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The Hauge

Which screenwriting consultant is on retainer to Will Smith’s production company?

Which story expert can spot your novel’s flaw in six seconds flat?

Who can help you take your story to a whole new level?

Michael Hauge.

If you’re not familiar with his Six Stage Plot Structure, check it out here.

I was lucky enough to attend Michael’s workshop last weekend in Bethesda, and it was incredible. On day one, he went through each step of the hero’s inner and outer journey, using popular movies (including video clips) like Shrek, Wedding Crashers, Hitch, Gladiator, and Good Will Hunting to illustrate the concepts.

The second day we spent the morning analyzing Sleepless in Seattle in depth, as well as reviewing key concepts from the day before.

In addition to the lectures, I learned a lot from his advice to others in the audience. Eight of us won the raffle to eat lunch with him where we asked general questions, and each got some one-on-one time where in thirty seconds he nailed my problem with the external story goal: no visible finish line/item that readers could imagine (e.g. a trophy, $20000, a dead terrorist, the deed to that coveted beach cottage).

The event covered a day and a half, so I could write a book on what I learned, but instead, I’ll share with you some of my favorite takeaways.

  • Emotion in a story grows out of conflict, not desire.
  • The arc moves the protagonist from identity to essence.
    • Identity: the emotional armor we wear to protect ourselves; our facade
    • Essence: who we are when you strip away all the emotional armor; our true self
  • In a romance, the love interest should be the protagonist’s destiny because he/she sees beneath the protag’s identity and connects at the level of essence. (Not just chemistry or kismet.)
  • When two characters are in conflict, it’s at the level of identity; when they’re connected, it’s at the level of essence. (This was a huge aha for me. I think this will really help me understand why conflict is lacking in certain scenes.)
  • Instead of the protag having to make a choice as the conflict, have her try to take on both things she wants to do. The conflict can come in trying to make both endeavors work (e.g. caring for an ailing parent and running a business).

Even if you’ve listened to his CD The Hero’s Two Journeys with Christopher Vogler, I highly recommend Michael’s in-person workshop. Not only will you pick up things you didn’t catch before, but having him there to answer questions is priceless. And if you haven’t tried The Hero’s Two Journeys, what are you waiting for? 😉

Not all educational opportunities are worth the time and money, though I’ve found that every workshop, craft book, or online class provides a new way of looking at something I already knew, a deeper understanding, or an outright epiphany.

Michael Hauge’s workshop was worth every minute and every penny. If you get the chance, go.

Lightbulb moments

Writers who talk about structure often reference the concept of story beats. Like beats of music in a song, story beats are the little moments that are strung together to make a novel or screenplay.

But I never quite understood how long a story beat was until I started reading STORY by Robert McKee. He’s the first author I’ve read that clearly defined it, and he basically said that a beat is one unit of cause and effect. Or action/reaction. Which made me think of Dwight Swain’s motivation-reaction units. Hmm.

In other words, every time someone says or does something and the other character reacts to it, that’s a beat. Or the character sees, feels, hears, tastes, or smells something and reacts to it with thought, action, or both.

Lightbulb moment.

I love how the more books I read, the more concepts overlap and gel together to solidify an idea I hadn’t yet grasped.

Another one that I didn’t think I’d seen in quite this way before—but, of course, the next day I saw the concept mentioned in Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT! GOES TO THE MOVIES—was the idea of taking the character from one state (or charge) to its opposite. For example, when we talk about character arc, we’re taking our character from unloved to loved, or afraid of fire to able to run through fire, or risk-averse to daring.

So – to +, or the reverse. Boiling it down to two opposing charges really clarified things for me. Such a simple but powerful idea that should make it easier to put the character arc into words and see quickly if it’s really a change.

McKee believes we should not only do this for the whole story, but for each scene, sequence (a string of scenes with its own climax, like a chapter), and act.

I can envision + and – signs alongside my goal/conflict/disaster notes for each scene, and going through my outline when I’m done with the first draft to make sure I flipped the character’s circumstances or way of thinking. Somehow it’s easier when you break it down to employed/unemployed, married/divorced, safe/unsafe, sad/happy, hot/cold, poor/rich.

I’m only on chapter two of STORY, so I expect to have more lightbulb moments along the way.

Had any of your own lately that you’d like to share?

Photo credit: LAPTOP IDEA © Yanik Chauvin | Dreamstime.com

Facing the abyss

Every time I talk about my evolving writing process, I’m sure my long-time blog followers just roll their eyes and think, “Again?” Watching me over the last two years has been like the proverbial tennis match where I’m the ball bouncing between Plotting and Pantsing.

My first three books—and two in there that went unfinished—were written “into the mist”, begun with only the spark of a premise and a rough idea of my characters. After the pain of cutting as many as 15,000 words to work myself out of a corner, and being unable to finish those two books for lack of direction, I decided that I should approach my writing in a more organized fashion. One that befits a logic-oriented, list-making planner like myself.

I came to this opinion after reading brilliant books from the likes of Larry Brooks and Blake Snyder and hearing others wax on about plotting and structure and how it saves them. Published authors talked of the need to provide synopses or outlines for future books to their editors, and I wondered how I’d ever do that if I remained firmly in the pantser crowd.

And while I did manage to do some rough outlining before I wrote BLIND FURY—outlining that helped keep me on target during NaNoWriMo—I still ended up writing blind a lot of the time. Which, to be honest, is half the fun.

So, I fancied myself a hybrid writer, plotser, tweener, or whatever your favorite term is. If I could just take a few weeks of “prewriting” to nail down the GMC for the main characters and get my major turning points in place before I got started, the words would flow like the great Mississippi.

Or not.

So—for now—I’ve decided I’m this kind of writer: a heavy-on-the-pantsing hybrid writer who must (as my friend Sharon Wray put it) “embrace the abyss of revisions” at the end. Because, let’s face it, my need for perfection from the outset came from a desire to avoid those agonizing rewrites that I now think are unavoidable whether I plot or not.

I had become so paralyzed by my need for a workable structure that I didn’t write anything of value for four months! I played with scenes, wrote ten—I’m not kidding—different story openings for a book I’ve been thinking about for months, wrote getting-to-know-my-character scenes, and generally goofed off, but didn’t sit down and get serious.

Some of those words will be useful, but it avoided the real work of starting the book.

A few things helped get me unstuck. Dwight Swain’s amazing book TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER. A lot of omphaloskepsis. And just this week, this post by Allison Brennan.

So, I’m back to where I started, but with a different perspective. I now have an awareness of structure and of what types of scenes I need to be writing if I’m in the first 25K of the book versus the last 25K.

I know about scene and sequel, motivation-reaction units, active setting, and ending hooks. I know that if I finish the book and it doesn’t need any plot changes—ha, I wish!—I’d still have to go back and layer in more emotion, dig into deeper POV through setting, tighten the action, polish the words.

I know that if I finish the book and the structure is off, I can fix it.

I know that if I run with my original idea and get stuck along the way, I can always back up and forge a new path.

I know that the first draft doesn’t have to be—and in fact, will never be—perfect.

So I’m standing on the cliff facing the abyss again.

Time to jump.

Photo credit: MORARU RIDGE IN FOG – BUCEGI MOUNTAINS © Iuliana Bucurescu | Dreamstime.com

Getting started

It’s hard to determine a story’s turning points if you don’t know where it begins. Duh, right? But a large part of my pre-writing phase has been focused on figuring out what is back-story and what’s not.

It sounds like such a simple concept, but beginning too early or too late can be the death of an otherwise good manuscript. In my experience judging contest entries—and with my own writing—the temptation to start too early is especially strong.

In our desire to make sure the reader understands what’s going on, we’re tempted to throw in everything that’s happened to the hero since birth. While some books do this well, in my opinion the best books start with a change, or a foreshadowing of change. That is, a spark or catalyst that logically sets things in motion.

I recently judged a contest entry where the writing—the element of getting words on the page in a coherent and interesting fashion that makes me want to keep reading—was good. Unfortunately, the author started too far back and I eventually grew impatient for the “real story” to start already.

In my own manuscript, Slow Burn, I originally had opening scenes where the hero’s brother is kidnapped, the hero gets shot, and later the heroine escapes from a boat into the ocean and then struggles to survive the cold water. Some of those scenes were pretty exciting, but when I tried to figure out what the goal of the scenes were in relation to the story I realized I’d started too early in the characters’ lives.

Where did things really change for them in a relevant way? When Steve found Libby floating in the water.

That was the inciting incident. (And coincidentally, or not, that scene was the original spark for the whole book.) It brought them together, started them on their initial journey, and paved the way for my first turning point. Everything I’d written before that became back-story that I sprinkled throughout the MS.

And in fact, not immediately knowing how or why Libby ended up in the ocean creates a story question that hopefully entices the reader to keep reading.

What about you? Do you struggle with where to start?

Word processing

I’m starting a new manuscript. I love the feeling of having a new story rolling around in my brain. Usually, it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while. And after two years of working at this, I’m starting to learn how my creative half works.

It starts with the spark, whatever that is and wherever it comes from. For example, the spark in Slow Burn was the idea that a guy on a mission finds a woman floating in the water and his reaction when he realizes she’s alive is: “damn”.

But how to go from there to a 300-page book? Good question. I used to just write. It was an exciting and stressful process wherein I wrote about 10-20,000 words and then realized I didn’t know where to go next.

On a few occasions, I backed up and started over and the end result is much better, especially after several rounds of revisions. In a couple of instances, I stopped altogether. I have two 100-page manuscripts out there whose characters I still think about and hope to someday find a story for.

If you’re one of the diehards who’s been around since the early days of me yapping in bits and bytes, you know that I’ve begun a slow progression towards plotting. Actually, that makes it sound like a smooth transition, but it happened in fits and starts with plenty of backtracking. And a one-eighty or two. Be honest, you were all just rolling your eyes as I went back and forth trying to find the magic process that would make writing easy. Hah! As if.

I’m envisioning my journey like a football game where I gained and lost a lot of yardage, but eventually made a first down. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a plotter—and although I’m migrating toward that end of the scale, I’ll probably never be a detailed outliner like Suzanne Brockmann (she of the 80-pagers)—but I’m definitely not writing into the mist in quite the same way that I used to.

In fact, that post about writing into the mist was written shortly after my first attempt to outline Blind Fury. It turns out that I just hadn’t found the right story. I gave up too soon. I didn’t play enough.

After I tackled outlining a second time, I met with success. Blind Fury is currently in the CP comment stage after a first-pass round of edits, and is my first book to surpass 70K. I still changed the outline as I went. And in between the major turning points I was still writing in the fog, sure only of my approximate destination. That’s the pantser part of me getting to play.

And yet, I rarely got lost in the fog precisely because I knew where I needed to be and could correct my course—or decide to take a detour—as needed. This doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for me, and I’m so glad to have figured it out. I think knowing your own process is as important as understanding the craft of writing.

Because suddenly, I can estimate how much time I need to write a book. And while that doesn’t matter now, since nobody’s asking, I hope it will someday. I know that I need 4-6 weeks of brainstorming, teeth gnashing, and general fretting that I’m a two-trick pony, before I’m ready to start (though an advance check might induce me to get creative in a hurry ;-)).

During that pre-writing phase, I write random scenes and backstory ideas. I try to come up with a log line and a short pitch, and the GMC for each major character. I get a feel for which story ideas I do and don’t like. I play with the outline. I tweak it. Once I have it down, my brain ruminates while I do other things and bubbles up suggestions while I’m driving or reading a book.

Then I play some more with scenes that I think will fit the outline. Just the ones that pique my interest. And then at the end of that, I have a pretty good starting outline that will probably change—but not enough to make it unrecognizable—along with some scenes which may or may not make it into the final story in some form.

And then I start writing in earnest. With Blind Fury, I wrote almost 80,000 words in two months. That accounts for more than half of the total words I wrote in 2010. And I think it’s some of my best work ever (but I could just be delusional—ask my CPs).

Today I filled in the basic story structure for MS1_2011 (uh, working title) and I’m getting excited. Based on what I came up with, I started playing with character backstory scenes and I’m having fun again. Maybe in another week or so, I’ll be ready to hit the keys in earnest.

I can’t wait.

Chalk outline

In spite of my handy, dandy outline, I’m already revising part one of my current MS. Such a revision is exactly what I was hoping to avoid by having an outline, but in this case it had more to do with tweaking my hero, than with changing major story events. In light of this, you might be wondering if I’d consider the outline a failure.

Absolutely not.

In fact, I’m surprised to find that it’s making my life easier, and actually helping with the creative process. When scene ideas come to me, I wedge them into the outline to see how they fit and affect the scenes around them, making other changes as necessary.

Even more importantly, when I’m stuck and not sure what to write, I go back to the outline—stored conveniently in a Scrivener document within my project—and figure out what needs to come next. It provides direction. I can still get there any way I want.

The outline isn’t written in stone. In fact, it get tweaked (usually in minor ways) frequently, but for the most part, my major turning points have stayed the same. It’s the arches in between the pillars that change. The highway between cities that sometimes requires a detour.

I like to think of my outline as a WIP just like my MS: fixed, but easily modified. It’s definitely not a tool that I’m ready to draw a chalk outline around.

Pillars of the story

A copy I found in the Westminster Abbey gift shop in London.

I’m munching on deformed peanut butter cups and brainstorming for my next book. There are three ideas swirling in my head right now (or maybe four), but I think I’ve finally picked one and so I’m figuring out the basic plot points.

Yes, I’ve said I’m a pantser, mister–or whatever you want to call it–who doesn’t work well with structure. I’ve gone back and forth on plotting versus pantsing and somewhere-in-between so many times your neck probably hurts from watching. But I think my failed experiment with plotting had less to do with the act of creating a structure, and more to do with not having found the right one yet.

But I was recently re-inspired.

My husband and I are watching the Starz! production of Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (on Netflix instant play via Wii–LOVE my technology). He’s one of my very favorite authors in any genre, and that book is up at the top of my list of best books ever. It’s been years since I read it, so the mini-series–which is surprisingly well done–has been an excellent reminder of what an incredible storyteller Follett is. And I’ve noticed a couple things.

Follett’s not afraid to put his characters through hell. In fact, I cringe at what they go through and at how evil some of the antagonists in his story are. As events unfold, I can almost imagine Follett asking himself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen to this character now?”

Also, the character’s goals and motivations are very clear, and they act accordingly without fail.

So as I move forward with my next book, I will try to incorporate these elements and create a framework on which to build my story, while still honoring my need to “wing it” from plot point to plot point. The major plot points are the pillars, and the fun is in creating the arches that connect them.

Wish me luck on my journey from apprentice to master builder. And, good luck in your own journey!