Screenplay concepts

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We may like to fondly imagine that the good films we see are made by creative artistic types who just want to share their dreams and visions with us, and would even do it only for the love of it. Well, if we were so foolish, Michael Hauge’s Writing Screenplays That Sell (2011) gives the lie to that, as the screenwriting class I’ve been attending makes clear. What are films about? It’s about the money, stupid.

The Hollywood movie needs essential ingredients in order to get the movie-goer to consume the product. But some ingredients — five in particular, Hauge suggests — are essential for both artistic and commercial success. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether you want to make a film that makes money or wins critical acclaim, certain criteria will decide whether it rises to the surface or sinks without trace: “no movie,” he tells us, “can succeed without these five qualities.” These are a hero or heroine, empathy for this protagonist, desire to achieve a specific objective, conflict for the protagonist to overcome, and risk that forces the protagonist to find the courage to overcome the barriers to success.

Whatever the genre of the film — romcom, action, thriller, fantasy — Hauge’s proposition on the whole seems to hold true. These ingredients seem to figure prominently whatever the narrative, for example if we consider the supposed seven basic plots of Overcoming the Monster, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Rags to Riches, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth. It’s not hard to see that if we expect traditional stories to include Hauge’s five criteria they must indeed also be essential for Hollywood films to be commercial. But do they equally apply to films where artistic merit is the goal, where the filmmaker sees him- or herself as auteur foremost, less a manufacturer of money-spinners?

Whisper of the Heart is a 1995 Studio Ghibli anime based on a 1989 manga. Directed by the late Yoshifumi Kondō, the screenplay was written by the celebrated Hayao Miyazaki and, unsurprisingly, includes those five ingredients; also unsurprisingly it did well at the Japanese box-office by becoming the highest-grossing film that year.

Hero/ine
This is Shizuku Tsukishima, a 14-year-old Tokyo student who is friends with Yuko. For a studio that leans heavily on book adaptation, it’s not surprising that Shizuku herself is a bookworm (and has no mean singing voice too).

Empathy
As we’ve all been young it’s not hard to feel for the youngster’s evident teenage angst, making Whisper of the Heart a vehicle for a coming-of-age story.

Desire
“There must be at least one clear, specific objective that the hero hopes to achieve by the end of the story.” Running for just under two hours the film has at least four conundrums to solve by the end:
1. Who is the mysterious Seiji Amasawa who seems to borrow the same books as Shizuku?
2. Why is a cat riding the same subway train as Shizuku to an antique shop?
3. What is the mystery surrounding the statuette of a gentleman cat called The Baron?
4. Will Shizuku follow the whisper of her heart and write stories?

Conflict
Again, several threads conspire to thwart Shizuku in her desire to find her heart’s desire. They include an apparent ‘love triangle’ between Shizuku, her friend Yuko and a classmate Sugimura; her continuous irritation at Seiji the book borrower, whom she eventually gets to meet; and her family situation with kind but busy and distant parents and a busybody sister who bosses her around.

Risk
baronHauge tells us that in facing these challenges, hurdles, and obstacles in pursuit of her motivation, the heroine “must ultimately put everything on the line. [She] must find the physical or emotional courage to risk things of vital importance.” This is what the screenplay has to resolve and “this is what the audience will stick around to find out”. As far as Shizuku is concerned, she risks losing her newfound boyfriend, a talented amateur violin maker who wants to hone his skills in Cremona, Italy. As a result she distracts herself by embarking on a task that she has up to now fought shy of — writing a fantasy novel, one in which the cat statuette features centre stage.

All recipes have ingredients of course, but not every cook can be guaranteed to bake the same quality cake. Studio Ghibli films have an integrity that encompasses honesty, emotional sensibility and a distinctive artistry, all of which ensure that the end results are nearly always more than the sum of their parts.

* * * * *

Hauge adds two further items to his checklist, though he emphasises that they are not essential. One is a high concept — where “the story idea alone is sufficient to attract an audience”. (Whisper of the Heart did well because the home audience had expectations of a Studio Ghibli film, and no doubt because it was based on a manga, the comic book genre that is highly rated in Japan.) The other is a commercial goal, in which he claims that “more than 95% of all Hollywood movies are about heroes pursuing one of only five visible objectives”: winning,; stopping something bad from happening; escaping from a threat; delivering something of value; retrieving something of value. (While Whisper of the Heart has elements of many of these, its subtle narrative where no single objective dominates suggests that it was never going to achieve the same commercial success in the Western world as the typical Hollywood movie, with its focus on one objective.)

It’s interesting to consider not only how many popular films have these elements in just the right proportions for success but also how many novels include them too. It’s certainly possible to write screenplays and books using these elements as a template, but in truth great narratives have indefinable qualities that lift them above the formulaic stories that customarily provide our everyday fodder. Those qualities you can’t always readily identify.

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2 thoughts on “Screenplay concepts

  1. I agree that screenwriters and novelists shouldn’t use Hauge’s qualities as checklists or templates, but I find it useful to keep lists like this (and the 7 plots) over my desk. Whenever I get stuck, I can look at the lists and think, What does my MC really want? or What’s in the way of the MC achieving the goal?
    And I bet every writer, successful or not, wishes someone could identify those qualities that take a story beyond formulaic to great. But it’s like trying to figure out what makes things funny: not only not the same for everyone, but changing all the time.

    1. I think most of us have an instinct for what makes a good narrative without necessarily being able to analyse it or put it into words, but as you say, Lizzie, it’s always useful to have checklists like Hauge’s to confirm whether or not one (as author or even as critical reader) has remembered or identified all the crucial ingredients.

      Yes, it’s all too true as to what we find funny — as with everything “it’s not what you do but the way that you do it” since, as the song tells us, that’s what gets results. And, we could add, ‘when’ and ‘where’ as well as ‘who’ matters very much too.

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