniversary Edition of his classic book Writing Screenplays That Sell. A number of Michael’s seminars, including The Hero’s 2 Journeys with Christopher Vogler, are available on DVD and CD at bookstores worldwide and through his website below. For information on his consultation services, products, or lecture schedule, go to http://www.storymastery.com/.
Let the interview begin! (And find out about Michael’s special offer at the end.)
Some books make great movies; some don’t. What types of books make the best movies? Are there common elements? And how can a writer tell if his/her book has the potential to be a big-screen success?
Fiction writers must realize that much of what makes a novel great is, by definition, eliminated from the movie: writing style, interior thoughts of the characters, narration. Small elements of these might survive an adaptation in the form of dialogue or voice-over narration, but these will never be the elements that sell a screenplay or draw an audience.
So that leaves three primary reasons why a novel or short story adaptation becomes a blockbuster: it’s based on a huge bestseller (Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Lovely Bones); it has a major star or director attached (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Moneyball); or it contains the key elements of a successful movie story. These are:
1. An empathetic HERO – a protagonist (male, female, or android) with whom we identify from the very beginning of the story.
2. A clear, visible OUTER MOTIVATION that the hero is desperate to achieve by the end of the story. Whether it’s to stop a killer, win a competition, rob a bank, or win the love of one’s destiny, this goal must create a finish line that the hero is struggling to cross from the end of the first act (the 25% mark) until the climax of the film. This is NOT some inner feeling or state of being (success, acceptance, self-worth), but rather a goal that creates a clear, consistent image for anyone who hears it.
3. Monumental, seemingly insurmountable CONFLICT. If the hero’s goal doesn’t seem impossible and doesn’t force the hero to put everything on the line, the story won’t elicit sufficient emotion to get people to line up or tune in to see the movie.
4. SIMPLICITY. Movie stories can easily be expressed in a single sentence. Long, convoluted, multicharacter stories are almost impossible to advertise.
5. FAMILIARITY. Audiences prefer genre films that follow a consistent set of rules and promise a predictable emotional experience. The individual details of the plot and characters should be original, but movies that are hard to categorize are also hard to sell.
Should a novelist attempt to write a screenplay for his/her book or leave it to the professionals?
That depends on your goal. If the story concept for your novel meets all those criteria outlined in Question #1, and if you want to develop a second career as a screenwriter, then you may want to adapt it yourself. But if you’re doing it as a one-time-only endeavor or if you hope to retain the integrity of the story, don’t. Screenwriting is a difficult craft that involves a whole new learning curve and a lot of practice, as well as a lot less respect given to the writer than in the world of publishing. And no matter how much you want to protect your story, you can’t. Sooner or later you will be rewritten, and whoever purchased the film rights will always have the final say. So if you’re really not that committed to screenwriting, just option the rights, count your money, and move on to what excites you—writing your next novel.
After buying your book and writing a screenplay, what is an author’s next step?
Both my books go into great detail about the process of marketing and pitching screenplays and manuscripts. But the first thing you must do after writing your screenplay is rewrite it. Then rewrite it again. And then again. And when you are convinced your work is as good and as commercial as you can possibly make it, you MUST get feedback from others whose judgment you trust—either five people in your network or writers group, or a professional consultant like me. Then you must use those opinions and suggestions to do another rewrite. And then another. Then give it to more people for their comments, and then rewrite it again. And then… you get the point. Only when you are consistently told that your script is ready to market can you begin pursuing the people in power and persuading them to read your work.
If a writer is shopping around a book manuscript that has not yet been published, is it worthwhile to also be pitching a screenplay of that book at the same time? Or is it better to wait until the book is out?
Pitch the screenplay—or even just the film rights—at the same time. If you get a deal for a movie version, your manuscript becomes much more valuable to publishers. However, this assumes that your story contains those elements outlined in #1. And if you’ve written a complete screenplay of the story as well, be sure that you have gotten the consistent, positive feedback described in the previous question. Otherwise it’s not ready to shop.
Any trends in stories that transition to the big screen that we in the world of books should know about?
No. Forget about trends. Pay attention to those essential elements I discussed in the first question and write a great story. By the time that script or manuscript is ready to show, any trend I mention today will have long since been replaced by some new one.
WRITER’S RELIEF OFFER: Michael Hauge has a special offer just for Writer’s Relief subscribers—the opportunity to discuss the story concept for your next novel in a one-hour coaching session for just $150 (half his normal rate). During your one-on-one phone consultation, he will make sure that the basic story concept, plot structure, and character arcs are clear enough, unique enough, and commercial enough to grab the attention of agents, editors, and publishers. This offer expires November 30 and is limited to the first ten subscribers who sign up, but your coaching session can be any time within the next six months—whenever best fits your schedule. To take advantage of this unique opportunity, please email Contact@StoryMastery.com, tell them you’re interested in the Writer’s Relief special offer, and they will tell you how to proceed.
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