Can Screenwriting Be Taught?

Aw, hell yeah!  It better be; I’ve been teaching it at Vanderbilt for fifteen years.  If I say it can’t be taught, they’re gonna stop paying me. 

However, I actually do believe it can be taught.  You can’t teach someone to be talented, of course, but you can show them a lot about screenwriting.  If they listen.  If they do what you say.  Amazingly enough, a lot of baby writers already think they know all there is to know, and consequently learn very little.  Listening, I daresay, can’t be taught.

“There is no one more arrogant than a beginner.”
Elizabeth Ashley

Anyway. 

What can be taught in screenwriting?

Format can be taught.  How to separate character’s voices.  Words to avoid that will shout “I’m a bad writer!”.  How to construct a character.  Stupid mistakes that will sink your script for the reader.  How to use outlines.  Structure, to a degree.  Why cutting dialogue is a good thing.  Not to give up.  How to deal with the frustration you feel when you just stare at the computer screen and the words don’t leap out of your little pea brain and onto the screen.  Tricks to get you to generate ideas.  How to avoid / deal with writer’s block.  How the business works (not that that’s writing, but it is fully half of the success equation.)  Methods in rewriting: ways to approach a script, a scene, and a piece of dialogue.  Handling fear.  Being professional. 

A lot can be taught.  What can NOT be taught in screenwriting?

How to think up a great idea!  An ear for dialogue!  How to construct a character an actor will be dying to play!  How to have a voice!  The correct structure for your story!  What genre you’re good at!  How to be lucky!! 

The difference between what can be learned and innate talent is the tough thing.  You can do a lot in a classroom, but the alchemy is up to talent, luck, and sweat. 

After I’m done pounding them for a while, my students’s scripts look like scripts, sound like scripts and are not embarrassing.  Some are good.  A few, over the years, have been great.  When they come to me, they know nothing about writing screenplays.  I can’t teach someone how to write, but I can teach how to write a screenplay that will pass muster. 

A good teacher can get a student to the starting line.  That is a lot, by the way.  Getting someone to the door, and opening it for them, is a good beginning.  What they do in the race is up to their talent and perseverance. 

I share these six items from a talk I give called “Fatal Errors Beginning Writers Make.”  Will Aldis (STEALING CARS, KEEP COMING BACK) is a staggeringly talented writer and I love his list.

Number One:  trying to write what you think the biz wants you to write.
Number Two: writing for the cash only.
Number Three: writing to get laid.
Number Four: writing a screenplay because you think it sounds like a cool, hip thing to do.  It isn’t.
Number Five:  writing about something, anything, other than yourself.
Number Six:  taking a screenwriting class from someone who doesn’t fully grasp the horror. 

Keep Number Six firmly in mind when selecting a teacher, because the very last thing you want is a teacher who gives you any hint that this foolishness is easy. 

It isn’t.

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9 Comments

Filed under Screenwriting, Writing Process

9 responses to “Can Screenwriting Be Taught?

  1. RichardMichaelLucas

    Number Five: writing about something, anything, other than yourself.

    Will, I would love to turn back the clock and skip past my first 4 scripts with what I know now.

    The flip side, is that those personal topics and experience can yield rich results, but ONLY when you know how to execute them.

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      Yeah, if it’s too personal, it runs the risk of being boring. “It was exciting when it happened to me” is not what you want to hear about a screenplay. But, as Will Aldis says, if you’re not writing about something personal, on some level, what’s the point?

  2. Tim

    I learn a lot from each of your posts, thank you.

    What is your recommendation for a book for very new writers who want to learn the basics of screenplay writing? I’m asking for myself, and I honestly don’t even know what I don’t know.

  3. Tim

    BTW- I’ll be ordering your book next week. I just want to know if you think there is a good companion book to teach format, structure, etc.or should I start with yours first?

    • yourscreenplaysucks

      Whew. I’m very glad you said you were getting my book. I’d hate to send a man in a black skintight suit down your chimney with a blow dart… Anyway… good question.

      The books I suggest are… (after mine own, naturally)…

      Save The Cat by Blake Snyder (and his blog)
      The Writers Journey by Christopher Vogler

      Linda Seger writes good books, and John Truby’s is good too. I find McKee’s too complicated to keep in my head. If you read Blake and the Vogler book (and mine!) while coming up with the idea for your script, you will be a happier pioneer than if you are just going out there on your own, mushing across the frozen plain.

      When my son shows me how, I’ll like my blog to a couple of good ones… johnaugust.com and the artful writer, as well as wordplayer.

      That’s probably enough to get you in trouble…

  4. RichardMichaelLucas

    Will, I hope you don’t mind.

    Tim, I’d read Save the Cat for the big picture — plus the focus on your concept design being beaten out in a logline.

    I find Truby’s chapters on 22 steps, physcological and moral weaknesses/needs/goals and 7 basic steps EXTREMELY valuable to a strong story spine.

    Then read Will’s book to help you please reader, physically write the screenplay well, address the usual mistakes in your first draft, make it a tight read and give your project clarity.

    I have never been able to digest McKee and find Will and his crew much clearer and realistic!

    Enjoy!

  5. Tim

    I’m from Hawaii, and the Hawaiian word for thank you is “mahalo”.

    Much mahalo to you both.

    Your advice is very much appreciated, my growth as a writer will be helped a great deal by your comments.

  6. Excellent site, keep up the good work. I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks,

    A definite great read…

    -Bill-Bartmann

  7. RichLucas

    Will, at what point can I EXPECT to use screenwriting to get laid???? Just wondering !!! ;0)

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