What Do You Do All Day? (or "Stop Me Before I Volunteer Again")
Saturday, October 19, 2002
What I finished reading today:
Writing Screenplays that Sell by Michael Hague
Since I'm an aspiring screenwriter, and currently in the process of writing my own book for other folks in the same position, I read a lot of screenwriting books. And, yes, many of them do cover the same territory over and over. But I've also discovered that almost all the most enduring screenwriting books, and almost all the authors who become famous for writing them, have at least one small unique spin on the material that makes them worth reading.
Also, even though I'm long past the introductory stage myself, beginning screenwriters do often ask me which of the well-known books and or screenwriting teacher/gurus are most worth their attention. So I do feel compelled to keep up with the genre, and every now and then I pick up a very introductory text, either because it's brand new and I want to find out what a new author's unique take is, or simply because the book is already well known and I just never got around to reading it before. This book falls into the latter category.
For years, I've had friends and acquaintences either read Hague's book or take one of his workshops - more on them at his Screenplay Mastery site - and then, for weeks afterword, all I hear is, "Do you agree with what Hague says about...?" or "Hague says you should always..." So something about this guy's advice really does tend to stick with people.
In general, however, Hague's book impressed me a lot less than many other introductory screenwriting texts. As expected, he provides the obligatory basics of three-act structure, the kinds of story concepts that do and don't sell, and other key elements of screenwriting (plot, theme, foreshadowing, etc.). But these sections don't go into as much depth or seem as sharply observed as they are in other books. Hauge also introduces a system for setting up archetypal characters and tracking their actions through the story, but this process seems quite cumbersome to me, and even though I'm a very detail-oriented writer, I don't think I'd be able to wrap my head around it during the writing process. And, finally, the example films Hague uses to illustrate his points - most prominently The Karate Kid - feel a bit long in the tooth (the book has been reprinted many times since its original 1988 publication, but a peek at a current table of contents on Amazon.com shows the main story analysis chapter has not been updated with either newer or more truly classic film examples).
But now, having said all that, I will also say that, as with almost all other well-known screenwriting authors, there is one thing Hague does very, very, very well in this book, and which alone makes it worth buying and reading. And that's his explanation of how to motivate characters, boot them into action, and make their actions ring true within the confines of the story. In my work, I can read hundreds of scripts a year, and one of the most common problems with those that just don't work is a protagonist who isn't active, doesn't drive the story as a true hero should...or whose actions seem forced by the hand of the screenwriter and don't feel like things a real person could or would do in the same situation.
But Hague goes into great depth in describing how to create both inner motivations (wants and needs) and outer motivations (external circumstances that press the character into action), which are absolutely critical...and too often overlooked in screenwriting. And he does it better than any other screenwriting author I've read. So if you read this book, that's definitely what you should read it for. Other authors may do a better job of explaining basic structure and other facets of character construction, but nobody I've read yet, among scores of similar books, does a better job of so simply and thoroughly explaining how to create convincing character motivations. That's the gem that's buried here...and it's well worth digging out.