Do You Need a Teacher Who's a Pro - Complications Ensue
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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Craig at Artful Writer answers a viewer's question about whether his screenwriting teacher knows what he's talking about. The teacher, see, doesn't have produced credits. Or have an agent. He claims to know lots of important people in showbiz, though.

Uh huh.

But Craig's post brought up the question: does your screenwriting teacher need to be a produced writer? Obviously there are very few successful screenwriters who teach writing classes. One half hour free lance script probably pays about what it pays to teach a class all semester long. And teaching a class means having to read a lot of very bad scripts. You do get to work with young hopeful people, and give back some of what you've learned. But what if you get a call asking you to staff a show? Or dive into a crash rewrite? You'd have to dump the class.

But I have had some veteran screenwriters as teachers. I took a class with Sterling Silliphant, who won an Oscar for In the Heat of the Night. (Along with some big schlock like Shaft, The Poseidon Adventure, The Swarm, etc.) And Lew Hunter has a shelf full of Emmies for his TV movies.

Does your teacher have to be a veteran?

On one hand, if they're not, how do they know what they're talking about? Screenwriting isn't theoretical. It's a process. If you haven't been part of the process, how can you help your students? When I wrote my first book, there were a slew of screenwriting books out there by people without produced credits. Most of them told you how to write a "good" screenplay. What they didn't tell you was how to write a screenplay that would actually get made into a movie, which is not the same that at all. I suspect that most non-pro teachers are good at telling you how to write a "good" screenplay and not so good at telling you how to write a screenplay that Hollywood will give you money for and then turn into a movie.

On the other hand this does not have to be the case. A great acting coach does not have to be a great actor. My acting teacher, Joanne Baron, was brilliantly insightful in the classroom. She hasn't had much of an acting career. A great editor can't necessarily write. I know development people who can tell you exactly what's wrong with your script -- okay, not many of them, but a few -- even though they're not writers. So, theoretically, you could have a teacher who's great as a teacher, but just can't write.

And, moreover, good writers can make lousy teachers. A great writer may not be aware of all his writing processes. I doubt Faulkner could have told anyone how to write a novel. I don't know if Robert Towne could tell you how to fix your script, though William Goldman probably could.

The key question is: can your teacher identify the causes of the problems in your script? Or just the symptoms? Usually the causes are the failure of one of the elements of a story. We don't care about the character. Or, not a strong enough opportunity / problem / goal. Or, the obstacles / antagonist are not awesome enough. Or, the stakes or the jeopardy are weak.

If you're not getting structural notes like that, do you really need a screenwriting teacher? Wouldn't a writing group teach you just as much? What you really need is feedback. And if you really concentrate on listening to people's feedback, and extracting the truth from it, anyone who loves movies can probably tell you what the symptoms are, and from the symptoms, you can deduce the causes.

And if you're taking a class for the community and the weekly kick in the pants, then it doesn't really matter who your teacher is, does it?

Most of what I've learned about screenwriting, I've learned from writing screenplays. I can't remember getting any craft advice in particular from the late Mr. Silliphant. (Though he did have good career advice. "Don't get divorced," he told us. "The alimony will kill you, and you'll never write another spec script again.") I'm a better screenwriter because I've listened to feedback and worked hard on the weak aspects of my writing. Five years ago I was good on plot but weak on characters. I've written a bunch of character-driven stuff since, and now my characters are stronger.

What do you guys think? Are your teachers pros or professional teachers? Have you learned crucial things from them? Or was the classroom just a place to go to talk about screenplays -- a writing group with a paid leader? Can you learn from a non-pro? Can you learn from a class at all?

UPDATE: Hotspur points out
The other thing to consider is that most people taking screenwriting classes have much, much more to learn than they think they do. Even if William Goldman has more to teach you than Joe No-Credits, a student should ask himself if he's really in a position where he knows everything Joe No-Credits does.
To be fair, when I started writing screenplays, I had already been writing stories and studying novels (English major) and structure (Computer Science major; yes, both; no, I'm not sure why) for a while. So while the format was new to me, I had been working on how to tell a story (and turn a phrase) for the better part of a decade.

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6 Comments:

I took classes from Aubrey Horton here in Austin and I learned so much from him. I learned mostly about format, struture and what Hollywood is looking for. However, he's not an amateur. He's a script doctor not a screenwriter and worth every penny.

By Blogger chell-shock, at 10:09 AM  

I think another thing to think about is WHAT kind of screenwriter the teacher is. I was working on a spec and took a class at my college taught by someone who worked on Remmington Steele, Eight is Enough, and Magnum PI. I was writing a spec pilot so he was a great resource, however I noticed he had some trouble with people writing full on movies. He wasn't a bad teacher, but because he worked exclusively in TV there was a bit of a gap in the class.

By Blogger Chris Lewis, at 10:20 AM  

I took a UCLA extension class with a guy who worked on series television for years; it was the best class I've taken in my life. He ran it like a writer's room - he was the showrunner and the students were his writing staff. It was a practical, real world approach that I doubt anyone who never worked in the business would have tried. He didn't teach so much as give you the experience of actually being in a room - he never once wrote on the white board or offered any theory for writing. The class was invaluable. And of course, his anecdotes were fantastic.

By Blogger Shawn, at 10:36 AM  

One of my best writing teachers had no significant produced credits. He's been working in the industry for years, however, as a writer. I learned a lot more from him than I did from a teacher who had some credits that made most of the students in the school drool.

The other thing to consider is that most people taking screenwriting classes have much, much more to learn than they think they do. Even if William Goldman has more to teach you than Joe No-Credits, a student should ask himself if he's really in a position where he knows everythign Joe No-Credits does.

There's not much point in taking a master class if you still haven't figured out basic elements of the craft like how to hide exposition.

By Blogger Hotspur, at 1:57 PM  

inspired by scripts from Drew's ('how hard can it be?' which is a frontrunner for my epitaph), i went and wrote my first feature script over a couple of years. then i went to film school which filled in some of the gaps left over from my trial-and-error writing.

heaps of gaps left. i must be doing something right if people are paying me. and i've learned something from every project: not only about writing (doing it the producer's way with a smile) but also doing what works ('film is a collaborative business'). still learning.

(and credit's where it's due: a bible for those early years was a txt file called Crafty Screenwriting, dated 1999. thanks Alex.)

By Blogger d f mamea, at 3:08 PM  

I'm a graduate of the USC Graduate Screenwriting program, which I mention only to establish credentials as someone who has had her fair share of writing teachers.

In my experience, the single factor that the best teachers had in common was that they all had benefited from teachers and/or mentors of their own.

I've never had a writing teacher with *no* produced credits, but if he or she ran a good room, it wouldn't necessarily be a deal-breaker for me.

On the other hand, if an Oscar-winner walked in on the first day and announced anything that smacked of "writing can't be taught!" I'd be out like a shot. Read their scripts instead.

By Blogger Margaret, at 6:41 PM  

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