In addition to working with writers, producers and agencies everywhere, I teach screenwriting courses at film schools in Australia, Europe and online. The school gigs largely consist of lecturing about screenwriting theory, and consulting on the students’ screenplays.
I love teaching, I adore my students, and I’m fortunate enough to see some good results, as some of my students go on to build a writing career.
Yet, I am growing increasingly frustrated.
There is a missing component in the learning of these young people. Some take the initiative to fill in the blanks, but others aren’t even aware of what is missing.
By just taking courses, there is little chance you will survive the real world.
So what else do you need?
Let’s first look at the positive aspects of books, courses and gurus.
In some instances, you can speed up the process of understanding how screenplays work, what has worked in the past and what hasn’t.
You’ll also learn the systems and terminology used in our industry.
Courses give you a general overview, based on more material than you can process in a lifetime. You learn about genres and styles outside your taste, which will help you communicate with professionals.
Books and courses give you different perspectives. No matter how long you study a subject, you’ll still only see it through the lens of your own eyes.
Screenwriting courses may give you a wholly new, valuable point of view.
However, one of the biggest problems with courses, is that only little of what you learn specifically relates to the work that you (will) write.
Therefore it is essential that you get feedback to your own work. It will help improve your performance, and level up to the requirements of the market.
Talk, Don’t Write
One of the local film schools offers their students industry feedback. Professional script consultants come in to help the students improve their scripts from first to final draft. It’s great. Students love it.
Not only is this an introduction to how the industry works; it is an invaluable addition to the lectures. Lecturing is a transfer of knowledge in bulk. The consults provide bespoke feedback, different for each student. Even if two students struggle with the same issue, they may need different solutions.
Consults outclass written reports. In the studio system, notes are a standard form of communication with writers. But without produced credits, you will benefit far more from a direct two-way conversation.
In a live consultation, you are able to ask questions, and so can the consultant. This helps define your objectives, as well as the issues standing in the way of achieving them.
The Consult Is Your Inmost Cave
Most of us work better and faster when we can verbally discuss our work, rather than write or read about it in a snapshot report.
Many aspiring writers are not familiar with the lingo, and consultants should not have to explain or define every concept in a report.
A good script consultation is a mini-workshop, where client and consultant work together to determine the priorities for future work, and the way they could be addressed by the writer. The best consult is an intense, inspiring and rewarding experience for both sides.
A welcome side-effect of some consultations is that writers discover what they are actually writing about.
Often new writers are not aware of the themes they infuse their stories with.
As a consultant, you are in the privileged position of discovering these themes with the writer. What is their world view? What bugs them, and how do their stories comment on society?
A great consult creates an Inmost Cave, for writers to discover their own voice.
It allows them to develop their voice, and articulate their ideas in ways that the industry and the audience will understand. Sometimes it allows them to clarify, sharpen and refine their ideas.
Often these young writers are yet to find their path in life, and their writing provides a valuable introspection into their values, hopes and dreams. As a consultant, it is a humbling experience to be there, and witness this fascinating process.
And yet, no matter how inspiring, poetic and even mythical these experiences may be, they are no substitute for learning from the source.
Back To The Screenwriting Source
A few years back, a member of a screenwriting forum was eaten alive when he dared to ask for a method to learn screenwriting for free. Many of the readers had paid good money for their education, and they came down on the boy to annihilate him.
It turned out the boy didn’t know any better. He was new to screenwriting, and with a mental health disorder he didn’t know how to be diplomatic when asking his question.
It set me thinking.
Screenwriting books and gurus have only been around since the 1970’s, while some of the very best movies were written long before.
How did screenwriters learn the craft before there were any gurus around?
My guess? From reading great screenplays, stage plays, and novels.
It seems that we have collectively forgotten that the best learning lies in the best scripts. Yet, students these days seem to believe they can educate themselves without opening a single screenplay.
From reading lots of great scripts, you can learn style, structure and dialogue, virtually by osmosis.
One of my most dedicated students used to read a full-length feature screenplay every day, for months. This experience helped him so much, that he skyrocketed to the top of the best screenwriting contests, and was introduced to Hollywood agents. You can do this, too.
To be perfectly honest, though…
Just reading scripts is not going to cut it, either.
Thousands of screenplays are available online at any given time. They’re only a download away. So why don’t we all get to work, like, now?
It turns out to be a massive challenge to tell the wheat from the chaff.
Many are mere dialogue transcripts, which is utterly useless for the screenwriter who wants to learn how to use proper formatting and descriptive style.
Others are butchered versions, converted from one format to another, and ending up in a crappy TXT or – even worse – HTML format.
And only a few dozen scripts are available freely from their rights holders.
Fortunately, some sites publish a curated offering of these scripts, so you don’t have to make the selection for yourself.
In my view, once you are reading a rock solid selection of the best scripts, the only other mandatory daily action you need to take, is: write.
This is why after teaching screenwriting courses for nearly ten years, I decided to completely overhaul the philosophy behind my teaching.
I made a thorough review of what had worked in the past, and what didn’t.
I looked at which students had been successful, and who failed. Then I looked at the practices of working screenwriters, and built a system that helps writers build better habits, and prepare them for the writing of a professional screenplay draft. All without a tutor.
The writing exercises I designed for this course emulate some of the brain processes of the seasoned screenwriter. Others are meant to create a steady writing habit, while building some sort of format muscle memory.
By performing these exercises on a daily basis, you adopt the practices of the professional screenwriter effortlessly. The basic version of the course runs for seven weeks (50 days), enough to change or create a new habit.
If you have spent hundreds or thousands of dollars on screenwriting courses and consults, rest assured that none of that was a waste. You will have acquired a top level understanding of the screenwriting trade.
But to get in the successful habit of writing effective screenplays, you need to not only know but feel what a great script looks like. This takes some time, and a fair amount of reading.
You need to know your genre inside out, you need to know its flagship movies and writing conventions. In addition, you need to be able to apply a contemporary writing style.
Readers want to enjoy your screenplay not only for its story, but also for its reading experience.
As a writer, you are playing a game with the audience.
Therefore, in order to find success in screenwriting, it is necessary to understand how audiences work. And your first audience is your reader. I don’t mean reader in the sense of a particular Hollywood industry professional, though winning over such readers is critical to a writer’s success. By reader I mean a typical human being who can read.
Believe it or not, but even veteran Hollywood readers are typical human beings, and they are looking for scripts they think will please other typical human beings.
Here are a few things about audiences that may help start you on your screenwriting journey:
1. Audiences follow action
Audiences follow action: somebody doing something. This goes for a story as a whole (e.g., Mark wants to build a social network online and pursues this goal), a sequence within the story (e.g., Mark goes about trying to find an investor), and a scene (e.g., Mark persuades a financier to back him). When you write scene description, likewise keep this in mind. Audiences follow action. Don’t list items in a scene, the way you might in a stage play. For example, instead of starting a scene:
INT. OFFICE – DAY
A dark dusty office with a pile of papers on the desk and a poster that reads “READ” on the wall. Jonathan enters and sits down.
It’s better to render it like this:
INT. OFFICE – DAY
Jonathan enters a dark dusty office, walks past a poster on the wall that reads “READ,” and sits down at a desk with a pile of papers on it.
Rendered the second way, the audience does what comes naturally—following action—and along the way makes discoveries about a location. And they’re much more likely to actually remember the details.
2. Audience like clear motivation
Audiences like to know why people are doing the things they’re doing. It may be useful to introduce a character who exhibits puzzling behaviour as an attention-grabber, but audiences will tune out pretty quickly unless they discover the reason for the behaviour (see the opening of Silver Linings Playbook—at first Pat seems to be muttering incoherently, but very quickly, the gaps in this puzzling behaviour are filled in).
Salient information that helps audiences understand onscreen behaviour and action is called exposition.
3. Audiences love anticipation
Audiences are constantly trying to figure out where you’re leading them.
We are all blessed (or cursed?) with frontal lobes, which are the place where we ruminate about the things we observe and try to anticipate future events based on clues in the present.
4. Audiences like (authentic) details
Your job as a writer is to turn the audience into keen observers of detail.
The audience is watching for clues it can use to piece together where the story is going; it’s your job to provide those clues and make sure they notice them, and that the clues lead them where you want to lead them.
For example, A husband buys candy and flowers on his way home from work. Meanwhile, his wife places a gun in the nightstand drawer. We know what these mean: the husband plans to make love while his wife is planning to make war.
Of course, it may be that the gun is a birthday present for the husband, and the husband, meanwhile, has poisoned the candy to kill his wife. If so, congratulations: you’ve exploited the audience’s propensity to piece together clues and anticipate the future in order to throw them a surprise twist, which is something audiences love.
5. Audiences hate data dumps
Audiences like their exposition in bits and pieces.
They won’t remember information that is delivered without any context.
Instead, following #3 and #4, it’s best to reveal information in digestible pieces, clues that the audience can then piece together to arrive at an understanding of the background of the story.
Note that these clues have to be visual or aural, since movies convey sight and sound only.
6. Audiences look for cause-and-effect
Audiences respond to cause-and-effect patterns.
Again with our frontal lobes: when we observe the world, we have an irresistible tendency to seek cause and effect relationships in the phenomena we see.
This propensity is so strong, we sometimes create cause-and-effect relationships where there are none (“The Green Bay Packers lost the game because I didn’t wear my lucky cheesehead hat.”) Audiences will respond readily when the events and scenes you present have a cause-and-effect connection.
If there is no such connection, audiences will tend to tune out (or, possibly worse, impose cause-and-effect connections where they are not intended).
7. Audiences latch on to characters
Audiences respond best when they can identify with a character.
It has been argued (for example, in Edward Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth) that storytelling confers a practical advantage on the human species: by listening to a storyteller describe the dangerous adventures of a character, we can experience that adventure emotionally—and learn from it—without having to expose ourselves to danger.
Thus audiences will not respond readily to a story in which they can’t connect emotionally with—empathize with—a main character.
8. Audiences hope… or fear
Suspense keeps audiences paying attention.
If a character we empathize with (see #7) pursues a clearly defined goal (see #2) and runs into obstacles to that goal, the audience will stay interested (and keep turning your script pages) because it is suspended between hope and fear.
They will hope the character achieves the goal, and fear that he or she won’t.
9. Audiences need structure…
The “three act structure” is the instrument for creating suspense.
In order to create suspense, the audience 1. needs to get to know a character and learn what the goal of the character is, 2. watch the character pursue that goal despite obstacles. These two steps create and sustain the suspense.
To end or resolve the suspense, the audience needs to 3. learn if the character achieves the goal or not. These three pieces are the three acts in the three act structure.
Each scene arguably can have its own three-act structure: a character wants something, tries to get it and encounters obstacles, then gets what he wants or doesn’t. E.g., Will Pat persuade Tiffany to give a letter to Nikki? That’s not the main question in Silver Linings Playbook; it occurs in just one scene.
But the question keeps the audience in suspense for that one scene.
Writing your scenes this way will ensure audiences won’t be able to put your screenplay down: they’re going to be too busy wondering what happens next.
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