Learn How to Write Screenplays Online

June 29, 2017
Tips and Techniques
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Online Learning for Screenwriters

I googled “how do you write a screenplay” and got almost a million results. One of the first results was an overview of a Wikipedia page, and you know what? I wouldn’t argue with someone who wrote a script based on the eight steps it showed. It was pretty good advice. But is that enough? I started out old school, learning screenwriting from screenwriters face-to-face. Is it really possible to learn how to write a screenplay without sitting in a class (without gum) or talking to people in person? Well, assuming you have some talent and skill, yeah. And you’ll also need some connectivity, because there are a lot of virtual classrooms where you can learn about the craft.

I went to school for a long time to hone my writing skills, and when I decided to write screenplays back inna day, I hit the books and took additional classes. Online learning was in its infancy. But I dabbled and continue to dabble in the online world. Just like traditional classes, there was good and there was bad.

What do You Want?

Before committing time and money to an online course, determine what you want to get out of it. Do you want an overview of the process? A strategy for placing essential beats in the right place? A mentor? A complete first draft? Outlining and structural help? Before signing up for a class, make sure you do your research and find a course that’s right for you.

When I was first looking at courses, I didn’t know what I wanted. Well, I wanted to write screenplays, and I had written some already, but at that time I was just spinning my wheels. I somehow found a UCLA summer course. I don’t remember what the course title was, but it promised a completed first act at the end of it. I figured I would at least have the start of a new screenplay, so I applied and got in. While it was a little basic for me, I still learned strategies and approaches. Plus, at the end of the term, I had a logline, an elevator pitch, an outline, and a completed first act. So it gave me the push I needed to get a new script started. Sounds great, right? It was. I ended up finishing the script and using it as a writing sample to get into another program. But there was one aspect of the course that really disappointed me, and I hadn’t even considered it when I signed up.

No One is an Island

The instructor for my UCLA class was great. Knew his stuff, dealt with students well, open for questions. The students? I don’t remember a single name. True, it was over 10 years ago, but I still think that’s telling. There was no social component to this particular class. We showed up at the same time once a week and went through a lecture and workshop. However, there was nothing that led to interactions that would have helped students connect, and this was a big problem for me. Why? Because about that time, I learned that you need a writing community.

Writing is generally seen as a solitary pursuit, and much of it is, even for people who co-write scripts -- there are times when you need to be alone with your keyboard. But if you want to be successful, it helps to have other people around to read your work, talk you down off the roof (it was just that one time), and give you input and support. I believe that if you’re going to persevere in the world of screenwriting, you need to be with other writers. You need to be with producers and filmmakers. Playwrights. Film and story educators. People who will a become writing group and maybe even get you paid screenwriting gigs. This is important, career-advancing stuff.

That’s where I think online courses by design can fail. But it could be just me. Screenwriter Aadip Desai had a very different experience with his UCLA course. We both had excellent instructors, but his experience with his class was different. “The course made me a better script reader and writer,” he says, “and the singularly cool classmates from all over the world have become my lifelong friends.”

I can attest that Aadip is friendlier than I am. That might have something to do with it. But the structure of the course definitely has an effect.

I found Werner Herzog’s MasterClass completely inspiring and engaging, which is what I was looking for at the time. I wanted to know how he made films, not because I wanted to copy him, but because he generally works outside the studio system and finds a way to get things done. I got to hear firsthand about that. Was it worth the $90 and several hours of my time? Absolutely. Did I find soulmates in the forum? No.

 

The MasterClass series is an example of a structure that doesn’t lend itself to social outreach. The course is set up for 24/7 access, so there’s no set time for interaction with others. I went into the forum once, but after reading a couple of posts, it was clear that it wasn’t for me – a lot of new writers, a lot of people heeding the impassioned calls of their souls to ... no. They all seemed happy with what they were doing, but it was not what I needed. Yes, I could have reached out and started discussions, but it was hard enough for me to carve out 20 minutes to watch videos.

You Get What You Pay For

One amazing thing that people under 30 probably take for granted is the huge amount of free info that’s available online. ScreenwritingU, for example, regularly offers a free rewriting teleconference. It’s about 2.5 hours long and walks you through a very effective rewriting technique. I’ve listened to it twice, and I’ll be listening again the next time it comes around. Totally worth my time.

However, this isn’t always the case. If you’re taking a free class or workshop, think about who you want in your cohort. Do you want someone who’s dedicated to the craft, or someone who wants to see what it’s like? Someone who makes a sacrifice to attend the class, or someone who says, “If I don’t like it, I can always quit and not be out anything.” Who’s going to be more dedicated? Who’s going to put more effort into their work and their comments on your work? There are plenty of exceptions here, and I know that some writers have to choose between workshops and rent. So while I’m painting with a broad brush, I do think that you’ll find better, more dedicated writers in paid classes. They’ve got skin in the game, so they have more at risk. You can learn a lot from people in that position.

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts

So how do you find a decent online learning experience? First off, know what you want to get out of it. Secondly, do your research. This means reading reviews, talking to people who have taken the class, and looking up the presenters on IMDB. If you don’t like what you see, it’s probably not for you.

I’ve generally had good online experiences. What did I get out of them? Generally, inspiration and a kick in the ass. That’s about 20% of a screenplay right there. Totally serious. Sitting alone with your computer is essential if you want to get work done, but it’s an ordeal. Finding others who are doing that, maybe even doing it better than you are, can really get you moving.

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Kevin Rexroat

Screenwriter, blogger and editor.

I have been hired to write or rewrite four feature screenplays. My spec screenplays and teleplays have finished as high as the finals in multiple international competitions including the Austin Film Festival, Scriptapalooza, Final Draft's Big Break, BlueCat, Page International, Slamdance, Emerging Screenwriters, and others. 

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