Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Hollywood knows a thing or two....

There are a gazillion resources out there for writers. I have recently been studying 'The Heros two Journeys' which is a talk which given by two giants of the movie making world - Michael Hague and Chris Vogler, which I downloaded to my Ipod. They are story consultants working in Hollywood and acknowledged experts in making writers' stories better. I thought it would be useful to outline some of what they say here, because it's good advice whether it applies to movies or books. They have both written detailed books and you could do a lot worse than study these if you are interested in writing better stories. Both believe that successful plots have both an outer journey and an inner journey for the hero/heroine. The outer journey is an adventure or drive to achieve a visible quest. The inner journey Michael Hauge sees as moving from being defined by others to defining oneself.

For the outer journey, the hero or heroine has to pursue a visible goal with a visible finish line.

The one primary objective of storymakers is how to elicit emotion, we read books to FEEL something.

At their core stories are very simple and built on a foundation of CHARACTER, DESIRE and CONFLICT. Every good story is about a captivating character pursuing some compelling desire and facing seemingly insurmountable objects in achieving it. That's it! All Hollywood movies Michael Hague claims, work on a visible level in those three areas.

So how do we achieve this in our writing?

CHARACTER Make your hero someone we want to root for, we have to identify with the hero - the reader needs to become that character. The reason Titanic is successful is because it is emotional to become a character who is in a shipwreck. We become Rose and experience the story through her. There are various ways of creating identification with the hero, one is to make that character sympathetic. In Titanic we feel sorry for Rose being trapped with someone she feels obligated to marry (particularly as he's a nasty bit of work - even though he's a millionaire). By then putting her in jeopardy we care about her. Another way to create idenfication is to make your hero likeable kind and good hearted, well liked by other characters in your story. Tom Hanks' career is based on those kind of people. We can also make that identification by making the character funny because we like to hang out with peole who make us laugh. A further way is to make the character powerful - very good at what they do, eg Indiana Jones, or a skilled lawyer like John Grisham's character in The Firm. Even a dysfunctional computer geek like Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is compelling for this reason. Your hero/heroine obviously does not need all these traits, but if you study successful Hollywood films very often these traits occur again and again.

DESIRE The foundation of a Hollywood movie is about the hero having a goal which is visible. In Titanic Rose's desire is clear - getting to America and winning the love of Jack. In Gladiator it's about killing the emperor who murdered the hero's family. In pursuing that goal there must be seemingly unsurmountable obstacles. If it doesn't seem impossible for your hero to get what they want, we don't care. That's why they made Titanic, they didn't make The Queen Mary. Right from the start we know Rose is going to encounter conflict in achieving her desires.

CONFLICT It is the obstacles which we see the hero overcoming which create emotion - the goal is necessary to drive your story and give your hero something to strive for.

However, there is another level - the inner journey. The outer journey is a simple journey of achievement and accomplishment, the hero wants to get something. They either want to win eg. Rocky or Chariots of Fire or to win the love of another as in any romantic story, or escape such as in the Truman Show or to stop a bad thing from happening eg a meteor hitting the earth or retrieve something eg Raiders of the Lost Ark. In this outer journey you know exactly what the finish line is. You are saying to the reader, 'I'm taking you on a journey, as the hero I'm going to get you to this visible finish line.'

But underneath that level is an INVISIBLE goal. I will look at that invisible goal as defined by Michael Hauge when I next post. Until then, it's a fun exercise to look at the films we love and to see how often the above scenarios are played out. They won't always be of course, but very often you will see that these are the foundations of a successful film and they can also be the foundations of any successful story we write.


  1. Great post, Cara and there's lots to think about there. I think a lot of it could also be described as the internal conflict and the external conflict, but it's interesting to see it described in different words.

  2. I agree, lots to think about. Interesting to hear other takes on characterisation and so on. Always something more to think about isn't there? Good to know we have th eability to go on learning however ancient we become (well, me anyway!)
    Oh dear, I've become anon again!
    Love chrissie

  3. You'll never be anon to us, Chrissie xxx

  4. Excellent post - thank you! Will need to read it a few times off and on.

  5. This is great - going to look at my WIP and check I've got all these elements on the go. Look forward to more about the 'invisible'goal.