Screenwriting: A Tyro’s Perspective


Last month, I mentioned how a screenwriting workshop had affected my writing, particularly with respect to sorting out muddled middles.  In comments, several people asked me to elaborate on the workshop.  I’m going to do that this month, with the HUGE, OBVIOUS DISCLAIMER that I’m an absolute novice at screenwriting, having taken exactly one eight-hour course from one person who had one system to promote.

That said…

The session that I took was taught by Michael Hauge, a screenwriter who has worked with Will Smith (and several other producers) on a number of projects.  Hauge has been in the business for decades, and he has a near-encyclopedic knowledge of movies.  Prior to the class, he asked us to read a specific romance novel (this session was offered through my local chapter of Romance Writers of America), then to watch several films:  L.A. Confidential, The King’s Speech, Shrek, Titanic, Hitch, and Good Will Hunting.

After (re-)watching the movies, I was at a loss as to why they were on the viewing list.  Hauge’s reasoning, though, soon became clear.  Each of those movies follows the structure that he advocates.

Hauge emphasizes the parallel journeys of the hero — an external course (the plot of the film) and an internal course (the character of the hero).  In his system, both external and internal journeys hit transition points at the same time, making for a coherent and emotionally-satisfying story.

Hauge’s turning points are similar to those presented by other “plot workshop” leaders.  They are the “beats” that we’re told to count, or the “turning points” that we’re told to master.  The strength of Hauge’s presentation is the vast number of examples that he brings to bear, and the specific way that he links the internal and external journeys.

For me, the eye-opening concepts that Hauge introduced were:

  • At the one-quarter point of the story, the plot changes, broadening from the initial, simple problem to be solved into one much more complex.  At the same time, the hero glimpses the being that he can truly become. (e.g., Frodo, having delivered the ring to Rivendell, commits to joining the Fellowship)
  • At the half-way point of the story, the plot reaches a point of no return with absolute commitment of the characters.  At the same time, the hero commits to becoming his essential self (e.g., Frodo is taking the ring into Mordor, no matter what)
  • At the three-quarter point, there is a major setback.  At the same time, the hero temporarily retreats into his old, unevolved self, before returning to his new self (e.g., Frodo is taken by orcs)

(Those LotR references are mine, not Hauge’s, and they don’t line up exactly with the time division, but you get the idea…  Also, the last example isn’t as strong, on the character development side, as Frodo does not retreat to his Shire-self before Shelob attacks him.)

Prior to the workshop, I had always focused on introducing my story, marching my characters through a set of complications, reaching a climax, and working through the denouement.  Hauge’s theory gave me three more points to pin my story to, to gear up for specific action and reaction. He added a skeleton to support the muscles of the stories I’d been telling.

Incidentally, Hauge’s model works particularly well with romance novels, because of the genre’s trope of a Black Moment, the three-quarter point when the hero and heroine have a falling out that is seemingly insurmountable, until they discover their true love for each other. 

So.  That’s the model, in brief.  I’ve found that it truly helps to “trim and tone” the mid-section of my novels.  (Yes, I am wrestling with my weight loss goals.  Why do you ask?)

Does the system make sense to you?  Have you used similar systems in your own work, or identified them in works that you’ve read?  Do you see a usefulness in this type of structure?


13 comments to Screenwriting: A Tyro’s Perspective

  • The segmentation does make sense. It reminds me a bit of the Hollywood Formula (, which helped me a great deal in figuring out what my ending needed to be. You mentioned the “Black Moment” in romance, and Lou Anders called the “Low Point” in screenwriting.

    I’m currently still working through two of my books (cutting fat on one, working on the skeleton of the other), and looking at them in terms of formula is helpful, especially in finding out what to cut.

  • Ken

    Thanks for a very interesting post Mindy. I’m working with short stories right now and I can see how I can utilize that school of thought there as well (on an abbreviated scale, to be sure).

  • This makes perfect sense. I haven’t applied it to my own work, but I can see what you mean about it being well-suited for the romance structure. It’s definitely something I’d like to try for future projects. Thanks, Mindy!

  • Mindy,
    I find it immensely enjoyable when the internal conflict and external conflict of a story, film, game, comic, whatever are intermingled and affected by significant beats. Sometimes a smaller beat might affect internal or external and not both, which is a

    lso fine.

    Your post reminded me a long post by Film Critic Hulk on the myth of the three act structure. It’s definitely an interesting read if you can get past the ALL CAPS and fact that the author talks like the Incredible Hulk.

    In it he debunks the three acts by showing that they’re pretty vague, and points to smaller, more meaningful acts, which I think center around the same kind of beats you’re referring to above.


  • Unicorn

    Thanks for the very helpful post, Mindy. The major setback and return to former self at the three-quarter point was especially helpful and made a lot of sense. I’m thinking that it’s often one of the other characters who talks the hero into returning to his new self at this point, at least in my experience.
    Thanks again

  • Great stuff, Mindy, and the type of structuring that I would like to apply (loosely) to my own work. Thanks for breaking this down for us.

  • Great stuff Mindy! I thought about the structure of my novel and it does fit into some of the moments you describe, at about the same places. Stakes are raised at one point, my MC hits the “no going back now” moment about half way through (where Donald Mass says I can put a back story flashback…), and a “nevermind, I’m the person I used to be” moment near to the final climax. (The moment before my MC has to face both the big-bad and her internal conflict, fixing the latter to deal with the former).

    I find it ineresting how, even without deliberately plotting this way, a lot of writers find that we follow this kind of arc. I know that Stuart’s posts on the Monomyth a while ago were useful for similar reasons. Sometimes deliberately focusing on a potential pattern–explicitly considering it–can really help focus what needs to happen in specific moments or scenes. I’ll definitely think about this for my other WIPs, too.

  • I’ll agree with New Guy Dave… I increasingly find the traditional “3-Act Structure” to be less useful in plotting and structuring my work. I find a Shakespearean “5-Act” to be more useful (I’ve roughly structured my current WIP in a 5-act format), as well as a “W-diagram” to map out the turning points in a story (the points on the W diagram map roughly to Shakespeare’s 5 acts).

    The screenwriting method you discuss here makes sense as well, by mapping character turning points and plot turning points together, and I think this also connects well back to the W-diagram (the “Black Moment”, for instance, would map to the second trough of the W). Mapping character turning points and plot turning points, I think, makes a lot of sense because of how important character is to plot. A plot that isn’t driven by characters taking action and making decisions is just “stuff happening”.

  • I take that back. Looking at my MS, it seems that I actually *did* follow that structure, even if it was unconsciously. But *knowing* what I did is a really big help. 🙂

  • Razziecat

    Breaking down the story this way feels helpful to me, too. And you can cite Tolkien references all you want, Mindy, as I know that book backward and forward, whereas I’m not into movies very much.

    I find that I sometimes get so caught up in the action of my stories that I forget to pin it to the characters’ inward journey–not always, but often enough that I have to be conscious of what I’m doing. So this post is a great reminder to remember to tie the events of the story to the characters’ development and changes.

  • The Mathelete

    Fantastic post, Mindy. I’ve been anxiously awaiting your expansion on the screen writing thing, and I absolutely loved the bit about the external and internal courses. It succinctly summarizes exactly what I needed/found lacking in one of my WIPs I’m (slowly) editing. I’d also like to add 10 Things I Hate About You to the list of rather strict adherents to this formula. I’m sure there are many others, but that one just jumped into my mind reading your post.

    Also, extreme props — I rarely have to look up words, virtually never on something I read online, but you got me twice. I had no idea what a tyro was, and denouement completely threw me. I bow to the master. 😉

  • TwilightHero

    Hehehe…the turning points and their placement fit my WIP almost perfectly. This made my day 🙂

    Though I prefer a six-part structure, incidentally…kind of like LoTR. Huh.

    NewGuyDave: I’ve never been a Hulk fan, but this is hilarious! AND educational 😀

    And the Mathelete: I first found denouement in a console RPG, of all things. Who says video games don’t teach you anything 😛

  • LScribeHarris – There are lots of screenwriting formulas out there; I hope to do a lot more browsing in the next couple of months, to learn more about how best to use them! (I’d never heard the term “Black Moment” until after publishing my *sixth* romance novel. Huh.

    Ken – I think that the idea of pairing internal and external development will carry very well into short fiction. (As you note, the rest of the formula will have to be abbreviated, fairly substantially!

    Laura – I suspect that if SFWA had hosted the Hauge session, I would find the system perfectly suited for speculative fiction!

    NewGuyDave – Thanks for introducing me to Film Critic Hulk! Yes, I think that Three Act structure helps, but it goes nowhere near far enough to build a meaningful story completely.

    Unicorn – That 3/4 point was also an eye-opener for me. I felt like that one point has firmed up my manuscripts more than anything else.

    DavidBCoe – I agree that the key is “loose” application. Being ruled by these points is no better than being ruled by the muddle in the middle…

    pea-faerie – I’ve heard Maass speak before, and I own one of his books, but I have not yet read it. Ah… where can we find those extra hours that we need… I think that a lot of this structure analysis is obvious – we want characters to learn and grow from beginning to end. The revelation, for me, was tying character to plot — and that 3/4 point near turn-around.

    Stephen A. Watkins – You know, I’ve read and scene *scores* of Shakespeare plays (OK, not read scores, but you know what I mean…) and I’ve never diagrammed them this way. Hmm… Off to do some studying…

    Laura – Isn’t it fun when we find out that we’re smarter than we think we are?

    Razziecat – I’m glad that the Tolkien references resonated for you! Unlike you, I tend to forget to add action, to offset my characters’ inner development!

    Mathelete – I’m glad you found this post helpful! I haven’t seen 10 Things (but I recently saw a version of TAMING that worked brilliantly – and I frequently find that play too flawed for modern production…) (And I’m glad that I got to feed your vocabulary a couple of snippets!)

    TwilightHero – So glad that I could be of service 🙂 Part of Hauge’s structure is geared toward having appropriate breaks for commercials, so it’s not necessarily the best for novels…
    February 16, 2012 at 4:09 am · Edit