Thursday, January 23, 2014

Writing The Feature Script: Week Two - Finding The Story

Over the course of 15 weeks I will be teaching "Writing The Feature Script" at USC's School of Cinematic Arts. Week by week I will be writing blog articles about each topic that we discuss in class. My hope is that beginning screenwriters, working screenwriters in writing groups, and screenwriting professors might benefit from "auditing" my class online.  

This is a synopsis of Week Two.  You can read about our previous class here:  Writing The Feature Script: Week One - OVERVIEW

A Writing Group

If you are indeed following this course week by week on my blog, and you want to get the most out of it, you need to do two things:  First you need to write a 1-2 page synopses of your story idea.  Second, you need to show that idea to at least three trusted people and get feedback. 

Ideally, you would join, or create, a writing group.  Screenwriting isn't something learned by reading a book or a blog; it's a process of telling, retelling, and revising pages with continual feedback from one's peers. Involving yourself creatively in other writers' projects, giving notes and work-shopping stories besides your own is far more valuable than learning "writing theory."  In class, my USC students get is an intense, impassioned, and supportive engagement with their work by nine other ambitious and talented students (as well as the TA and the instructor) every step of the way.  You should seek that out as well.

Ultimately, all writers need a group of trusted collaborators, fellow writers, and filmmakers with whom they share feedback.  Whether your aspire to be Ingmar Bergman or Brett RatnerKathryn Bigelow or Maya Derenyou need your inner circle.

The Story

Last week, students uploaded their synopses to a Dropbox file so that they all could read one another's work.  Most of the ideas, at this point, were fragmentary.  Students had imagined characters, conflicts, and worlds that deeply inspired them, but now they needed to take a first shot at putting these ideas in the form of a STORY.

So, we discussed and evaluated each idea in terms of the simplest definition of a story that I have encountered:

A story is about someone who wants something very badly and is having trouble getting it.

More precisely, we discussed each story in terms of each piece of this definition. "A story is..."

"About someone..."  Whose story is it?  Through whose eyes, and more importantly through whose emotions do we experience the story? Who takes the actions that drive the story forward? This is the first big choice the storyteller must make, and there is always more than one answer.

"...who wants something..."  What does this protagonist want? What primary desire is forcing him/her/them to take action? Whether or not they get it is the DRAMATIC QUESTION that the story tracks and ultimately answers.

"...very badly..." Why does s/he want it so much?  What's going to happen if he/she DOESN'T get it?  This defines the STAKES of your story.

"...but is having trouble getting it."  What are the obstacles? Who is the antagonist, or what are the antagonistic forces that is keeping the protagonist from getting what s/he/they want?

Telling the Story

Once, these basic (but difficult!) questions are answered, we can take a shot at telling the story.  Brian McDonald, in both his blog and book Invisible Ink, claims that all effective stories have the basic structure of a fairy tale:

Once upon a time_____________
And every day________________
Until one day_________________
And because of this___________
And because of this___________
And because of this___________
Until finally__________________
And ever since that day_______

Does a fairy tale template seem too simplistic for your grown-up, complex story?  It's not.  Even three hour epics like The Godfather can be told this way.

1. Once upon a time there was a Godfather who ran a family business.
2. And every day the Godfather did favors and got favors in return.
3. Until one day, the Godfather did not grant a favor, and the snubbed rival tried to kill him.
4. And because of this the Godfather's sons took over the family business: Sonny started a war and Michael killed the rival.
5. And because of this Michael was exiled and Sonny was murdered in the war.
6. And because of this The Godfather made peace.
7. And because of this Micheal returned to take his father’s place, but the family was weakened by the Godfather’s sickness and eventual death.
8. Until finally the rival family bosses turned against Michael, and so Michael killed each and every one.
9. And ever since that day Michael was the new Godfather.

What we want to avoid when getting a general idea of our story is a series of disconnected events. "And then this happens, and then this happens, and then this happens." Telling a story as fairy tale beats forces the writer to think of the narrative as a chain of cause-and-effect driven by the choices of the protagonist.

Take a shot at telling your story in this way.

Telling the Story Well

The last thing that we talked about was the idea of TENSION, which we will come back to again and again throughout the semester.  Good storytellers constantly engage the audience's emotions by orienting their attention to the future.  In the beginning of the story they stoke the audience's CURIOSITY by showing them intriguing characters and situations that they want to learn more about.  In the middle of the story, they lock the audience's attention by manipulating the audiences HOPE and FEAR: the audience HOPES that things will turn out well for the people they care about, and FEAR that things will turn out badly.  Thus, the audience stays in their seats waiting to see how things turn out in the end.

With that in mind, even at this early stage of hashing out a story, writers should think about why the audience should have some EMPATHY for their protagonists.  How does the story present problems, ordeals, and CHOICES to the protagonist so that the audience cares about what will happen later?  How does the story make the audience imagine and dread bad outcomes, while hoping for good ones?

When I talk to script readers, producers, and judges in screenplay contests, they all say that most scripts fail because of two things.  Either we don't care about the characters (EMPATHY,) or the story lacks TENSION, or both.  It's a good idea to start thinking about these questions now.

Screenplay Structure

In future classes, we will go over screenplay structure in a more detailed way. We will consider Frank Daniel's Sequence Approach, as well as other templates. However, at this point in the process, an over-emphasis on act breaks, reversals, culminations and climaxes can lead to weak plots and poor characterization... as well as a lot of anxiety.  It's better, for now, to look at structure more loosely.

Ultimately structure is something that emerges from the process of telling, retelling and revising your story over and over and over again.

Think of it this way: all writing manuals and screenplay instructors can offer are maps, but the maps are not the territory.  A screenplay is not something that you engineer according to rules or even principles. Your story is something that you discover, like an archaeologist searching for an ancient long-buried city. The maps give you some idea of where the ruins are buried, but you won't really know the structure until you start digging.  As you dig, you may change your mind about what you find.  What you thought was a central square could turn out to be an inner sanctum.  What you thought was the city gates may turn out to be the entrance to a temple.  Storytelling is not so much a process of creation as it is one of discovery.

Even The Hero's Journey or Monomyth, touted by screenplay guru's as the mystical template of all stories, will only give you a hazy abstract notion of the shape of your particular story.  As I've argued in the past, Real Myths are Weird.

Character and World

Students left this week's class class with a Glossary of Screenwriting Terms, a list of  Recommended Books, Blogs, and Online Resources and a synopsis of Story Structure.  (click on the links to check these out yourself.)

Each student is now writing a 1-2 page Character Monologue or an Exploration of World.  Here are two examples of this exercise written by my students in the past.  The first is a wonderfully detailed description of a Taiwanese Hospital:  The World.  The other is a vivid monologue of a potential protagonist: Monologue. Notice how Lulu tells her story and the writer explores the character's voice, relationships, conflicts, and attitude.

These exercises underscore two different ways of exploring your story: inside out and outside in.  Actors who work "inside out" are generally start with emotions, senses and psychology- Method Acting - and work out.  Actors who work "outside in" begin with the expressions of the body, external details of character, and script analysis - Classical Acting - and work in.

Screenwriters are similar in that some of them seem to start with CHARACTER - emotions, situations and conflicts- and work out, to discover plot and structure. While others start with the WORLD -  the external circumstances and story structure - and then work in, to find the life of their characters.  No one way is "better" than the other, and there is nothing wrong with doing both.

Class Teaching Assistant

Lastly, I'd like to introduce my talented teaching assistant, Levin Menekse, who is primarily responsible for writing the glossary definitions, and will be writing guest blogs throughout the semester.  He hails from Turkey, reveres the writing of David Foster Wallace and the filmmaking of P.T. Anderson, and writes brilliant and mysterious screenplays.  He was singled out as "most likely to be a screenwriting professor" among graduate students at USC.

Click Here to go on to WEEK THREE:The Treatment.

I write this blog in order to connect with intelligent, ambitious, and creative people. If you leave a comment, you will inspire me to write more. If you liked the article, please share it.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Writing The Feature Script: Week One - OVERVIEW

For the next 15 weeks I will be teaching "Writing The Feature script" at USC's School of Cinematic Arts.  Week by week I will be writing blog articles about each topic that we discuss in class.  My hope is that beginning screenwriters, working screenwriters in writing groups, and screenwriting professors might benefit from "auditing" my class online.

On Tuesday of this week, I began the first class by pointing at the elephant in the room.  Only the weekend before The Legend of Hercules opened to scathing reviews and a score on Rotten Tomatoes of 2%.  Those students who had checked out my other credits on the Internet Movie Database had seen other dubious titles like Conan the Barbarian and Halloween: Resurrection.  Why would anyone want to take a class taught by a screenwriter best known for a viral posting called What's It Like To Have Your Film Flop At The Box Office

As it turns out, I'm a much better writer than my credits would suggest (trolls may begin mocking and sniping here) but that's not my point.  Most of what it takes to write a successful film (talent, hard work, self-delusion, and truckloads of good luck) can't be taught in the classroom.  What I teach, to the best of my ability, is a process by which students can discover their own voice and improve the quality of their own stories through a cycle of ongoing retelling and revision.

In other words, the class isn't about me.  Having written some two dozen projects for film and television, I can offer advice about the industry and about what standard students must meet in order to be "professional."  However, the class is about  the students' work, and about introducing them to tools to put their vision on paper.  I share these concepts both in class and online in the hopes that I can help someone out there - someone with talent, passion, and the necessary self-delusion - to make a truly great film.  

You can read about some of the concepts I will emphasize in the class here: This Is What A Rewrite Looks Like.

For what it's worth, my class gets pretty stellar student reviews.   If there were a Rotten Tomatoes for screenwriting courses, I'd get a 98%.  I've heard that one of the best-screenwriting-courses-ever at UCLA is taught by a guy credited on Battlefield Earth.  Go figure.

You can read about Week Two here: FINDING THE STORY

Here is the syllabus for the course...

School of Cinematic Arts
Writing Division
CTWR 533a: Writing The Feature Script

Instructor: Sean Hood
Class Schedule: 4:00-6:50pm  Tuesday
Office Hours: By appointment – preferably Tuesday afternoon before class.
Email Address:

Course Objective:

The objective of this course is to learn the craft of screenwriting, to develop it through pitches and treatments, to hone it by generating and receiving notes, and to apply it by completing a first draft of an original screenplay.

Course Description:

Amateur screenwriters and “how-to” screenwriting manuals are commonplace in Hollywood.  This course is designed to give students the tools to approach the screenwriting process from the perspective of a professional filmmaker and to face the challenge with both confidence and creativity.

The class will lead students step-by-step through the creation of an original feature script, moving from broad discussions of the author’s story, to a more detailed beat sheet, and finally to the sequence by sequence writing of the first draft.  Our emphasis will be on story and character fundamentals.  Issues of originality and “personal voice” will be balanced with those of professionalism and process.

This course will not only help students to write scripts, it will allow them to practice skills of analysis, discussion and presentation they will need in future projects throughout their professional careers. With this in mind, students will be expected to participate in all discussions and to help their fellow students develop their outlines and screenplays, “working on their feet.”

Ultimately, each student is required to complete a feature screenplay by the end of the semester.  The final script must be at least 100 pages in length and have a completed third act. It must display both character development and a basic understanding of the screenplay elements discussed in class.

Since each screenplay offers unique challenges for each writer, the instructor will take into account the progress of each student on an individual basis.

Course Reading:

Students will be required to read each other’s weekly assignments. Because of the sheer volume of this material as well as the time and care taken in its analysis, additional required reading will be minimal.

Weekly selections from screenwriting books and articles written by the instructor that pertain to the class will be made available to students online.

Assignment and Deadlines:

The WRITING ASSIGNMENTS will be due by MIDNIGHT SUNDAY previous to each class. This is a firm deadline and the late delivery of assignments will impact your grade for the course. If you finish the work earlier, please send it in.

You’ll be expected to come to class having finished typed NOTES on your colleagues’ pages for class discussion. Please deliver your notes to each respective writer (and to the instructor) TUESDAY, after class.

If students run into conflicts with shooting schedules or professional obligations, and they cannot meet a particular deadline, they can consult the professor no later than the Monday before the deadline.  As in professional situations, adjustments to deadlines can sometimes be made if the student plans a week or two in advance.

Grading Criteria:

Grading will depend on the quality and ambition of student’s written work and in-class presentations, as well as the student’s involvement in discussions of other’s work.

The course aims to prepare students to be working professionals. With that in mind grading will reflect the standards and expectations students can expect to encounter in the “real world.” So, all assignments must be submitted on time. Students must attend all classes, arriving on time. Students who cannot make a class or complete an assignment must contact the professor via email or through the front office before they miss a class or fail to complete an assignment.

When judging a screenwriter’s work, industry professionals often ask if a writer can “deliver.” Professional work is “delivered” on-time, proofread, and carefully thought out. Slip-shod or hurried work is rarely tolerated. So in determining a final grade, hard work and professionalism will be as important as originality and skill.

Likewise, working as a professional requires the skills of collaboration and communication. So as they would be in any story meeting in the entertainment industry, students are expected to be involved in each and every discussion. Failing to read the other students’ material or work on the other students’ ideas will affect the final grade. 

Specific areas that will be considered in determining a final grade are:

  • Classroom Participation – 5%
  • Written Feedback (Notes) – 5%
  • Treatment/Beat Sheet – 10%
  • Classroom Presentation (Pitch) - 10%
  • Bi-Weekly Revised Pages – (10% each) 40%
  • Final polished screenplay – 30%

Class Schedule
 Week 1 – Tuesday, January 14

·         Lecture - Overview of Class

o   Review of Syllabus.
o   Discussion of class goals.
o   Giving and receiving professional feedback (notes.)
o   Screenplay Terms
o   Introductions

Assignment Due – Sunday, January 19, Midnight

Each student will write down their ideas for a feature screenplay and why they are uniquely suited to tell these stories. The document should be 1-2 pages. Up to 3 ideas are allowed.

Week 2  – Tuesday, January 21

·         Lecture: Introduction to three act structure.
·         Discussion on the World of the Story and the Protagonist.
·         Class discussion on the screenplay ideas submitted on January 19.

Assignment Due – Sunday, January 26, Midnight

·         Students will write an exploration of the World they are setting their story in or a monologue/letter from their main character’s point of view. 2 to 3 pages.

Week 3  – Tuesday, January 28

·         Lecture: How to create a Treatment or Beat Sheet.

Assignment Due – Sunday, February 2, Midnight

·         GROUP A delivers a 2-3 page Beat Sheet or Treatment.
·         Each student in GROUP A makes an Appointment With The Professor to discuss his/her Beat Sheet or Treatment.

Week 4 - Tuesday, February 4

·         Lecture: Pitching
·         Lecture: Using index cards, character trees and other tools to create a map of primary characters, relationships, and arcs.
·         Class discussion: Breaking Story. Deliver written notes on GROUP A Beat Sheets.

Assignment Due – Sunday, February 9, Midnight

·         GROUP B delivers a 2-3 page Beat Sheet or Treatment.
·         Each student in GROUP B makes an Appointment With The Professor to discuss his/her Beat Sheet or Treatment.
·         Group A prepares for Oral Presentation (pitch.)

Week 5 - Tuesday, February 11

·         GROUP A gives Oral Presentations (i.e. each give a 20 minute pitch) to the class.
·         GROUP A presents the class with a Revised Beat Sheet.
·         Class discussion/feedback on GROUP A pitches and Beat Sheets.
·         Deliver written notes on GROUP B Beat Sheets.

Assignment Due – Sunday, February 16, Midnight

·         GROUP A begins writing their first two sequences.
·         Group B prepares for Oral Presentation (pitch.)

Week 6 - Tuesday, February 18

·         GROUP B gives oral presentations (i.e. each give a 15 minute pitch) to the class.
·         GROUP B presents the class with a Revised Beat Sheet.
·         Class discussion/feedback on GROUP B pitches and Beat Sheets.

Assignment Due – Sunday, February 23, Midnight

·         GROUP B begins writing their first two sequences.
·         GROUP A delivers Sequences One and Two (The first Act)

Week 7 - Tuesday, February 25     

·         Lecture: Excavating Structure. How to be open to discoveries during the writing process. The concept of “theme”.
·         Discussion and analysis of GROUP A’s work.  Deliver written notes.

Assignment Due – Sunday, March 2, Midnight

·         GROUP B delivers Sequences One and Two (The first Act)

Week 8 - Tuesday, March 4

·         Lecture: The “Mid-Point” and the “Mid-Point Shift”.
·         Discussion and analysis of GROUP B’s work. Deliver written notes.

Assignment Due – Sunday, March 9, Midnight

·         GROUP A delivers revised Sequences Three and Four (up to the Midpoint)

Week 9 - Tuesday, March 11          

·         Lecture: How to clear the Big Hurdle that is the second half of the second act.
·         Discussion and analysis of GROUP A’s work. Deliver written notes.


Assignment Due – Sunday, March 23, Midnight

·         GROUP B delivers revised Sequences Three and Four (up to the Midpoint)

Week 10 - Tuesday, March 25        

·         Lecture: Discussion on “Culmination” -- the End of the Second Act.
·         Discussion and analysis of GROUP B’s work. Deliver written notes.

Assignment Due – Sunday, March 30, Midnight

·         GROUP A delivers revised Sequences Five and Six (Complete Second Act)

Week 11 - Tuesday, April 1

·         Lecture: How to prepare the audience for the 3rd Act.
·         Discussion and analysis of GROUP A’s work. Deliver written notes.

Assignment Due – Sunday, April 6, Midnight

·         GROUP B delivers revised Sequences Five and Six (Complete Second Act)

Week 12 - Tuesday, April 8

·         Lecture: The Final Act. Audience expectations. The concept of a “satisfying story”.
·         Discussion and analysis of GROUP B’s work. Deliver written notes.

Assignment Due – Sunday, April 13, Midnight

·         GROUP A delivers revised Sequences Seven and Eight (The Third Act)

Week 13 - Tuesday, April 15

·         Lecture: A second look at “Theme” and the “Main Question” of your story.
·         Discussion and analysis of GROUP A’s work. Deliver written notes.

Assignment Due – Sunday, April 20, Midnight

·         GROUP B delivers revised Sequences Seven and Eight  (The Third Act)

Week 14 Tuesday, April 22

·         Lecture: Strategies and tools for the Polish.
·         Discussion and analysis of GROUP B’s work. Deliver written notes.

Assignment Due – Sunday, April 27, Midnight

·         Commence polishing the Revised Draft.
·         Students who are behind may deliver final sequences for feedback.

Week 15 – Tuesday, April 29

·         Discussion on the Polished Pages, Late Sequences and Lingering Story Problems

Week 16 - Optional Class – Friday, May 6

·         Final discussions, notes and encouragement. (Class Lunch)

FINAL ASSIGNMENT DUE Sunday, May 11, Midnight

As a final assignment and for the determination of a final grade students must deliver to the professor a complete revised and polished screenplay.

This final draft must include the various discussed in class, completed character arcs, and a completed third act. The quality of the scripts will be evaluated in context of the goals set by the writer earlier in the semester.

The final draft, in terms of professionalism and polish, should be suitable for submission to a producer, agency, studio, actor or independent financier.

I write this blog in order to connect with intelligent, ambitious, and creative people. If you leave a comment, you will inspire me to write more. If you liked the article, please share it.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Drawing Pictures For Screenplays: IMPS

When I was in college, it never occurred to me that I would be a professional writer.  I majored in art and in mathematics, but what I secretly dreamed of being was a simple illustrator or cartoonist.  Now, when I come up with movie ideas, they appear to me, not as loglines or one-sheets or even cinematic images. They pop into my head as drawings. So when I'm trying to get my head around a movie idea, I draw pictures.

For example...

Many years ago, I kept imagining creatures that I called "imps." An imp is defined as "a little devil or demon; an evil spirit," but I saw them as the size of forest sprites, covered in bundled twigs, with wings like dry leaves.
 I imagined them infesting suburban backyards like termites or bees.  They didn't strike me as "evil" so must as mischievous, ill-behaved and playfully destructive.  They looked like the manifestation of every child's id, and I could see them coming by the thousands to wreak havoc on family homes.

This ultimately became a story about a group of children whose old house had become overrun with the creatures.  The kids try to drive the imps out, but when there are two-year-old sister is abducted, they have to venture into the Imps' hive to rescue her.

At the time I had just finished writing assignments adapting novels about serial killers, madmen, and demonic possession.  I think I was just in the mood to do something more playful lighthearted.

But the Imps kept changing form...

Suddenly, I was imagining them not covered in bundles of sticks, but actually composed of tangled vines and roots.

The tone of the story along with the pictures became less childish and playful, and more uncanny and complex.
Now the story seemed to be about the brooding discontent of adults. The Imps seemed to represent the unacknowledged emotions and desires of the middle-aged.  These creatures would erupt in a swarm from the mud and tangled roots to wreak havoc on our safe, technology-driven lives.

But the Imps didn't stop changing. The kept getting more and more disturbing.  They took the form of grotesque human-wasps.  So, the stories that these new pictures evoked kept changing too, becoming darker and more perverse.  Now, I imagined sociopathic entomologists breeding sick mutations in test tubes and terrariums, only to have them break out (as our creatures always seem to do) to take revenge on their creators.
However, just when I had this version of the Imps down in treatment form, the image unexpectedly morphed again - transforming into something altogether different.

Out of nowhere, the imps were suddenly playful, mischievous, and "impish" again.  They looked more like little devils, and they were bright red.

 Now, I imagined a group of girls, young witches, who cast spells to invoke the imps.  Each Imp could perform a task, sometimes simple, like finding a lost iPhone, sometimes more complicated, like making a boy fall madly in love, and sometimes extremely dangerous, like raising the dead.

The girls loved their Imps like unicorns - if unicorns look like horned gargoyles.

I pitched all these versions of imps and more to various production companies, producers, comic book publishers, and networks.  None of the imps, in any of their various incarnations, were ever sold.  For years I hadn't thought about them,  but this morning I stumbled on the sketchpad packed with all the different drawings I have made over the years, trying to pin the imps down.  

Alas, I could never quite get a handle on the little fuckers.  Perhaps it's just not in an Imp's nature to be pinned down.

My favorite imp of all the imps I found the sketchpad, was drawn by my six-year-old daughter (she's thirteen now) - the most mischievous, playful, unpredictable imp of all:

I write this blog in order to connect with intelligent, ambitious, and creative people. If you leave a comment, you will inspire me to write more. If you liked the article, please share it.