Friday, June 19, 2009

Can screenwriting be taught?

A guest post by William M. Akers, author of Your Screenplay Sucks! 100 Ways To Make It Great

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.

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)
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.

It isn’t.

William M. Akers blogs at

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


  1. Sounds like you know your stuff. Wonder how to brand your screenplay into the entertainment industry? Check out

    Sandford Tuey
    Screenwriter & Licensing Specialist
    Vancouver, Canada

  2. Anonymous6:21 pm

    Those that can - do.
    Those that can't - teach.
    Those that can't teach - teach PE.
    Those that can't teach PE - teach Screenwriting.

    "Dive! Dive!" yelled the Captain through the thing! So the man who makes it dive pressed a button, or something, and it dove. And the enemy was foiled again. "Looks like we foiled them again," said Dave. "Yeah," said the Captain. "We foiled those bastards again. Didn't we, Dave?" "Yeah," said Dave. THE END.

  3. Anonymous6:26 pm


    Larry Donner: Your similes need a little bit of work. 'His guts oozed nice, like a melted malted.' Well, it's a... It's a little...

    Owen Lift: Too harsh?

    Larry Donner: A tad.

    The night was...

  4. Oh, for heaven's sake, anonymous. Have you ever tried to teach anybody anything?

  5. Anonymous7:01 pm

    Yes it can be taught...and the end result usually ends up on a great slush pile of unread garbage

  6. @ Anonymous: What's with the anon?

    The Throw Momma From The Train quotes are good, though. Here's another (c/o Google)

    Larry Donner: Remember, a writer writes . . . always.

  7. Anonymous9:03 am

    You can teach the principles of screenwriting but, of course, you can't teach someone to be creative or talented. That said, a lack of creativity and talent seems to be an absolute prerequisite at the BBC these days as anyone who's watched 'Personal Affairs', 'Hope Springs' and 'Hotel Babylon' will testify.

  8. Anonymous6:07 pm

    Those last two anonymous weren't the same anonymous as the first anonymous...

  9. Anonymous6:42 pm

    Oh, and a special PS to Mrs.Baroque for missing the fact that behind the first post lay what we British call a sense of humour. It may be a writer's humour, and therefore tinged with the gallows, and perhaps even sicklied o'er with a cynical hue, but sense of humour it remains.

    Of course such as R.McKee and others of his inestimable kidney are worth their weight in snake oil.

    Indeed, where would legendary bluesman Robert Johnson have been without that fortuitous meeting with Old Scratch at the crossroads.

    Isn't there though... ever so slightly... a serious point to be made? What screenwriting courses did Bill Goldman take? Ring Lardner.Jr? Mankiewicz? Etc., ad infintum.

    Like the man said. Nobody knows anything.

    We learn by doing.

  10. Like any creative activity, writing involves both talent and craft. You can't teach the talent, but you can teach the craft. I've been writing professionally for 25 years and I still get value from books like Save The Cat. But even Obi-Wan can only teach you so much; as the extremely prolific Anonymous says, the best way to learn is always by doing.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.