My Screenwriting Curriculum (It’s Not What You Think)

Screenwriting is hard. Get some education.
FADE TO BLACKBOARD

Before I sit down and do any screenwriting, I need to get an education on the matter. But how?

The school of hard knocks is great, and I can hardly knock it, but I believe there needs to be a certain threshold of familiarity with the medium before I start getting slapped around and bruising my ego. This means I need a modicum of education on screenwriting before diving into a “fail faster” iterative assault on my inexperience.

Let’s think of my education as prep work. The more work I put into my studies on the frontend, the more beneficial the eventual knocks will be on my backend. I mean, on the backend, as in the hard-knockathon that is sure to follow my swan dive into screenwriting mayhem.

Actually, I anticipate my backend being plenty sore if I stick to the butt-in-chair method of getting work done, which I plan to do. I can be a sore winner. Bring it on.

My education will partially consist of three screenplays—the raw, real deal, straight from the horses’ pie holes; unclouded by pedantic fluff; no pointers scribbled in the margins from people who really know how to pick apart another man’s writing.

Why Read Screenplays (Isn’t It Obvious?)

I think people can get too hung up in what the experts say about great works of art. It’s fine to find out what other people have to say about a painting or a book, but don’t follow what they say as if it is a recipe for churning out the next Mona Lisa. If you do that, you will be all up in your head about the process instead of executing on your ideas. And when you finally do execute, you’ll just have a picture of a smirking nun.

Instead, study masterpieces for yourself. Look at art you like. Figure out why you like it, why it makes you feel the way it does. Try to create your own art that makes you feel the same way. Compare your art to the art you admire; then try again. Then do it again. And again, ad randomlatinwordum.

If you get stuck, then by all means look to some experts for ideas, but don’t try to stuff your mind with all their writings in hopes that the instructions will braid themselves into a wonderful tapestry in your head before you actually write anything down.

My Screenplay Selections

So I have selected three screenplays to study from the comfort of my bum.

Interestingly, all three screenplays are adapted from books. They are also not structured chronologically, with the possible exception of one, which we will come to. I didn’t realize this when I chose them, but all three screenplays concern themselves with a person’s rise from obscurity, or lack of significance, to prominence and riches. Perhaps I need to do some soul-and-wallet searching to figure out what this means for my emotional development.

My only criteria for selection was that the movie interested me. It will make the learning process so much more enjoyable, which will also make it more likely to occur.

I want to study scripts that captivate me, because I want to do learn how to do the same thing for my audience. Something about these scripts captivates me. On that note, don’t judge my tastes too harshly if you thought these movies were stupid.

Without further ado, here are the three screenplays I have selected to study.

The Social Network written by Aaron Sorkin

The Social Network Cover
If I was Mark Zuckerberg, I would be pissed.

Synopsis: “Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg creates the social networking site that would become known as Facebook, but is later sued by two brothers who claimed he stole their idea, and the cofounder who was later squeezed out of the business.” (from IMDB)

The Accidental Billionaires Cover

Based on the book The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich

The Social Network pulled me in and didn’t let go until the end. The premise is chock full of situations most of us can relate to, the dialogue is snappy, and the structure keeps things moving along. Sorkin intersperses courtroom proceedings between the backstory to ramp up the conflict at key moments. Not only do we have the conflict of the moment surrounding the creation of Facebook—we also have the conflict about the conflict that occurs later in the depositions, all mashed together to create a tight string of tension. Allen Palmer at Cracking Yarns writes that Aaron Sorkin “bows down and prays” at the altar of this rule: Drama Is Conflict. There is conflict galore, which is why the screenwriter gets away with breaking numerous other screenwriting no-nos. The structure of the movie is well done, though it admittedly feels a bit scattered at points.

Limitless written by Leslie Dixon

Limitless Cover
The one time a homeless guy did drugs and it catapulted him to success.

Synopsis: “With the help of a mysterious pill that enables the user to access 100 percent of his brain abilities, struggling writer Eddie Morra becomes a financial wizard, but it also puts him in a new world with lots of dangers.” (from IMDB)

The Dark FieldsBased on the book The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn

Limitless is one of those movies that I am sort of ashamed to like. The premise is cheesy—how many times have we heard the “OMG one hundred percent of your brain!” copout for crazy plot machinations?—yet, with its flaws, I enjoy the story immensely. If I’m honest, part of my reason is how the cinematography brilliantly captures the difference between drug-free, struggling Eddie and enhanced Eddie. But another part of me just loves to see a down and out writer achieve mastery and start flying high. Limitless starts toward the end of the story chronology, then jumps back to the beginning of the timeline, includes a couple flashbacks, and finally catches up with the scene shown at the start before continuing to the conclusion. The dialogue has less pop than Sorkin’s script has, but it manages some catchy witticisms, which are right up my alley. The movie also tempts me to try some Modafinil, the supposed “real life NZT-48”, to see if letters will magically rain down around me and arrange themselves into an amazing book—but no: no drugs for me.

Slumdog Millionaire written by Simon Beaufoy

Slumdog Millionaire
Grew up in Mumbai. Then had to tell his mum bye.

Synopsis: “A Mumbai teen who grew up in the slums, becomes a contestant on the Indian version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” He is arrested under suspicion of cheating, and while being interrogated, events from his life history are shown which explain why he knows the answers.” (from IMDB)

Q&A BookBased on the book Q & A by Vikas Swarup

Slumdog Millionaire is a great film … or so I have read. I confess that I haven’t actually seen the movie yet, but I already like it. The premise involves a poor boy from an Indian slum who wins big, a setup which, as we are learning, seems to click with me. The chronology is also complicated, creating a three-act story structure out of splices between three separate story timelines.

Script Secrets writes:  “SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE has three different time periods running concurrently, so one scene in the past might be setting up the conflict—Act One material—and another scene in the past might be escalating the conflict—Act Two material—yet a scene in the present might also be setting up conflict—Act One material. The chronology of the scenes has nothing to do with the three act structure—it’s all about the conflict … and story is conflict.”

I may add more here after watching the movie, although I may also wait to watch it until I read the screenplay. I always watch the movie first; it might be time to try the reverse.

Time to start reading!

What other scripts would I do well to study? Let me know in the comments.

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