The best online screenwriting programs aren’t taught by professional teachers or graduates with a Masters Degree in Screenwriting. Those kinds of screenwriting courses tend to emphasize theory over practical and actionable knowledge. I’m a professional television writer and showrunner with over twenty-five years of experience. None of my knowledge came from a online screenwriting program. Instead, I learned everything I know from being in the writers room. It was other experienced writers who taught me on the job.
The first thing that I wish online screenwriting courses would teach is the definition of “story.” After all, if you don’t have a firm understanding of what a story is, how can you possibly be expected to write one?
Imagine creating a robot, then asking it to build you a bird house. The first thing it would need to do is look up the definition of birdhouse. That definition might be a small, four walled structure with a hole in front, a roof and a floor, that’s intended to shelter winged creatures. Great. Now your robot can figure out which materials to use, and the approximate dimensions. There’s no mention of what color it needs to be or where it needs to be hung, because that stuff is secondary.
So the same goes with screenwriting. You must first be able to define what a story is. Here’s the definition that I use, and most online screenwriting programs don’t make it this simple.
A story recounts the struggle of a hero, fighting an obstacle, to achieve a goal. I don’t know of any other online screenwriting courses that explain it this simply. Click here for more script writing online help.
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Let’s take an example from your childhood. Remember the fairytale Jack and the Beanstalk? I’ll recount that story again for you in case you’ve forgotten.
Jack wakes up one morning and his mom gives him the bad news. She says they’re completely out of money, so he should take the cow to market and sell it so that they can buy food. Jack agrees, telling his mom he won’t let her down.
On the way to the market, Jack runs into a mysterious man who offers to trade Jack’s cow for something even better: a bag of magic beans. Jack thinks it’s an offer too good to refuse and makes the trade. He takes the magic beans home and proudly presents it to his mom. Immediately, his mother breaks down in tears. “We’re ruined!” she cries, and she sends Jack to bed without dinner. In anger, the mother tosses the magic beans out the window.
The next morning Jack wakes up and discovers a giant beanstalk growing beside his bedroom. He climbs up the beanstalk, and when he gets to the top he discovers an enormous castle floating in the clouds. Curious, he enters the castle and there at the end of the hall he sees a goose laying golden eggs. Gold! That’s exactly what he needs. Only one problem, there’s a giant standing between him and the goose. “Fee-fi-fo-fum!” grunts the Giant. “I smell the blood of an Englishman.”
Jack knows he’s screwed because he’s half English on his mother’s side. Making matters worse, his father was Danish, and everyone knows, danishes are delicious. Undeterred, Jack quickly grabs the goose and makes a mad dash for the beanstalk. The angry giant chases after him, threatening to grind his bones into a paste. Jack zips down the beanstalk, even as the thorns rip at his nether goodies. When Jack gets to the bottom, he chops down the beanstalk and the giant falls to his death. Our hero gives the goose to his mother, and everyone lives happily ever after. Except for the giant, who is still dead.
So, who’s the hero of that story? Jack. What’s the goal? To get the goose that laid the golden eggs. And what was the obstacle keeping Jack from his goal. It was the giant.
But there’s more to this story. You have to understand the emotional component of the story, which I discuss in my next article. Click here for more script writing online instruction.