Screenwriting II — Week 4

October 2, 2013

Posted on: Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Hello all,Even those of you who didn’t have your story fully worked out, did a very nice job on your pitches. I know how tough it is to present your not-yet-fully-formed ideas in front of a class. I’ve been there myself.
So congrats to all for accomplishing that.

Now the real work begins. You’ve know left your ordinary world and (by remaining in the class) have chosen to walk through the gates of the magical world. I can hear the fairies and dragons say “welcome”.
As I said in class today,  I think the hardest assignment this semester is writing a synopsis. Not only do you have to have your story worked out from the beginning to end, but it also has to be well written (using grammatically-correct sentences — check for typos too, please), entertaining, and succinct. It’s difficult to do well and requires several drafts. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? Right.

Here are a few links to sample synopses and on how to write one:

House of Games,   SAMPLE-SYNOPSIS

Also, I promised to give you a link to the 1st Episode of The Writer’s Room on Sundance Channel (Breaking Bad writers).  Here it is:

Here’s something to inspire you:

If the above links don’t take you outside of Blackboard, copy and paste them in your browser.

Story (McKee): Ch.2 through 8

Assignment #2: SYNOPSIS. Due October 15th, no later than 9:30am (in your respective group’s folder). The maximum length for the synopsis is TWO PAGES, SINGLE-SPACED. The IDEAL length for the synopsis is a page and a half or two pages, double-spaced (see the samples).
Do not turn in your synopsis if it’s longer than two pages.  Sure, your first, and even your second. draft can be as many pages as you think you need to lay your story out for yourself. But then you have to put on your editor’s hat, pull out the “writer’s axe and chisel” from under your desk, and  go to work. Hack your sentences down to two pages and chisel your words to a presentable state.  Pretend that you’re submitting it to a producer who will write you a check if he likes your story.  Even if you’re writing a synopsis for your eyes only, do it as if you’d be presenting it to the whole world.



Screenwriting II — Week 3

September 25, 2013

Posted on: Wednesday, September 25, 2013

 Hello everyone,Those of you who pitched on Monday — good job. Those who will pitch next Monday —  concentrate on the main story and your main character. The more focused your pitch is, the better feedback we can offer you.

You don’t have to know your story form the beginning to the end. But I do want you to at least have an idea how you want to end it and where you want your character to end up. The details may change; they often do. But the idea — what you want to say — should stay the same, unless you want to write a new story. As for a “new story”, if you want to CHANGE the story you thought you’d be working on, do it now. By the end of next week you’re locked into your story.

Some of you asked me if he/she could pitch several stories. It’s a good idea, in general, but there’s not enough time to that in class. So if you have several ideas, you are welcome to email them to me or post them on Blackboard in your group’s page.

Write the biography of your main character. This is not an official assignment and you don’t need to upload it to Blackboard.
But I urge you to do this exercise. It will be of great help later on. Here are some questions you may want to consider:

Character Biography.pdf

Also, we talked abut story paradigms  or models.

Here’s the paradigms for McKee (Story)

And here’s one for Vogler (Writer’s Journey) based on Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”.


We will talk more about the elements in Hero’s Journey later in the semester.


Comment on your groupmates’ pitches on Blackboard.
Here’s the list of those student who pitched on Monday:

Philip, Alba, Jamual, Daniel, John-Carlo, Patrick. Hopefully the rest of the class will pitch their stories next week.

Read VOGLER-Writer’s Journey (pp.23-49)

Read AVATAR SCREENPLAY (on Blackboard). The story follows the myth structure very closely.
I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying until you’re sick of it (because it’s the truth): If you want to learn how to write,
read and analyze as many screenplay as you can get your hands on. You will learn to identify what works, what doesn’t, and why.

Pitching:  be prepared to pitch your stories. Try to avoid subplots and backstories. Concentrate only on the heart of your main story. Who is your main character? What is her desire? Who is her opponent? What does she do to overcome obstacles? What happens to her in the end? Does she grow as a person and how?

Questions? Email me:

See you Monday.

Screenwriting II — Week 2

September 18, 2013

Posted on: Wednesday, September 18, 2013


In class we discussed John Truby’s  SEVEN ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS of a good story (J. Truby: The Anatomy of Story)

1. Weakness and need: a hero with a weakness (Max in Collateral is timid and indecisive) and need (has to learn how to stand up for himself and be more assertive. )

2. Desire: the backbone of the story that drives the hero (Max wants to get away from Vince and stay alive in the process).  Note that DESIRE is not the same as the NEED.  Desire is on the surface and need is something the main character is not aware of until the end.

3. Opponent: The person or persons who against our main character. He either wants the same thing as the main character or tries to prevent the main character from getting what she wants. Collateral has one major force of opposition — Vince.

4. Plan: heroes who want something need a plan of action (in Collateral, the plan is forced upon Max by Vince, until the middle of the film when Max hurls Vince’s briefcase over the railing and onto the highway below; in Thelma and Louise, the plan is much clearer and is introduced at the very beginning of Act II by Louise — She’s going to Mexico and hoping Thelma will come with her. )

5. Battle: the battle is the CLIMAX of the story. The main character fights the opponent or forces of opposition.  In Thelma and Louise the women battle the cops. In Collateral, Max has a shootout with Vince on the train.

6. Self-revelation: the hero realizes her NEED, what she needed to have all along but wasn’t aware of it. In Collateral, Max realizes that he can be assertive and stand up for himself.  Thelma is the one who goes through a real change, so the self-revelation is given to her. She chooses death rather than live for the rest of her life in captivity, which is what she was doing at the beginning of the story.

7. New equilibrium: in light of her experiences, our main character looks at the world in a new way.   In Collateral, Max is with Annie. Because Thelma and Louise is a tragedy, there’s no New Equilibrium.

Your Assignments:

COMMENT on your groupmates’ work. Leaving comments is the largest part of your CLASS PARTICIPATION percentage of the final grade. Be sure to leave the comments during the first few days of the submitted work, that’s when they are useful, not two weeks later.If you want to comment on the work of your classmates from other groups, that’s great. One of the reasons I created groups is so you don’t have to read and comment on everyone’s work – just your groupmates’.

Read COLLATERAL SCREENPLAY (on Blackboard). Is it different from the film? How? Prepare your pitches. Everyone should be ready pitch and discuss his/her story on Monday. YOUR PRESENTATION AND QUESTIONS should not exceed 15 minutes. Concentrate on the main character and his/her journey. Use the seven steps discussed above to help you. This helpful tidbit is from SCRIPT magazine:

 Focus on revealing the essential elements of your story. 

  • Who is your HERO or protagonist?
  • What is that character’s EVERYDAY LIFE at the beginning of the film?
  • Why will we feel EMPATHY towards your hero?
  • What OPPORTUNITY is presented to that hero at the 10% point that will get the story going?
  • Into what NEW SITUATION does that opportunity take your hero?
  • What specific visible goal or OUTER MOTIVATION are we rooting for your hero to accomplish by the end of the movie?
  • What CONFLICT will the hero face that makes achieving that goal seem impossible?
  • What are two ANTECEDENTS to your screenplay – recent, successful films with the same genre, tone, and potential market as yours?

Let me know if you have questions.


Screenwriting II — Week 1

September 15, 2013

Posted on: Sunday, September 15, 2013


It was great to meet all of you.

In class we touched upon the art and craft of dramatic structure — the lifeblood of every great narrative film. We’ll continue to discuss the elements of dramatic structure throughout this course. Remember that Screenwriting II is devoted solely to story architecture, so aside from some exercises, we won’t be writing scenes and dialogue for your story. You will be doing that in Screenwriting III.

In this course  we’ll use  Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey and McKee’s Story. There are obvious differences, but also many similarities between the two.  I think it’s important for you to understand and be familiar with the terminology these famous story-structure teachers use, because most Hollywood (an Independent) executives, agents, directors, writers, and even actors have either taken story-structure courses from them or read their books. I also strongly recommend reading John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. You will learn a lot.

On Sept. 23 you will start pitching your stories in class. We’ll talk more about the art of pitching next week.  Meanwhile, here’s a good article by Christopher Lockhart, who was a story analyst and reader  for the talent-agent-to-the-stars Ed Limato.

Before you begin your Assignment 1, try to understand the difference between Theme, Premise, Logline, and Pitch.

Many writers and writing teachers have their own definition of each term, so it may get confusing. So for this class, let’s agree that…

A premise is an IDEA for your story, a WHAT-IF scenario. Note that you don’t want to be too specific in your premise. A theme is what the story is REALLY about (for you!). It is what your story explores. The moral, the essence, the truth. Note that you should never be upfront (on the nose) with your theme. Let the reader/audience understand it for themselves. Also note that a theme should not be original. There are only a handful of themes and they have been mined by most stories from the beginning of time.

Example: Romeo and Juliet

Premise: Two young people from warring families fall in love.
Theme: Love is stronger than death.

Example: Avatar

Premise: An American marine goes to another planet and falls in love with a native girl and her culture.

Theme:  Only when we open our hearts to the culture of the people we’re trying to conquer, can we understand what our life is and how to live it. Or maybe …. When we stop fighting nature with technology we will find true peace? Or it is whatever you think the movie’s message / moral is.

A logline is a one or two sentence presentation of your story. Try not to go beyond two sentences.

Here’s  a logline for Schindler’s List: When a materialistic, womanizing Aryan industrialist discovers his Jewish workers are being sent to Nazi death camps, he risks his life and fortune to save them. Clean, clear, and to the point. There are tons of other things that happen in the film, but that’s the main throughline. What drives the film forward.

Here’s  one for Spy Kids: After segueing from a life of espionage to raising a family, Gregorio and Ingrid Cortez are called back into action. But when they are kidnapped by their evil nemesis, there are only two people in the world who can rescue them… their kids!

The writer and teacher Jonathan Triesman says, “Make Your Logline Memorable

The main point to remember about writing a logline is that you have to try to boil down your own high concept ideas into something that’s easy for people to understand. If you can’t relate to an agent, a publisher, a producer or even a studio executive what your story is about in one or two sentences, then it will be difficult to get them interested in reading your work, and more importantly, wanting to buy it.

Keep in mind however, that a good logline doesn’t tell someone too much. It’s always good to leave a little something to the imagination. In the case of Spy Kids, you want the person you’re pitching, to ask you, “Hey, what does happen when the kids have to save their parents?” And that’s when you can say, “Well, you’ll have to read my screenplay to find out.”

Additionally, when you’re pitching your story logline, you don’t want to sound like a snake-oil salesman by telling someone: “It’s like Die Hard on a bus” or “It’s like The Firm meets The Fugitive.” What does that even mean? However, if you told me that your script was about “A man who is bitten by a genetically-altered spider, and soon discovers that he has unusual powers and the strength and agility of a spider.” Well, I’d say, that’s definitely a movie I’d want to see.

Some may ask, why is the Spiderman logline a high-concept idea? It’s high concept because, while we all can’t relate to what it would be like to be Spiderman, the film has many high-concept themes that we can all relate to such as: unrequited love, parental approval and of course, wish fulfillment as a superhero.”

A pitch is a verbal presentation of your story that shouldn’t take more than two minutes. Here’s a good article from Script magazine on the art of pitching.

Your assignments for Monday, Sept. 16.

1. The exercise we did today in class. Upload only the SCREEN STORY version of the exercise.

2. Assignment1: Premise and logline for your story. Follow the examples above and try to distill your story into workable premise and logline. If you can think of the theme, that would be helpful.


Upload a file with both assignments to your respective group folder on Blackboard (My Work / Your group folder). View the tutorial on how to upload your work. If, for some reason, you’re unable to play the video, here are the basic steps:

Click on your Group link.
Upload your assignment and exercise (IN PDF) from your computer.
SUMBIT. (Don’t forget this step).

Don’t  wait until the assignment is due (Monday, 9:30). Submit it whenever you’re done with it.

Read the assigned chapters in  Vogler and McKee. See the syllabus.

Let me know if you have any questions.

See you next week.


Welcome to Screenwriting II

August 11, 2013

Posted on: Sunday, August 11, 2013

Greetings and welcome!In this course we’ll examine the fundamentals of movie structure and its narrative components: story, character, action, dialogue, etc. We’ll discuss film genres and watch clips of popular (and not so popular) feature films. We’ll analyze scenes from the motion pictures and screenplays that are considered models of story structure. But most of all, we’ll do a lot of writing.

You can view the course syllabus and calendar in Course Information on the sidebar, and your grades in Grade Center. I will post class highlights, assignments and exercises on the Announcement Page (also known as Homepage). If Blackboard is down for maintenance and you’re a night owl, you’ll be able to view the class highlights on the web, at this address:

PLEASE NOTE; All the assignments and exercises should be uploaded (by you) to the ASSIGNMENT page and your respective Group Folder. We’ll talk more about it in class.

The required texts for this course are:  Story, by Robert McKee,  and Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. Both books are available at Shakespeare & Co. on Campus Road (see syllabus for address).

I  take attendance very seriously. So if you are unable to attend every class and come on time, please consider withdrawing from this course!

Looking forward to a great semester. See you on September 9th.

Alex Kustanovich

Screenplay Contests

May 20, 2013

The Top 10 Screenwriting Contests: An Industry Exec’s P.O.V.

by Mike Kuciak


As you may have heard, winning a screenplay contest is one of the best ways for you as an aspiring screenwriter to get your work in front of people who sell scripts and make movies for a living. If you win one of the top screenwriting contests, you can pick up a sweet chunk of cash. Even better, a big win can mean photo ops and snazzy awards. Meetings. Representation. Production.

But do a little research and you’ll find that there are a lot of screenwriting contests out there… No, a ton of contests. There are contests for specific genres. Contests hosted by film festivals, agencies and/or production companies. Contests for certain regions. Contests big and small.

Which ones should you enter?

The answer is not: “All of them!”  Some contests are only for certain kinds of scripts, and no script is all things to all people. (You wouldn’t submit a feature script to a TV writing contest, for example.)

Okay, then the runner-up answer is: “As many as possible!”

Better. But then you notice that almost all contests charge entry fees. This is not because all contests are “get-rich-quick” scams. Though there are certainly some questionable entities out there, and some contests are definitely more reputable and more prestigious than others, no one is getting rich by running a screenplay contest. Most are break-even operations, at best. With any reputable contest, the entry fees simply cover basic operating expenses and ensure that the contest is being judged by experienced industry readers.

If you have the coin and you’re willing to throw it at multitudes of contests to promote your script, then go for it… Coat the world with your viscous talent, you maniac! Like Wall Street, Vegas, and dating, screenwriting is often a numbers game – a combination of quality and quantity. The more eyes glued to your brilliant words, the greater the chance those eyes will be connected to an entertainment industry type who will recognize your brilliance and be able to do something about it.

But most writers are in a position to take only a limited number of shots at the contest bulls-eye. And in this case, you want to make sure you enter a few key contests — the ones that industry professionals actually pay attention to and the ones that offer you the best chance of launching your screenwriting career.

So, which are the most prestigious screenplay contests from an industry point of view?

The Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting

This is the big’un, administered by the Oscar committee. Thousands of writers enter this cage match each year. Only five emerge, sweaty and bloody. There is big prize money for each winner, the idea being that the writers have something to live on while they devote their lives to their craft for the next year of their lives. Plus, it is almost a prerequisite that every creative and development executive in town reads at least the top five winning scripts. Typically, winning a Nicholl Fellowship means taking a lot of meetings and, hopefully, getting the script set up somewhere. But even just advancing to the quarter-finals or semi-finals looks great on a query and can draw a lot of requests to read the script. This contest is for feature film scripts only.

The PAGE International Screenwriting Awards

Following a very close second, the PAGE Awards screenwriting competition also offers a sweet prize purse. As an added benefit, this contest offers script feedback from the judges and breaks down its winners by genre. (For example, action scripts aren’t judged against dramas, and so on.) The contest accepts both film and television scripts, and there are a total of 31 winners each year, giving contestants great odds at a win. And more than other contests, the PAGE Awards works to make sure its judges not only have a solid film and writing education, but also extensive experience in the real-world industry. The distinction is a contest that views scripts based not only on the “show” but also the “business” aspect of the industry. Each year, many PAGE Award winners land representation and sign options on their winning scripts.

The Final Draft Big Break Screenwriting Contest

The Big Break contest is administered by the biggest screenwriting software company in town, Final Draft. It offers cash and prizes like the other significant contests, and the top three winners often secure representation. Plus, as a nice bonus, Big Break is sponsored by Script Magazine, which provides you with a cool article to stick in your press kit if you win, and a fun industry party for the winners in Beverly Hills. This competition is for feature film scripts only.

Disney/ABC Writing Fellowship

This contest offers one of the most amazing prizes out there: the winners get hired to work for ABC. While other contests can bring your script to the attention of managers and agents who might offer representation and hustle your work to the buyers, this fellowship eliminates the middleman. Above and beyond meetings and reads, winning the Disney/ABC Fellowship opens the door to a working education in the industry and creates opportunities to write and network from the inside. This competition is for television scripts only.

Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab

This is another contest devoted less to handing out prizes than fostering new writing talent. Each year a total of twelve winners are invited to participate in the week-long Lab held in Park City, Utah, just prior to the Sundance Film Festival. Above and beyond the prestige of being associated with the Sundance festival and community, participating in the Lab is a great way to learn from and develop contacts with industry professionals. The Lab accepts feature film scripts only.

A few other notable contests:


Formerly Script P.I.M.P., the Script Pipeline contest has helped to launch several screenwriters’ careers. Besides cash prizes, its finalists get a lot of development and marketing attention, and many assistants and execs read the winning scripts.

All submissions to the BlueCat Screenplay Competition are reviewed by multiple judges and receive a short analysis. Plus, the dude who runs the contest is related to Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Founded by Francis Ford Coppola, who reads the top ten finalists and selects the Grand Prize winner each year, the American Zoetrope Screenplay Contest has a strong track record and is widely recognized within the industry.

The relatively new TrackingB screenplay contest offers no cash prizes, but its top three finalists are reviewed by a panel of working professionals and the winning writers almost always secure representation as a result. TrackingB recently launched a separate TV writing contest, as well.

The Austin Screenplay and Teleplay Competition, affiliated with the Austin Film Festival, is also highly respected within the industry. The contest accepts both film and television scripts, and the winners receive cash prizes, promotion, and a free trip to one of the top film festivals and screenwriting conferences in the U.S.

In addition to the contests listed above, there are some others that may be worth entering, depending upon your genre and offers an excellent overview of all the various options, along with scorecards and evaluations of each contest from screenwriters who have previously entered. It’s a great way to help you evaluate which contests might be right for you.



The Third Act

May 1, 2013

What needs to happen in ACT III?

1. Your main character makes a decision after the momentary lapse of will at the end of ACT II and starts to move toward his goal with even greater resolve.
What is his goal? That which his opponent doesn’t want him to get? Too simple? Make it as complicated as you want it to be, but those elements have to be there otherwise the third act won’t work.
2. The final battle / climax. The main character faces his opponent. Either he wins or he loses — physically, mentally, or spiritually (or all three).
3. Resolution. The French call it Denouement. How will your character behave now, having gone through all the trials and tribulations you’ve created for him? He can’t be the same person, otherwise what’s the point of telling the story? Some filmmakers will argue with me. But I will argue with them.
4. You shouldn’t have more than two scenes after the final battle. There are movies with several scenes after the climax and they work, but there are not very many of them.  Most don’t. The power of the final battle is lost if you continue the film. It just becomes a bump in the road as opposed to a head-on collision.
There’s a book on the market called The Third Act.  It’s a worthwhile read. Attached is a chapter from that book to whet your appetite.
Pages from The Third Act