Screenwriting : Your opinion – What’s the best way to learn screenwriting? by Doug Nelson

Doug Nelson

Your opinion – What’s the best way to learn screenwriting?

There are many and diverse paths leading toward the mastery of screenwriting. I’m called upon to teach screenwriting (college level) from time to time so I do indeed have an opinion – I’ll share it with you later. Right now, I’m more interested in your opinion as to the most effective method.

Preston Poulter

Find a local writing group and start attending. You see other people's work and how it's received. Then you can start to bring in your own.

Doug Nelson

First – I’m surprised that there seems to be so little interest in the topic of learning screenwriting – especially among a forum dedicated to screenwriting. That’s fascinating and it says a lot about new/emerging screenwriters. I had hoped to get a conversation going. Preston – That’s generally not a good place to learn about screenwriting. The majority of writing groups are not much more than social gatherings for local writers (mostly novelists, poets…) but few screenwriters (I’m aware of one very good screenwriter’s group.) These writing groups tend to be for those already familiar with the craft and can be good for developing story lines and encouragement but often degenerate into personal sniping contests. My personal advice is to steer of ‘em. Come on folks, don’t be shy – share your opinions.

Rayna W.

The way I learned was having it broken into chunks. We learned a set tools, first some basic and then more complex. We practiced with each one before we moved it. It's mostly effective, but obviously it's all about practice. No one gets good at it over night.

Dan Goforth

Pull out your favorite movie. Find the screenplay for it. Watch & Read. Now concentrate on the scene breakdowns in the script. Ask yourself how that scene moves the plot forward, reveals something about a character(s), increases the tension, etc. In other words, WHY does that scene exist... WHAT was the writer wanting to communicate... Rinse, Lather, Repeat. :)

Dan Goforth

and that only gets you started on a loooong journey

Ethan Sullivan

I learned (or should I say, am learning) the same way Dan and Jim did. I watched movies, re-watched movies, read the scripts, practiced, and wrote. For me though one can never "learn" screenwriting just like one would learn to read. Screenwriting, at least for me, is an ongoing progress. I'm always learning new things and trying new techniques. For me it feels like exploring space: I've explored a little bit but I have so much more to see and learn!

Anthony Cawood

I wrote a script, got feedback, re-wrote it, wrote some more scripts, kept getting feedback and kept improving (hopefully!)

Jason Horton


Chas Franko Fisher

As someone by and large self-taught, I agree with the whole read-watch-write screed. Particularly reading scripts. You talk to so many pro screenwriters who started out writing coverage and read 1000s of scripts. Not 10. Not 20. Thousands. That said, reading a couple of the guru books helps make it feel achievable (I personally prefer Truby and McKee but to each their own). What I would add to this is to join groups like this. I learnt so much from #scriptchat on Twitter, reading articles, etc. After that, write and re-write. Do not do it in isolation. Get as much feedback and input as you can.

Eoin O'Sullivan

Read scripts, good and bad, professional and amateur. Look at what work and what doesn't. Try to figure out why specifics work and why they don't. Test out ideas, don't accept anything as doctrine. Write, get feedback, rewrite, rinse and repeat.

David E. Gates

I read certain books which analysed screenplays, studied the formats of existing screenplays, utilised templates and attended a one-day course run by Industrial Scripts (which was incredible useful in planning a script and breaking down acts etc.). That, and the invaluable advice offered here.

Laurie Ashbourne

The big question is can you learn to be a master storyteller for a visual medium? The technical aspects of the craft can be taught (yet surprisingly many aspiring screenwriters think they can bypass these lessons). But not everyone who thinks they have a screenworthy story is cut out to be a screenwriter. Some wordsmiths are better off sticking to novels and some storytellers spin a fantasic oratory yarn but can't string two words together on paper. Screenwrting is the foundation for a visual art form. So assuming you have the technical aspects down, the best way to learn how to convey stories for the screen is watch films and ideally have the script with you when you do. Pause the frames on key moments and really look at what is in frame and compare it to what is on the page (if you can), if you don't have the script -- write it out as you see it on screen. Those key moments should add up to the important turning points in the script. Note the timecode: the minute per page rule is a good standard. If at all possible, time on set of a production (even as an observer) to see what happens to those pages and how they effect every aspect of what is seen on film, is always time well spent. The bottom line is you have to love the medium and immerse yourself in it, because it is a long haul.

W. Keith Sewell

First study and learn how to tell a story through dramatic structure, setup, rising conflict, crisis, climax to resolution. Now put that story structure in a visual medium... I first studied cinematic structure and production academically, that's not enough. Then, I watched thousands of films, TV shows, read scripts, studied McKee in the beginning, The Art of Dramatic writing - by Lajos Egri... but like someone stated, the numerous resources available to screenwriters today on sites like Stage 32 are priceless! Also, practice what Laurie suggested above... when watching a movie or show, do so technically as much as for your enjoyment; breakdown the setup, character intro, plot twists, etc. One thing I do to train my cinematic eye is to focus outside the frame of the screen and watch the camera movement. Soon, you should be able to visualize the words on the paper as it is being played on the screen, in your mind - its weird, but it helps me...

Doug Nelson

What I garner from most of the comments in this thread is that many of you feel that screenwriting is best self taught – and essentially, I agree. But the question in my mind is which comes first – the art or the craft? We each have a creative muscle in us – it just needs a little exercise. Teaching and learning the craft is a fairly straight forward process. There are a couple of very good books and there are many instructors (some better than others) all over the place. My advice is to not fight the technical side of the craft; those weird little specifications actually do have meaning to somebody in the filmmaking process. So step one is to take an entry level screenwriting class – learn the language (if you move to France, you’ll need to learn the language.) I’ll deal with the creativity side another day.

Doug Nelson

John, I agree with almost everything you say, especially that part about persistence in learning from any/all sources. But I’m brought up short by your statement that you had a natural-telling ability. It implies that those unfortunates lacking that natural ability are destined to fail – I disagree with that notion. I’m firmly convinced that every person has a story-telling ability to some extent or another; it’s just a matter of finding it and working to develop it. As a screenwriting teacher – how should I teach “creativity?” Is it even teachable? I think yes.

Laurie Ashbourne

I don't know, Doug. Everyone can be creative in some way -- sure, but the creativity it takes to write strong screenplays may not be for everyone. I was called upon once to teach a class to a bunch of executives at The New York Times on 'how to be creative' -- it was an extremely difficult audience and I knew it would be. I had to boil it down to basics with them and first teach them how to be observant of the world around them -- by showing them the everyday things they missed -- like the face on their watches. It was very eye opening for them but I wouldn't say at the end of the class they could step into my shoes, they were just more open to new perspectives in their day to day work and some realized that they should just leave the heavy lifting of major campaigns and stories to those who excel at it.

Cherie Grant

My experience was that the course was essential. You get to ask real time questions, you're exposed to things you wouldn't seek out yourself and the social aspect is invaluable. You are also given deadlines to finish work.

Doug Nelson

Laurie, I’ll get to the topic of creativity in a forthcoming post. I have optimistic and pessimistic days. Creativity is essentially nothing more than problem solving.

Laurie Ashbourne

Looking forward to it, Doug.

Michael Eddy

Practice, practice, location. But seriously folks...Doug - why are you surprised that there's so little interest in the "topic of learning screenwriting"? One has only to read a few of the screenwriting threads here and the comments posted to same - and it would scare off the faint of heart. It's a tough road - and anyone who can be steered clear from following it before they begin - has some street smarts that might be put to better use on other avenues (see what I did there? Road, street, avenue - that's some writing brother...) As for myself - I graduated from the best film school in the country - USC - and took exactly one writing class the entire time (with John Milius - who was more of a terrific story-teller than he was a teacher). I started to write after I graduated and consider myself self-taught.

Jeff Birdsall

Watching movies and reading screenplays. You can read all the same books about story structure and tips from the pros and all that jazz, but I think it makes the most sense to go right to the source. Some of the greatest movies/stories are the ones that break the conventional rules to what story/storytelling is supposed to be. I am still a beginner in this whole scene, but i have learned so much by watching a movie and reading the screenplay, or both at the same time. You see the image on the screen and see how it was conceived on paper first. You always find differences between the two, but you understand the process. Sometimes you see a scene and cant imagine how to write it, so you find the screenplay and read it. Then you can better understand how to take you abstract ideas and images in your head and put them to paper. And practice. I haven't written a hundred screenplays, but after each thing I do write, i feel more confident in my abilities as a writer, and I know the more i write, the more Ill grow. While school can be a great opportunity to work with like minded people, and have assignments that lite a fire under you to get writing, you can also just enter contest, read blogs/forums like this one and meet folks that way. Its very similar with music. There are not hidden notes, that you can't hear that make the song good or bad. If you can hear it, and figure out the notes, than you know it. No different with film. You see it, you read it, you know it. Most films have a lot in common, some break the rules, and the more you observe them, the more you learn them.

Michael Eddy

Jeff - interesting take. Not sure how much you can glean from the screenwriting end merely by watching movies - because things can change exponentially from page to screen depending on the director - I once read the shooting script for Raiders of the Lost Ark (by Lawrence Kasdan, a fave writer) and although much of it is there - Spielberg brought so much more to the table in the execution from page to screen. Some writers are extremely detailed (Ernest Tidyman claimed the chase sequence in French Connection was scripted in detail) while others get the idea of the scene on page - as Kasdan did on Raiders. But reading the screenplay - having already seen the movie many times - left me feeling that it didn't come alive until it was filmed. Your idea - or simultaneously reading the screenplay while watching the movie is a very interesting one. You can see the immediate results - although you still can't be sure why certain changes were made or to whom to give the credit when they enhanced the words.

Preston Poulter

If anyone is interested, I organize a Los Angeles group of amateur writers who get together on Thursdays. There is a Stage 32 meet up if you want to come.

W Keith Sewell

Remember your screenplay is only the blueprint for the film. The shooting script can be vastly different from the final draft of your original... try to encompass all aspects of the film making process in your learning and writing.

Doug Nelson

I’ve said this many times and I can’t emphasize it enough. Filmmaking is a collaborative process; each and every person on set is the most valuable player. A lot of young people tell me that they are filmmakers – I tell ‘em I don’t know what that means. They explain that they wrote, directed, shot, edited it and their sister stared in it; would I like to see it? My answer is no. When they ask why, I tell ‘em that their film sucks. That sounds unkind and cruel but it’s better to quash that dream early on before they try to break into a rough industry – the simple fact is that you need a Writer, you need a Director, you need a DP, you need an Editor and you need a cast (at a minimum.) Each of these people brings their pov and unique talents required to make a movie. A baseball team has more than one player. That’s my story and I’m stickin’ with it!

W Keith Sewell

I agree it's a collaborative medium, and having knowledge of shot structure, lighting, acting, sound and editing will only improve your writing... Many independents are forced to wear several hats out of budget concerns, etc. Not out of choice.. Be attentive on set, get a understanding on why this scene has to be lit a certain way, to get the effect the director wants. It is often stated in team sports, 'The best prepped athletes are the one's that not only know they're job, but yours as well.'

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