Sample Screenwriting Syllabus

I write scripts to serve as skeletons awaiting the flesh and sinew of images.

Ingmar Bergman

Screenwriting is about building skeletons from scratch. Bergman’s quote above suggests that it’s the images of a film that make it interesting, and while that rings true for a lot of people, a movie is essentially a story. And stories — like bodies — are only as good as the bones that carry them around. A body with no bones is not a pretty sight.

Writing a screenplay of substantial length in just over four months is an ambitious project, especially if you’ve never written one before. We are going to have to hit the ground running and use all of our creative energies toward our respective projects.

During the first nine weeks, we’ll write our preparatory materials — character bios, setting/place descriptions, research notes, story cards, and a story treatment. You will also “pitch” your story idea to the class and get our feedback. In the second nine weeks, you’ll turn your story idea into a draft of a screenplay.

Throughout the semester, we’ll screen a film a week. Screenings will typically take place on Monday and Tuesday, followed by a Wednesday discussion of that week’s reading and close analysis of pertinent scenes in that week’s film. We’ll also occasionally read essays and interviews about the art of filmmaking. Tests and quizzes will cover what we’ve read, viewed, and talked about in class.

Thursdays and Fridays will mostly be reserved for writing — if you make the commitment to use them exclusively for developing your story and writing your screenplay, good things will happen. You will not only produce a viable draft, you will have completed an intensive practicum in the art of crafting a living, breathing story.

In the requirements below, you’ll notice the abbreviation “TCOB.” This stands for “Taking Care of Business.” It means you have to participate in class discussions, turn things in on time, and use your class time to develop a working screenplay. Oh, PS, you must also do your part to create a positive work environment for the rest of us (which includes, but is not limited to, cleaning up after yourself and being civil to your fellow classmates).

Films

The Stranger (1946) — On the Waterfront (1954) — To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) — 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) — American Graffiti (1973) — Being There (1979) — Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) — Crooklyn (1994) — Smoke Signals (1998) — Children of Heaven (1999)

Please note that all of these films are rated G, PG, or PG-13. I’ve been very intentional with my selections, trying hard to balance artistic merit with age-level appropriateness. That is sometimes a difficult balance to strike because notions of appropriateness can differ widely. Please feel free to see me if you have concerns about a particular film and we can make arrangements for an alternate assignment.

Requirements

TCB: This stands for “Taking Care of Business.” It means you have to participate in class discussions, turn things in on time, and use your class time to develop a sustainable writing process. Oh, PS, you must also do your part to create a positive work environment for the rest of us (which includes, but is not limited to, cleaning up after yourself and being civil to your fellow classmates).

Pitch Meeting: About midway through the semester, you will “pitch” your story idea to the class and get our feedback. You’ll get full credit as long as you show you’ve been really thinking about who your characters are and where your story is headed.

Story Folder: Consisting of…

  • Exploratory Sketches
  • Character Biographies
  • Setting/Place Descriptions
  • Research Notes (as needed)
  • Master Scene List
  • Story Treatment (1-2 pages)

I’ll explain each of these components in further detail as we proceed through the semester.

Final Exam

I suspect it’s possible  to complete a feature-length screenplay (90-120 pages) in four months. With that said, doing that for this class is an exceedingly ambitious goal. Not impossible but really, really ambitious. You can, however, complete a screenplay for a short film of, say, 20 minutes or so. Because a screenplay page runs (more or less) about a minute of screen time, that’s in the neighborhood of 20 pages.

Your screenplay will be worth 20% of your final semester grade.

A Final Word About Work Ethic

I don’t want this class to be “hard,” nor should it feel like work. But it’s not a glorified study hall — there will be work involved. Working and feeling like you’re working — those are two different things. If you love movies — more important, if you love stories — then this is the class for you.