Last month a number of other children’s authors and I attended the Screenwriters’ Summit in Toronto. I’ve already written about what I learned from speakers Linda Seger and John Truby, and now I’ve finally found a moment to write about my favourite speaker of the conference, Michael Hauge.
Because all the speakers have books that they’d love you to buy, I haven’t summarized their entire talks; instead Ive chosen the one nugget of wisdom in each that struck me the most.
Michael Hauge is well known for his Six Stage Plot Structure, and he writes very powerfully about how to create empathy with a main character, even a flawed or unlikeable one. He also understands dramatic conflict better than most other writers I’ve read. But for any of that you’ll have to read his book Writing Screenplays That Sell, newly republished in a 20th anniversary edition.
The shiniest nugget I came away with from Hauge’s talk was about the relationship between plot development and character development or, as he put it, the relationship between outer conflict and inner conflict.
Before hearing this talk I saw these two story elements very separately. My thinking went something like this: I’ve got a plot, which includes an inciting incident, rising action, climax etc. and along the way my character should probably go through a change, so I’ll be sure to have him edge towards change and withdraw a few times until the end where he’ll embrace the change fully. Since listening to Hauge, however, these two story arcs have become much more united in my mind.
I’m probably over-summarizing here—really, read the book!—but for me, his advice on figuring out a character’s inner conflict came down to asking myself these four questions:
What is your hero’s wound?
The hero has a wound or source of pain from his past that he has suppressed but has never really dealt with.
What is your hero’s belief?
Out of the hero’s wound comes a (usually mistaken) belief such as: I’m worthless (Will in Goodwill Hunting), I won’t survive without a rich man to take care of me (Rose in Titanic), if I show people my true self, I will be rejected (Shrek in Shrek) or, if I live as my true self, I will die (Ennis in Brokeback Mountain).
What is your hero’s identity?
The hero’s identity is the false self that they present to the world in order to protect themselves from re-experiencing the wound.
What is your hero’s essence?
The hero’s essence is what’s left if the identity is dropped, the hero’s true self.
For Hauge, character development is the pull between the strong desire to remain in the identity and the need, brought about by the events of the story, to live in essence.
And here’s the connection I promised between outer conflict and inner conflict: According to Hauge, a satisfying outer conflict is created when a hero can only reach his goal if he abandons his false self and embraces his true one. You can see this from his examples: Will, Rose and Shrek all have to reject their mistaken beliefs, abandon their armor, and live in their essences in order to gain the courage to face the climaxes of their stories.
Identity and essence, Hauge says, define the difference between a sad ending and a tragic one. Although the ending to Titanic is sad—Rose experiences a great loss—she does move into her true essence at the end of the story, so it is not tragic. In Brokeback Mountain, however, Ennis not only experiences great loss but also fails to abandon his false identity, and so his ending is a tragic one.
I’d love to hear your thoughts!