"Introduction to Screenwriting"

Week One

Although this class is entitled "Intro to Screenwriting", it's my belief that, in general, writing is writing. In fact, in order to understand how to write for the screen--large or small--one must first have an intimate understanding of the structure and function of story.

I've written for television and film, books and short stories, comic books and stage. The most important lessons I've learned along the way have been those which deal with the difference between the "Inner" and "Outer" aspects of writing, that is -- the technical craft as opposed to the emotional or spiritual aspects of the game. It is my intent to teach you not just about the structures of Character and Plotting, but also about how your own inner life interacts with your writing in such a way to create art--or at least craft.

What is "Art?" That is an old question, which has been endlessly debated by people much smarter than me. Nonetheless, I'll take my crack at it: "Art is Self-Expression."

Wait, you ask. Is that it? Is that all there is? Does that mean that if my 2-year old dips his hand into the potty and smears a handful of goo on the wall and says: "Looky what I did!" that that is Art?

Yep. That's exactly what I mean. The question of whether or not something is Art is completely separate from the question of whether it is RECOGNIZED as being so. It transcends the question of judgment, and needs not be labeled or acknowledged to be what it is. It is a private, personal truth.

On the other hand, SUCCESSFUL art, or COMMERCIAL art is Self Expression plus Communication. If we take the position (and I do) that Art is also an attempt to communicate, to share a vision or emotional state with another, or with the culture at large, then you must care about the person on the other end. The market. The audience. And even, yes, the critic.

Balancing these two needs--to be utterly true to your own vision, and to care about the feedback from the market--is one of the things which drives artists insane. The purest artists are probably those who don't give a damn about the audience. And these are starving in one-room Efficiency apartments all over the country.

Commercial artists who care about the market place but don't express themselves as individuals, often make excellent livings, but often are plagued with a nagging sense that their lives are incomplete.

The most fortunate, I suppose, are those who follow their own heart, but have an instinct for what the audience wants, as well.

Directors like Steven Spielberg have an awesomely developed instinct for what the public wants. On the one hand, he makes a product to please himself, and to hell with the rest of the world. On the other hand, he loves sneaking into movie theaters to watch his films with a live audience. He listens to what they react to, and how they react. He is attuning his cinematic antennae.

So both of these states of mind are important, and what I hope to do is set you along the road to developing your own commercial sense, while still keeping in touch with the absolutely unique aspects of who you are as an artist, and a human being.

"A story is a Swiss watch timed to a beating heart".

In other words, in order to write one must have both passion and intellect, knowledge and feeling. It is my intent to help you find both.

"But isn't screenwriting completely different from book writing.?"

Nope, not at all. A screenplay is about 120 pages of a decent book, and is conveyed largely in visual images. Aside from these and some inevitable market considerations, storytelling is storytelling. If you wish to learn screenwriting format, I would suggest getting in touch with The Writer's Computer Store in West Los Angeles, and simply buying a piece of their fine software, especially Final Draft. This will teach you all of this you need. No more on that subject--let's concentrate on writing, shall we?

One of the first questions which must be answered is: What is a story? There are as many answers as there are writers, but one excellent model is the following:

* Situation:
* Character:
* Objective:
* Opponent:
* Disaster:

Here's how it works, using the movie "Goldfinger" as my subject.

Situation: When gold is being smuggled out of England in large quantities,
Character: Secret agent 007 James Bond
Objective: Wants to learn how it is being accomplished. But little does he realize that
Opponent: Industrialist (and dirty dog) Auric Goldfinger
Disaster: Is smuggling gold to finance his real goal--the destruction of Fort Knox with an Atom Bomb!!

I would suggest that you watch any good movie at least twice.

Once for pure entertainment, and then a second time specifically for pattern analysis. Even bad movies can be useful. If you find yourself getting bored, just pop back out of the cinematic flow, and notice how they are putting the pieces together. Sometimes the best education in magic comes from watching a drunken old magician. You can see the pigeon poking its head out of the hidden pocket, the edge of an ace up the frayed sleeve.

I remember watching Mohammed Ali's last fights. His skills had eroded so badly that you could finally see how he accomplished his magic--and at his best, magic it was.

So any exposure to story-telling can enrich you. You never know when or where you will glean an invaluable insight.

Have you ever turned on your television at One O'clock in the morning, intending to watch something for a few minutes, and getting stuck watching some lousy show or other for two bleary hours? Even if it's lousy? I think that this has happened to most of us. The reason is that storytelling is based on a cyclic rise and fall of tension, similar to the build-up and break down of sexual excitation, or muscular exertion:


These first three represent the "Rising phase"


These three represent the "falling" or "plateau" phase.

The goal of a character in a story should parallel your own goals and concerns. There must be some point of emotional entry, so that you can empathize--and accordingly, your intended audience can care about the events which take place.

For instance:

GOAL: To be a working writer
CONFLICT: To forgo pleasures and companionship in order to find the time and energy to write DISASTER: Initial efforts rejected by soulless Hollywood heathens.
REACTION: Pain, disappointment. Fear that you're not good enough. Resorting to the bottle, the needle, and abusing the family dog.
DILEMMA: Do you quit, and avoid further pain and possible suicidal depression? Or go on, try again, and be true to your inner muse, fickle bitch though she often is?
DECISION: To go to Steve BArnes' web page, and try to gain the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed. (Good decision!)
See how this works? By breaking a story down in such a fashion, it matches the actual processes that we go through as human beings in our attempts to solve problems. This cycle (GOAL_CONFLICT_DISASTER) is the ACTION, while (REACTION_DILEMMA_DECISION) is the REACTION. This cycle of Action/Reaction feeds the entire art of story. A single story may have 10-20 such cycles, rising in intensity, as the heroine struggles to fulfill her destiny or avoid her fate.

The important thing here is that you see how this process mirrors your own life struggle--making this connection allows you to be honest about the emotions experienced by your characters. And this emotional honesty is absolutely important. Whether a child confronted by a Velociraptor, or a Moor confronted by accusations of his wife's infidelity, what is absolutely important is that the emotions be believable IN CONTEXT. The most absurd or fantastical situations become believable if the emotions are realistically scaled.

It is my intent in this class to give you every tool you need to succeed. Not merely the technical skills, but also the skills of managing your energy and focus to create the work itself--and also to keep the external structure of your life balanced so that your efforts don't destroy your family and career (both of which I've seen happen)


1. Write your life story. Start from today, and run it until the day you die. All of your major dreams, hopes, and goals. Put in that first sale!!! You MUST include goals in health, relationship, and career. Put in a sense of the span of your life and times, the struggle, the eventual victory. Exercise every day, at least a short, brisk walk. Have a family, fall in love, get out with friends--in other words, GET A LIFE!!! Have fun with this. Let's see some good deaths!
2. Keep a dream Diary. This will be VERY important for those of you who have trouble with ideas--but important for anyone who wants to become more aware of the structure of their own mind and creative wellspring.

Use the "Situation, Character, Objective, Opponent, Disaster" model, and break down a popular feature film.

Author's Bio: 

Steven Barnes is a NY Times Bestselling author who has written for Outer Limits, Twilight Zone, Andromeda, Stargate SG-1, and Ben Ten: Alien Force. Barnes has lectured at UCLA, Mensa, and the Smithsonian Institute. With over two million words published, he is one of the most prolific writing instructors in the world. His LIFEWRITING FOR WRITERS course has been called "groundbreaking," and his new "HERO'S JOURNEY: Life Mastery" course is now available at WWW.REALHEROSJOURNEY.COM