Steven Barnes' Free Writing
Although this class is entitled "Intro to Screenwriting", it's my
belief that, in general, writing is writing. In fact, in order to
understand how to write for the screen--large or small--one must
first have an intimate understanding of the structure and function
I've written for television and film, books and short stories,
comic books and stage. The most important lessons I've learned along
the way have been those which deal with the difference between the
"Inner" and "Outer" aspects of writing, that is -- the technical
craft as opposed to the emotional or spiritual aspects of the game.
It is my intent to teach you not just about the structures of
Character and Plotting, but also about how your own inner life
interacts with your writing in such a way to create art--or at least
What is "Art?" That is an old question, which has been endlessly
debated by people much smarter than me. Nonetheless, I'll take my
crack at it: "Art is Self-Expression."
Wait, you ask. Is that it? Is that all there is? Does that mean
that if my 2-year old dips his hand into the potty and smears a
handful of goo on the wall and says: "Looky what I did!" that that
Yep. That's exactly what I mean. The question of whether or not
something is Art is completely separate from the question of whether
it is RECOGNIZED as being so. It transcends the question of
judgment, and needs not be labeled or acknowledged to be what it is.
It is a private, personal truth.
On the other hand, SUCCESSFUL art, or COMMERCIAL art is Self
Expression plus Communication. If we take the position (and I do)
that Art is also an attempt to communicate, to share a vision or
emotional state with another, or with the culture at large, then you
must care about the person on the other end. The market. The
audience. And even, yes, the critic.
Balancing these two needs--to be utterly true to your own vision,
and to care about the feedback from the market--is one of the things
which drives artists insane. The purest artists are probably those
who don't give a damn about the audience. And these are starving in
one-room Efficiency apartments all over the country.
Commercial artists who care about the market place but don't
express themselves as individuals, often make excellent livings, but
often are plagued with a nagging sense that their lives are
The most fortunate, I suppose, are those who follow their own
heart, but have an instinct for what the audience wants, as well.
Directors like Steven Spielberg have an awesomely developed
instinct for what the public wants. On the one hand, he makes a
product to please himself, and to hell with the rest of the world.
On the other hand, he loves sneaking into movie theaters to watch
his films with a live audience. He listens to what they react to,
and how they react. He is attuning his cinematic antennae.
So both of these states of mind are important, and what I hope to
do is set you along the road to developing your own commercial
sense, while still keeping in touch with the absolutely unique
aspects of who you are as an artist, and a human being.
"A story is a Swiss watch timed to
a beating heart".
In other words, in order to write one
must have both passion and intellect, knowledge and feeling.
It is my intent to help you find both.
"But isn't screenwriting completely different from book
Nope, not at all. A screenplay is about 120 pages of a decent
book, and is conveyed largely in visual images. Aside from these and
some inevitable market considerations, storytelling is storytelling.
If you wish to learn screenwriting format, I would suggest getting
in touch with The Writer's Computer Store in West Los Angeles, and
simply buying a piece of their fine software, especially Final
Draft. This will teach you all of this you need. No more on that
subject--let's concentrate on writing, shall we?
One of the first questions which must be answered is: What is a
story? There are as many answers as there are writers, but one
excellent model is the following:
Here's how it works, using the movie
"Goldfinger" as my subject.
Situation: When gold is being smuggled
out of England in large quantities,
Character: Secret agent 007 James Bond
Objective: Wants to learn how it is being
accomplished. But little does he realize that
Opponent: Industrialist (and dirty dog) Auric
Disaster: Is smuggling gold
to finance his real goal--the destruction of Fort Knox with an Atom
I would suggest that you watch any good movie at least twice.
Once for pure entertainment, and then a second time specifically
for pattern analysis. Even bad movies can be useful. If you find
yourself getting bored, just pop back out of the cinematic flow, and
notice how they are putting the pieces together. Sometimes the best
education in magic comes from watching a drunken old magician. You
can see the pigeon poking its head out of the hidden pocket, the
edge of an ace up the frayed sleeve.
I remember watching Mohammed Ali's last fights. His skills had
eroded so badly that you could finally see how he accomplished his
magic--and at his best, magic it was.
So any exposure to story-telling can enrich you. You never know
when or where you will glean an invaluable insight.
Have you ever turned on your television at One O'clock in the
morning, intending to watch something for a few minutes, and getting
stuck watching some lousy show or other for two bleary hours? Even
if it's lousy? I think that this has happened to most of us. The
reason is that storytelling is based on a cyclic rise and fall of
tension, similar to the build-up and break down of sexual
excitation, or muscular exertion:
These first three represent the "Rising
These three represent the "falling" or
The goal of a character in a story should parallel your own goals
and concerns. There must be some point of emotional entry, so that
you can empathize--and accordingly, your intended audience can care
about the events which take place.
||To be a working writer|
||To forgo pleasures and companionship in order to find the
time and energy to write|
||Initial efforts rejected by soulless Hollywood
||Pain, disappointment. Fear that you're not good enough.
Resorting to the bottle, the needle, and abusing the family
||Do you quit, and avoid further pain and possible suicidal
depression? Or go on, try again, and be true to your inner
muse, fickle bitch though she often is?|
||To go to Steve BArnes' web page, and try to gain the
skills and knowledge necessary to succeed. (Good decision!)
See how this works? By breaking a story down in such a fashion, it
matches the actual processes that we go through as human beings in
our attempts to solve problems. This cycle (GOAL_CONFLICT_DISASTER)
is the ACTION, while (REACTION_DILEMMA_DECISION) is the REACTION.
This cycle of Action/Reaction feeds the entire art of story. A
single story may have 10-20 such cycles, rising in intensity, as the
heroine struggles to fulfill her destiny or avoid her fate.
The important thing here is that you see how this process mirrors
your own life struggle--making this connection allows you to be
honest about the emotions experienced by your characters. And this
emotional honesty is absolutely important. Whether a child
confronted by a Velociraptor, or a Moor confronted by accusations of
his wife's infidelity, what is absolutely important is that the
emotions be believable IN CONTEXT. The most absurd or fantastical
situations become believable if the emotions are realistically
It is my intent in this class to give you every tool you need to
succeed. Not merely the technical skills, but also the skills of
managing your energy and focus to create the work itself--and also
to keep the external structure of your life balanced so that your
efforts don't destroy your family and career (both of which I've
Use the "Situation, Character,
Objective, Opponent, Disaster" model, and break down a popular
- Write your life story. Start from today, and run it until the
day you die. All of your major dreams, hopes, and goals. Put in
that first sale!!! You MUST include goals in health, relationship,
and career. Put in a sense of the span of your life and times, the
struggle, the eventual victory. Exercise every day, at least a
short, brisk walk. Have a family, fall in love, get out with
friends--in other words, GET A LIFE!!! Have fun with this. Let's
see some good deaths!
- Keep a dream Diary. This will be VERY important for those of
you who have trouble with ideas--but important for anyone who
wants to become more aware of the structure of their own mind and