Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Writing The Short Film - Week One

Another semester at USC begins, and this time I will be teaching a group of twelve graduate students about "Writing the Short Film." Of course, writing short scripts is really an introduction to scene and sequence writing, the building blocks of all longer-form movies, TV, and new media.

I love this class.

For many students (and many reading this blog,) this will be their first attempt writing scripts and working in standard screenplay format. The class covers fundamentals and assumes no previous experience. So, on the first day, I urge everyone to...

Read Screenplays

My students will start by reading the screenplay for Moonlight, but other readers can find other classic screenplays here: Screenplay Examples From Each Genre.

Watch Short Films

If you want to make short films, you should watch them... lots of them. It's easy to find great ones online. If you feel like binging, start with 9 Short Films Every Filmmaker Should Know.

In this blog I'll be showcasing one short film a week. To start, The Lunch Date is a classic example of a conflict and characterization student film, with a clear moment of "epiphany."

Write Scenes, Get Feedback

The structure of the class is extremely simple. Every week there is an assignment of 3-5 pages. Every class we read those assignments aloud and discuss them. This includes exercises and actual short film scripts for projects the students will actually produce and shoot in another class.

All blog readers should consider mirroring this process by forming a Writers' Group of 2-10 people, meeting regularly, reading work aloud and offering feedback. This introduces new writer/filmmakers to the most important and powerful screenwriting tool: The Rewrite Loop.

What you will discover, as you write short films is that "all writing is rewriting."

Learn Terms and Tools

Since this is ultimately a writing class, I'll be introducing all sorts of screenplay concepts and terms, from Plant-and-Payoff to Theme.

But the term and definition I always start with is the most basic: Story

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

In class, we discuss students' stories 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? Who changes as a result? How does that character's viewpoint allow the story to be told in a unique way?

Sometimes you write a first draft thinking it's a story about one particular character but discover that a different character is actually the one taking action, making decisions, and changing as a result. The feedback on your script might reveal that a different character is the one the audience actually cares about and identifies with. Take this feedback seriously.

"...who wants something..."  What does this protagonist want? What primary desire is forcing him/her/them to take action? Whether or not the protagonist gets s/he wants is the DRAMATIC QUESTION that the story tracks and ultimately answers. This WANT has to be very specific and concrete, so that the audience understands what is driving the plot forward.

Often in first drafts, the protagonist is passive. Circumstances don't force him or her to take action towards some sort of specific and concrete goal. Stuff happens, but all the tears, twists and tornadoes are not married to any clear objective, and so the audience loses interest.

"...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.

Often in first drafts, the story lacks tension because if the protagonist doesn't get what they want, it's not clear that it would be all that bad. Not getting what they want should be an emotionally devastating outcome for our hero. It should be, figuratively or literally, a matter of life and death.

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

Often in first drafts, things are too easy for the protagonist. Lucky coincidences help them along. Antagonists don't put up much of a fight. Problems are solved without much trouble. A former acting/directing coach at USC, Nina Foch, had sharp advice for writers on how to handle their protagonists. "Make Them Suffer!"

Of course, short films don't always take the form of "stories" according to this definition. Shorts can be driven by poetic tension, thematic tension, and cinematic tension. They can be experimental, didactic, experiential, commercial and otherwise non-narrative. However, in my own writing and in the kind of writing one does as a professional in film and TV, this definition has been extremely useful and almost universal.

Screenwriting Software

Anyone who is planning to make writing a central part of their filmmaking future should probably buy a copy of Final Draft, as it is the industry standard. However, for the purposes of writing scenes and short films, you can take advantage of all the free screenwriting software available, including CeltxAdobe Story, and Trelby. You can read reviews of all the available screenwriting software here: Best Screenwriting Software.

Next week I'll be lecturing about Dramatic Tension, so check out Writing The Short Script: Week Two.  In fact, you can check out Week Three and Week Four as well...

And, please respond in the comments if you have questions or suggestions for the class. :)

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