Online Screenwriting Classes: Worthwhile or Worthless?

Optimistically lost. That’s how I felt, trying to fashion my failed attempt at novel writing into a decent script. This story should be a movie! I decided one rainy Sunday afternoon while gazing in despair from an expanse of gray sky to the scrunched up paper balls littering the floor. Naively, I also figured it would take less talent and effort: all I’d really have to do was jot down in point form what happens in the story, instead of describing the action with lyrical, resonating prose that just wouldn’t come. I hadn’t even finished slogging through scene one when I realized that essentially what I’d done was traded one set of problems for another. I knew I needed help, or else my sparkling new project was fated to become a dull, dusty reject.

I consider myself the consummate scriptwriting newbie. I’ve bookmarked all the major sites, printed scripts, downloaded Rough Draft freeware, posted quotes from my favorite director (Pedro AlmodÃ?³var) on my bulletin board and adopted the habit of taking notes while viewing Blockbuster rentals. Motivation is high, practical knowledge, low. I have the intent and the heart, but lack the fundamental understanding of how screenplays are quilted from patches of dialogue, action sequences and location descriptions into evocative, flowing stories. Desperate to cobble together a bunch of jumbled, stream-of-consciousness scenes into a cinematic masterpiece, I was delighted to come across a reasonably priced, 6-week online scriptwriting class in the spring course catalogue of my local community college. Yes, I thought to myself, this is just what I need: a little guidance from the comfort of my own home.

Ed2Go brokers content to community colleges and universities across the country, which means instructors are recruited from a national pool, lending an air of prestige. Faculty members are active contributors to their field, not some unknown retired professor who happens to live your city and had something obscure published God knows how long ago. In my case, the instructor wasn’t an Academy Award winner, but he did have several major publishing credits under his belt, including the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Screenwriting and several other how-to guides on the craft. He was an authority on the scriptwriting method, and I couldn’t wait to get started. The ambitious syllabus included the history of storytelling, the influence of television and the Internet on scriptwriting, techniques for character development and even script marketing strategies – everything a writer needs to pump out a commercially viable movie in 6 weeks! Whooo-hooo!

I dutifully visited the virtual classroom twice per week to read the day’s lesson. Classes were asynchronous, meaning students could log on at their convenience. Lectures were 5 chapters long, about 25-35 minutes worth of reading in total. The material could be saved to my computer and printed. Upon completion of the reading, I was directed to the supplementary resources, a list of links for further reading. Sometimes I visited these sites and other times I passed. Finally, a multiple- choice quiz – short but tricky – was required. If some answers turned out to be wrong, re-taking for a perfect score was acceptable. And that was pretty much it. Assignments accompanied each lesson, but these were merely suggestions: they were not graded, and left to be done at the student’s leisure (if at all). Initially, having a discussion area brightened my expectations, but the instructor soon tired of my persistent attempts at engaging him.

A sample exchange:

Megan writes: Wading through the net, I found another way the screenplay formula (and eons old story structure) is summarized: A hero with a flaw that keeps him from achieving a worthwhile goal is forced to respond to a life-changing event instigated by an opponent. With the help of an ally, he overcomes his flaw and achieves his goal. This version alludes to the shaping force and villain, but goes further to introduce the notion of a flaw and an ally. What’s your take?

Your Instructor writes: Megan, what are you doing, writing an article for a screenwriting magazine? I think any writer should study what anyone has to say about craft and use what works profitably for themselves.

It was this response that inspired me to write about the course, though at the time I was simply trying to jumpstart the discussion area.

Ubiquitous as online classes are these days, and though they come in myriad variations, a common characteristic has emerged – the learning is generally self-directed. Like the distance education courses of yore, the ones completed by mail, you are responsible for your own progress. This can be isolating or liberating, depending on how you look at it and how you like to learn.

Choosing the right course is also contingent on the development of your script and your goals regarding the same. Admittedly, my script was pretty rough, but I still felt disappointed about getting zero feedback. Not even a yay or nay on my story’s premise. Perhaps that’s where I erred: I interpreted “direct access to the instructor” to mean we’d get personal advice. But when I asked permission to submit my logline for critique, the teacher warned against it, saying he couldn’t ensure ideas wouldn’t be stolen since the discussion area was basically a public forum. Some online courses offer “midwifing” (analysis/coaching/editing for your work-in-progress) as part of the curriculum, but these are much more expensive than theory-only classes.

A major hazard in taking a course like this while still in the beginning stages of crafting a screenplay is that the writer begins to manufacture plot ideas to suit the formula, ignoring instinct and personal preference. Luckily, the lesson about this effect appears relatively early in the course. The instructor gave us this relief: “You can drive yourself crazy trying to rigidly hew to a prescribed structure and interrupt the creative flow of a great new idea rushing into your life.” In other words, resist the temptation to edit while you write.

My favorite pearls from the course:

1. A detailed history of the three act tradition, highlighting Aristotle’s Poetics

2. The importance of conflict. Conflict = story

3. Character development. What makes villains watchable (their lawlessness is the audience’s envy) and what makes heroes lovable (their struggle and triumph).

4. The kid factor. What do the ten most successful films of all time have in common? An appeal to children, which means families attend and drive ticket sales.

For the $79 tuition fee, I could have bought a small library of screenwriting titles at Half Price Books. And since research shows that reading on a computer monitor impedes accuracy and lowers retention rates in comparison with hard copy reading, it probably would have been a better investment, long-term. Printing the lessons is pretty much the same thing sans the convenience of bookbinding. The interactive quizzes were the probably the best part of the program, forcing even the laziest student to self-test comprehension. Overall, this informational course was beneficial for a rookie like me, but it should be combined with graded application exercises (actual screenplay writing assignments) so students can measure progress in their own work. Even peer-grading would have been better than nothing. I honestly don’t know if my writing is better as a result of this course.

What’s measured is only comprehension of lecture material. Online courses of this nature are ideal for those considering writing a screenplay and want to learn what is involved. Taking an online class may also be an effective remedy for writer’s block or a drought of motivation. As a direct result of reading so much about screenplays, I can say that the determination to make mine good skyrocketed. But based on what I now know about movies’ story arc, I have surrendered to the realization that I can’t set out to write a traditional, commercially viable script. It’s too distracting to write and worry at the same time. I need to just write, and edit later to conventions in order to sell. Maybe I’m better suited for indie film writing.

My story just doesn’t fit the mold and something in me refuses to force it. And I’m not setting out to break the mold either: this is not about preserving my vision or some rebellious notion. I simply feel compelled to write the story as it is in my head (and scattered on loose sheets of paper). So I guess I won’t win an Oscar. Or a Pulitzer. I want to; the validation of those awards must be like Valium for neurotic writers like me. The most valuable lesson I am taking away from my course is that I don’t write for audiences. I write for creative expression, for my mental health, and because reading back over something I wrote that sounds pretty thrills me more than I am able to articulate. And realizing that I write for me, wellâÂ?¦to bite off Mastercard – that’s priceless.

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