ENGL 387: Basic Screenwriting
Shawn Wong, Professor of English
B423 Padelford Hall, (206) 616-0941
Office hours: MW 2-3 & by appt. on Zoom M-F
NOTE: There's no class on Monday, January 8th. "Be Boundless" that day. (We will make up that class later in the quarter by adding a screenwriting group zoom meeting.)
This is a screenwriting class, which means that the bulk of the responsibility for the success of this class is based on the writing you produce for the class and your critique of the writing done by your classmates.
The goal of the class is to prepare you for more independent writing and self-critique. The focus on the writing is centered more on revision, editing, adaptation of an existing fictional story and understanding the craft of the screenwriting.
This is a beginning screenwriting class and the structure and focus of the class is on collaborative work in writing teams, mirroring the real world screenwriting work done in a "writers' room." Students will work in teams on an adaptation of an existing short story into a screenplay for a short film of about 15 to 20 minutes. There will be other opportunities to do individual script writing, but that also is adaptation with the goal of learning the format of the screenplay and learning film grammar.
Required Text and Podcast:
There will be a textbook for the class and it can be ordered as an e-book or in hardcopy. The required text is "Invisible Ink" by Brian McDonald and is available for order online from many sources. Here's the listing on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=invisible+ink+by+brian+mcdonald&crid=36JBWQ1SFW403&sprefix=invisible+ink+by+br%2Caps%2C373&ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_19 (Links to an external site.)
I'm combining the text with a multi-episode podcast by Brian McDonald in which he discusses both his book and provides many more examples of his storytelling and screenwriting principles. Here is the link to the podcast: https://writeinvisibleink.com/episodes/ (Links to an external site.)
The book, "Invisible Ink," is meant to be a companion to the podcast, rather than the other way around. The podcast episodes are long, some over an hour, but they are important because they lay the foundation for screenwriting and storytelling. Take notes while listening and jot down what you think are the most important qualities you need to remember when you sit down to write a screenplay.
Brian McDonald and I have been working together for the last 8-10 years on a storytelling project, The Red Badge Project (theredbadgeproject.com), and many of the principles we use in our workshops are described in these podcast episodes. He is a master storyteller, drawing from extensive knowledge of film, stories about directors, and his work with many production companies such as Pixar, Industrial Light & Magic, and other major studios.
Reading Schedule for "Invisible Ink" and Podcast Viewing:
As you make your way through the podcast, "You are a Storyteller," here are the chapters from McDonald's book that generally coincide with the episodes and with the class sessions listed in Canvas Discussions along with the suggested dates you should complete the reading and podcast:
Chapters 1-3 & Episodes 1, 2 & 4 (January 18th)
Chapters 4-7& Episodes 5-8 (Jan. 25th)
Chapters 9-10 & Episodes 9-10 (Feb. 1st)
[To repeat, you are only responsible for podcast episodes 1, 2, & 4-10, episode 3 has been deleted. There are 25+ total episodes, but we're only using up to episode 10.]
A Note About Assignments and Grading Policy:
While this class is billed as a screenwriting class, at its core it is a storytelling class and the strategies for telling our stories. I think that skill is now more important than ever.
Under Canvas Assignments, you will see your responsibility for keeping up on assignments. There are due dates, though you must note when the assignment is no longer available (normally seven days after the due date, but some are less, particularly towards the end of the quarter). The due dates are markers that are meant to help you keep pace with the material in the class. Not turning in work will affect your grade by .2 of a grade point per assignment. If you turn in an assignment and it is returned to you for revision in order that you might reverse an "incomplete" grade to a "complete" grade, you may do so at anytime between the due date and the date that the assignment is no longer available. If you do not revise an incomplete assignment, but you turned in the part of it, your grade in the class will be reduced .1 instead of .2 for a completely missing assignment.
Also, not participating in your screenwriting group will also affect your grade.
It boils down to this: if you turn in everything by the end of the quarter and during the allotted time for the availability of the assignment and participate in an equal way in your screenwriting group, you will receive a 4.0. The early assignments are meant to establish the screenwriting tools and knowledge you will need to navigate the later assignments and prepare yourself for collaborative group writing so that everyone in your group is working with the same toolkit.
There are no points or grades given out for assignments. This is a project-driven class, which means assignments and tasks either are done or they're not done, much like a real world writing job. You will see on Canvas that your assignments are marked either "complete" or "incomplete."
If you are having trouble turning in work, please contact me earlier rather than later so that we can find a path for you to succeed in the class. My classes have always been structured in way to support your success in the class.
There are three small group screenwriting projects and your group might set recommended due dates for each group member in order to complete a writing assignment. These group projects are meant to replicate the structure and function of a "writer's room" and the natural collaborative nature of screenwriting in the real world of working screenwriters. If for some reason, you have group members not completing work in a timely manner, the rule in this class is that the other members will continue to work forward without the input from the student who is late with their share of the work or absent from group meetings.
Many of my former screenwriting students are still working and writing in their teams long after our class ended. Some have even produced short films based on material they developed in class or used their writing samples for admission into graduate film programs.
A Note About Exams:
There will be no exams and no final exam. Your writing are the exams.
Our course is separated into four sections: Story, Structure, Characters & Action, and Dialogue & Setting.
Story: As screenwriters we are storytellers so need to understand how a story works, our responsibility to the story. We learn what are the essential elements of story and storytelling. What is a story? What is its function? What is it about? What are you trying to prove?
Structure: All stories must have a structure. What is the premise of a story? We will examine the three-act structure of stories, film, etc. and how each act works in service of the story. Brian McDonald calls it "Proposal, Argument, and Conclusion" in his podcast, while others call the three-act structure--character, conflict, and resolution and there are still other versions of the same point. Whatever you call it, it's still three acts.
Characters & Action: We will learn that characters drive action in a story or more precisely motivated action. It's the meaning behind the phrase "a character driven story." How do you move an audience with real drama?
Dialogue & Setting: We will learn not so much what characters need to say in a screenplay, but rather why they have to say what they say.
- Download script writing software from celtx.com (it’s free if you choose the student edition) or from Arc Studio Pro at https://www.arcstudiopro.com/ (Links to an external site.) (also free) or use any other script writing software you might already have. Other script writing software is available at celtx.com (also free student version).
- All scripts should be in .pdf format when you upload them to Canvas (your screenwriting software will convert it to .pdf for you). Be sure to fill out the title page information for your script.
- Proofread, proofread, proofread all your writing assignments before turning them in. You are writers, therefore the use of your only tool (writing) should be flawless and free of typos, misspellings, improper punctuation, etc.
- For the group writing project, try to pick a story to adapt that is a complex, multi-layered character driven story, rather than action driven (meaning little dialogue is required), or bodice ripping Gothic romance (lots of sighing and pining for your heartthrob), or pure fantasy (no unicorns), or talking animals.
- The following stories can no longer be used for adaptation: “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor, “A Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff, “A Perfect Day for Banana Fish” by J.D. Salinger, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “How to Tell a True War Story” by Tim O’Brien, “The Rocket Man” by Ray Bradbury, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” by Raymond Carver, "Speech Sounds" by Octavia Butler, "The Veldt" by Ray Bradbury, "The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell, "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut, "The Lotttery" by Shirley Jackson, "The Story of an Hour," by Kate Chopin, "Gift of the Magi," by O. Henry, "The Monkey's Paw," by W.W. Jacobs, "The Highwaymen," by Alfred Noyes, and any Edgar Allen Poe story. The reason for this is I've read too many versions over the years teaching this class.
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CMS 370 Code of Conduct and Mutual Respect
This course aims to create an ethical, caring, reciprocal environment for safe learning about our roles as writers who record and observe the world at large.
To that end: recognizing and valuing diversity is essential to the learning goals of this course and the critical thinking endeavor at the heart of university education.
Respect for difference includes and is not limited to age, cultural background, ability, ethnicity, family status, gender presentation, immigration status, national origin, race, religion, political belief, sex, sexual orientation, preferred names and pronouns, socioeconomic status, and veteran status.
Your participation will require careful and ethical engagement with people and ideas reflective of diversity, including those not in alignment with your personal beliefs and values.
To that end, you are asked to be mindful and respectful to others (and yourself) in all course interactions. Act with best attentions, assume best intentions from your colleagues, and give each other the benefit of the doubt.
Failure to comply with the code of conduct will result in meetings to further discuss pronoun use, respecting diversity, and other learning opportunities. We all make mistakes, and it is from these that we often learn the most.
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