Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Secrets of the Silver Screen: Essence

Screenwriter Michael Hauge is a genius. I realized this as I sat listening to him speak in a group of wide-eyed, slack-jawed and furiously scribbling writers this past Saturday. He used fresh terminology and concepts, and my God, everything he said made spine-tingling sense. Hauge's session was, hands down, the most enlightening and informative two hours I've spent pondering craft. Ever. I actually think I'd choose listening to this man speak over eating a box of Godiva. (Yes, I hear your collective gasp.) And guess what? He's just this morning agreed to interview with Writer Unboxed! Hmm, now can Therese find a way to conduct the interview while eating a box of Godiva? Stay tuned.

While what follows is just a peek at what went on in Hauge's session, I think his two-simple-words method for character evolution was some of the best stuff. So hang tight, and get ready for a crash course in Identity and Essence.

What it is. In a nutshell, identity is what you--and most others--believe you are all about, while essence is the promise of what you are beneath all layers of artifice. Characters without these layers may come off as shallow or even unbelievable. (If you're writing a shallow character, now you know what you need to do!)

How it relates to Inner Conflict. Most of us know how important it is to craft inner and outer conflict for our characters--what the hero wants, what stands in his way. Identity and essence crystallizes inner conflict. I'll use the movie Sleepless in Seattle to show how it works.

~~ When a story begins, the hero is safely in his identity and may not even be aware of his own essence.
Sam has lost his wife. The idea of loving again feels utterly impossible. "It just can't happen twice," "I don't believe in love," "I'll just grow a new heart." Meanwhile, Annie is living with her allergy-enhanced boyfriend, Walter, and trying to convince herself he is absolutely perfect and she is absolutely happy.
Hysterical side note: Screenwriter Nora Ephron told Meg Ryan to play Annie as a "Republican who had never had an orgasm."

~~ Something occurs, and the hero must take a risk, stepping briefly out of his identity and revealing essence.
Sam's son calls a radio show to lament his father's dating a skank, and soon Sam finds himself pouring "anonymous" truths out over the airwaves.
Annie hears the show and, like thousands of other women, can't stop thinking about Sam...which just isn't right, since Walter is absolutely perfect and Annie is absolutely happy. Right? But Sam was the reflection of Annie's repressed essence...
~~ Throughout the story, it's a tug-of-war between safe identity and vulnerable essence, with the hero gradually showing more of the latter. In the case of a romantic interest, the love interest is the only person who can see past the hero's identity to his essence.
Sam tries dating again, in part wanting love and risk, though he doesn't sense the magic he had with his wife. Annie repeatedly thinks about and even seeks out Sam while also becoming engaged to Walter. When Sam and Annie see each other briefly across a street, there are both stuck by the other's essence.
~~ For a happily ever after, the hero must let go of his identity and embrace his essence. If there's a love triangle of any sort in your story, your hero will leave the person who represents his identity and move on with the person who represents his essence.
Annie chooses Sam/essence/risk over Walter/identity/safe; Sam chooses Annie over a woman he probably never would've loved.
Note: Craft tragedy by making your hero too fearful to embrace his essence (Out of Africa) or choosing something more noble than personal happiness (Casablanca).

Want to peek at the SiS script yourself? Click here to view.

Finally, please keep your eye out for Hauge's new book, Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read, due out in October. Even if you feel you don't need help selling story, it's likely Hauge touches on lots of golden topics; believe me, he has much to offer. His other books include the industry classics Writing Screenplays that Sell and The Hero's 2 Journeys. And don't forget to keep your eye out for WU's interview with Hauge, which should appear sometime in late September or early October.

Write on, all!


Blogger thea mcginnis said...

ter, great blog - sometimes our characters (like us) have to lose all their identities to find their essence. and it most likely will be a painful process for the character. like, losing your wallet can be a metaphor for losing all those layers of your identity. Fantastic news about landing a michael hauge interview. your blog is fantastic! its got 'voice' - keep up the great work!

3:06 PM  
Blogger Therese Walsh said...

Thanks, Thea! You're right about the wallet idea: that happened to a friend of mine recently. She's going through a rough time personally, so it really was like losing more than a wallet; she'd lost her "identity." But her essence was there all along, and she eventually found her wallet--in an ice bucket! :)

2:19 PM  

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