Screenwriting II — Week 1

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.


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