In addition to working with writers, producers and agencies everywhere, I teach screenwriting courses at film schools in Australia, Europe and online. The school gigs largely consist of lecturing about screenwriting theory, and consulting on the students’ screenplays.
I love teaching, I adore my students, and I’m fortunate enough to see some good results, as some of my students go on to build a writing career.
Yet, I am growing increasingly frustrated.
There is a missing component in the learning of these young people. Some take the initiative to fill in the blanks, but others aren’t even aware of what is missing.
By just taking courses, there is little chance you will survive the real world.
So what else do you need?
Let’s first look at the positive aspects of books, courses and gurus.
Book, Courses And Gurus
I have written about the merits of film school. You can learn a lot from the experts through books, courses and videos. I have the best memories of binge reading screenwriting books, and then attending lectures by the authors.
In some instances, you can speed up the process of understanding how screenplays work, what has worked in the past and what hasn’t.
You’ll also learn the systems and terminology used in our industry.
Courses give you a general overview, based on more material than you can process in a lifetime. You learn about genres and styles outside your taste, which will help you communicate with professionals.
Books and courses give you different perspectives. No matter how long you study a subject, you’ll still only see it through the lens of your own eyes.
Screenwriting courses may give you a wholly new, valuable point of view.
However, one of the biggest problems with courses, is that only little of what you learn specifically relates to the work that you (will) write.
Therefore it is essential that you get feedback to your own work. It will help improve your performance, and level up to the requirements of the market.
Talk, Don’t Write
One of the local film schools offers their students industry feedback. Professional script consultants come in to help the students improve their scripts from first to final draft. It’s great. Students love it.
Not only is this an introduction to how the industry works; it is an invaluable addition to the lectures. Lecturing is a transfer of knowledge in bulk. The consults provide bespoke feedback, different for each student. Even if two students struggle with the same issue, they may need different solutions.
Consults outclass written reports. In the studio system, notes are a standard form of communication with writers. But without produced credits, you will benefit far more from a direct two-way conversation.
In a live consultation, you are able to ask questions, and so can the consultant. This helps define your objectives, as well as the issues standing in the way of achieving them.
The Consult Is Your Inmost Cave
Most of us work better and faster when we can verbally discuss our work, rather than write or read about it in a snapshot report.
Many aspiring writers are not familiar with the lingo, and consultants should not have to explain or define every concept in a report.
A good script consultation is a mini-workshop, where client and consultant work together to determine the priorities for future work, and the way they could be addressed by the writer. The best consult is an intense, inspiring and rewarding experience for both sides.
A welcome side-effect of some consultations is that writers discover what they are actually writing about.
Often new writers are not aware of the themes they infuse their stories with.
As a consultant, you are in the privileged position of discovering these themes with the writer. What is their world view? What bugs them, and how do their stories comment on society?
It allows them to develop their voice, and articulate their ideas in ways that the industry and the audience will understand. Sometimes it allows them to clarify, sharpen and refine their ideas.
Often these young writers are yet to find their path in life, and their writing provides a valuable introspection into their values, hopes and dreams. As a consultant, it is a humbling experience to be there, and witness this fascinating process.
And yet, no matter how inspiring, poetic and even mythical these experiences may be, they are no substitute for learning from the source.
Back To The Screenwriting Source
A few years back, a member of a screenwriting forum was eaten alive when he dared to ask for a method to learn screenwriting for free. Many of the readers had paid good money for their education, and they came down on the boy to annihilate him.
It turned out the boy didn’t know any better. He was new to screenwriting, and with a mental health disorder he didn’t know how to be diplomatic when asking his question.
It set me thinking.
Screenwriting books and gurus have only been around since the 1970’s, while some of the very best movies were written long before.
How did screenwriters learn the craft before there were any gurus around?
My guess? From reading great screenplays, stage plays, and novels.
It seems that we have collectively forgotten that the best learning lies in the best scripts. Yet, students these days seem to believe they can educate themselves without opening a single screenplay.
From reading lots of great scripts, you can learn style, structure and dialogue, virtually by osmosis.
One of my most dedicated students used to read a full-length feature screenplay every day, for months. This experience helped him so much, that he skyrocketed to the top of the best screenwriting contests, and was introduced to Hollywood agents. You can do this, too.
To be perfectly honest, though…
Just reading scripts is not going to cut it, either.
Thousands of screenplays are available online at any given time. They’re only a download away. So why don’t we all get to work, like, now?
It turns out to be a massive challenge to tell the wheat from the chaff.
Many are mere dialogue transcripts, which is utterly useless for the screenwriter who wants to learn how to use proper formatting and descriptive style.
Others are butchered versions, converted from one format to another, and ending up in a crappy TXT or – even worse – HTML format.
And only a few dozen scripts are available freely from their rights holders.
Fortunately, some sites publish a curated offering of these scripts, so you don’t have to make the selection for yourself.
In my view, once you are reading a rock solid selection of the best scripts, the only other mandatory daily action you need to take, is: write.
This is why after teaching screenwriting courses for nearly ten years, I decided to completely overhaul the philosophy behind my teaching.
I made a thorough review of what had worked in the past, and what didn’t.
I looked at which students had been successful, and who failed. Then I looked at the practices of working screenwriters, and built a system that helps writers build better habits, and prepare them for the writing of a professional screenplay draft. All without a tutor.
I named the course Immersion Screenwriting.
The results have been phenomenal.
The writing exercises I designed for this course emulate some of the brain processes of the seasoned screenwriter. Others are meant to create a steady writing habit, while building some sort of format muscle memory.
By performing these exercises on a daily basis, you adopt the practices of the professional screenwriter effortlessly. The basic version of the course runs for seven weeks (50 days), enough to change or create a new habit.
If you have spent hundreds or thousands of dollars on screenwriting courses and consults, rest assured that none of that was a waste. You will have acquired a top level understanding of the screenwriting trade.
But to get in the successful habit of writing effective screenplays, you need to not only know but feel what a great script looks like. This takes some time, and a fair amount of reading.
You need to know your genre inside out, you need to know its flagship movies and writing conventions. In addition, you need to be able to apply a contemporary writing style.
Readers want to enjoy your screenplay not only for its story, but also for its reading experience.
So, what script are you reading next?
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.