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Hollywood story coach reveals essential elements of great storytelling, part 1

You probably know the key elements of good storytelling and have even observed them in books and movies, but do you consciously use them in your own writing?

At a recent writer’s meetup in Las Vegas, Hollywood story coach Michael Hauge spoke about what makes a great story. He’s coached writers, producers, and directors on projects for actors, including Will Smith, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez, and Morgan Freeman, as well as every major studio and network.

Hauge said there are 10 essential elements to great storytelling, and ultimately they’re the key points an agent or editor will want to know when you pitch your project. Here are the first five:

1. The story must have a hero or heroine. This main character – the protagonist — more than any other character, drives the story and has the potential to be heroic. The hero has a desire that propels the action.

2. The Setup. In the setup, you’ll introduce the hero living his everyday life before anything heroic happens. The movie Lone Survivor draws readers into the world of the characters before they go on their fatal mission. The first scenes show them interacting with family and dealing with daily life. In this world, you must use vivid details to, “create a movie in the mind of the reader,” Hauge said. This will amplify the readers’ emotion, and eliciting emotion is a core principle of successful stories.

Fiction novels and movies are “before and after pictures,” Hauge said. The setup is the “before picture.” Sometimes these scenes show how the hero is “stuck.”

While most movies and novels open with action already underway, it’s important early in the story to reveal what was happening before the action began.

3. Empathy. You must create a psychological connection between your audience and the protagonist right before you reveal your hero’s flaws. Readers live through the characters and will empathize with them by seeing the highs and lows they deal with in their lives. Hauge shared three key ways to create empathy:

Create sympathy. Make the heroine the victim of an undeserved event. Consider the emotional impact of a tsunami. Statistics don’t strike people with sympathy the way an image of a person devastated by the tragedy does. Romance novels often open with a woman who has been dumped or finding out her spouse has been having an affair, Hauge said.

Put the hero in jeopardy. Consider Indiana Jones. By the time we see him teaching in the college classroom, we’re completely connected. We’ve seen him fighting for his life. That said, jeopardy doesn’t have to be life threatening. It could be the danger of  the heroine losing something important to her.

Make the protagonist likeable. Show the protagonist doing something endearing or redeeming.

4. Opportunity. Once the protagonist is set up, you must present him or her with some sort of opportunity or “event” to move the story forward. In a script, this would happen about 10 percent into the story on page 10-12 of the script. The opportunity will create an “initial desire,” which will move the heroine to change his circumstances.

5. New Situation. In the movie Gravity, the opportunity or event was the message that space debris was approaching the area where the astronauts were working. This prompted the need to get to the safety of the space station. In this moment, the heroine is trying to understand the “new world” she is in and solve an immediate problem. This point in the story is also when you’ll introduce other primary characters.

A change in location is often naturally part of this structure. In The Firm, a movie based on a novel by John Grisham, the hero is offered a job opportunity. The New Situation is that he accepts the job and moves to Memphis, Tenn.

To learn about five more essential elements of great storytelling, read part two of this post tomorrow. If you’d like to learn more about storytelling and selling screenplays, check out Hauge’s books, Writing Screenplays That Sell and Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I find his choice of ways to build empathy interesting, as they’re mostly about putting the protagonist through bad experiences. It certainly seems to work, but it’s slightly unsettling as a human being to wonder how much your liking of characters (and people?) is based on seeing them put in a worse position than you.

    February 26, 2014
    • Interesting observation! I like to think that people empathize with a character who is experiencing troubles because they know what it’s like to go through their own troubles.

      February 27, 2014

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