Can screenwriting be taught?
Aw, hell yeah! It better be; I’ve been teaching it at Vanderbilt for 15 years. If I say it can’t be taught, they’re gonna stop paying me.
However, I actually do believe it can be taught. You can’t teach someone to be talented, of course, but you can show them a lot about screenwriting. If they listen. If they do what you say. Amazingly enough, a lot of baby writers already think they know all there is to know, and consequently learn very little. Listening, I daresay, can’t be taught.
“There is no one more arrogant than a beginner” - Elizabeth Ashley
What can be taught in screenwriting?
Format can be taught. How to separate character’s voices. Words to avoid that will shout “I’m a bad writer!”. How to construct a character. Stupid mistakes that will sink your script for the reader. How to use outlines. Structure, to a degree. Why cutting dialogue is a good thing. Not to give up. Tricks to get you to generate ideas. How to avoid / deal with writer’s block. How the business works (not that that’s writing, but it is fully half of the success equation.) Methods in rewriting: ways to approach a script, a scene, and a piece of dialogue. Being professional.
A lot can be taught. What can NOT be taught in screenwriting?
How to think up a great idea! An ear for dialogue! How to construct a character an actor will be dying to play! How to have a voice! The correct structure for your story! What genre you’re good at! How to be lucky!!
The difference between what can be learned and innate talent is the tough thing. You can do a lot in a classroom, but the alchemy is up to talent, luck, and sweat.
After I’m done pounding them for a while, my students’s scripts look like scripts, sound like scripts and are not embarrassing. Some are good. A few, over the years, have been great. When they come to me, they know nothing about writing screenplays. I can’t teach someone how to write, but I can teach how to write a screenplay that will pass muster.
A good teacher can get a student to the starting line. That is a lot, by the way. Getting someone to the door, and opening it for them, is a good beginning. What they do in the race is up to their talent and perseverance.
I share these six items from a talk I give called 'Fatal Errors Beginning Writers Make.' Will Aldis is a staggeringly talented writer and I love his list:
Number One: trying to write what you think the biz wants you to write.Keep Number Six firmly in mind when selecting a teacher, because the very last thing you want is a teacher who gives you any hint that this foolishness is easy.
Number Two: writing for the cash only.
Number Three: writing to get laid.
Number Four: writing a screenplay because you think it sounds like a cool, hip thing to do. It isn’t.
Number Five: writing about something, anything, other than yourself.
Number Six: taking a screenwriting class from someone who doesn’t fully grasp the horror.
Will Aldis, screenwriter, (Stealing Cars, Keep Coming Back)
William M. Akers blogs at yourscreenplaysucks.wordpress.com
He'll be running a workshop on 'Fatal Errors New (and experienced!) Writers Make!' at the Met Film School in London on Thursday 2nd July 2009