Screenwriting II — Week 1 — Spring, 2014

February 2, 2014


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. But I strongly suggest that you read the books on the recommended list. 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.

On Feb. 3rd 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 a very short summary of your story, a WHAT-IF scenario. Note that you don’t want to be TOO specific in your premise. You want to give us the barebones of your main character, your opponent, and the plot.

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.

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!

Avatar: An American marine goes to another planet, falls in love with a native girl and her culture, and helps her save it from the modern man and his machines.

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 consists of a logline and premise (short story summary), and often, but not always, a take on the theme.  A professional pitch session shouldn’t last longer than 10-15 minutes.

Here are two exmples of a logline and premise. This is how I expect you to pitch your stories next week.


The Pitch: Regarding Henry


A ruthless lawyer survives a shooting and realizes that he can’t remember who he was. With the help of his wife and daughter he adjusts to his new life and becomes a loving and affectionate man.


A ruthless and unethical lawyer, Henry Turner, is so obsessed with his work that he has no time for his wife and daughter. He has just won a malpractice case  in which he defended a hospital against a patient who had  claimed he was in the right.

One night, as Henry tries to buy cigarettes, he walks in on a convenient store robbery and is shot in the head.

Henry survives, but he suffers from amnesia. As he makes new relationships with his wife and daughter, he quickly realizes that he doesn’t like the person he was before he was shot. He grows close to his wife and misses his daughter, who is at a boarding school.

The law firm Henry worked at allowed him to return to work out of loyalty. But soon Henry realizes he doesn’t want to be a lawyer.

However, he can’t escape his past. He finds out that prior to his shooting, he’d had affairs with several women, and that he’d done things that would haunt him for the rest of his life if doesn’t do anything about it.

He gives documents from his last case, which his firm suppressed, to the plaintiff, who deserved to win.  He and Sarah recommit to their relationship, then withdraw their daughter form the boarding school she hates.  They’re now one happy family, overjoyed to be together.

The Pitch: You Can Count on Me


A single mother’s life is turned upside-down after her drifter brother comes to town and becomes friends with her son.


Sammy and Terry lost their parents to a car accident when they were children. A couple of decades later,  Sammy is a single mother raising her son in small town  in the Catskills. Terry is a drifter, living one day at a time and getting in and out of trouble.  He hasn’t had contact with his sister in months.

But when Terry finds himself desperate for money, he comes to visit Sammy and her son Rud. And ends up staying for a while. Although Sammy is happy to have Terry stay with them, conflict between the siblings ensues.

While Sammy turns down her boyfriend’s marriage proposition and starts a reckless affair with her boss, Terry grows close to his nephew. Rudy doesn’t know his father and thinks of him as a hero. So when Terry offers Rudy to go visit his father, who lives in a different town, the boy gladly agrees. Confronted by the past he wanted to escape, Rudy’s dad becomes furious with Terry, causing Terry to assault him and get arrested. Sammy and Terry have a fight, and Sammy asks her brother to move out.

He plans to go back to Alaska and laughs when Sammy suggests he stay in town and get a life. But they reconcile before Terry leaves, both coming to terms with their respective lives, both deeply changed by their time together.

Here’s a good article from Script magazine on the art of pitching.

Your assignment:

1. Prepare a pitch of your story (logline and premise). If you know your theme, that’s great. Include that too. If you don’t, that’s okay. We’ll work on it.

2. Read the assigned chapters in the textbook.

Upload your work to your respective folder on MY WORK page.  Click on Upload Tutorial link for upload instructions.
The assignment deadline is on Friday, January 31st at 11:59pm. You can uploaded ANY TIME BEFORE NOW AND THE DUE TIME.
If the assignment is submitted more than five minutes past its due time, it will be considered late and your grade will go down by one letter.

Let me know if you have any questions.

See you next week.