There are a lot of script writing courses for beginners. I’ve seen a few of them, and they all have an amazing way of overcomplicating things. Perhaps it’s because they’re taught by professional teachers, instead of professional screenwriters. I’m a successful television writer and showrunner with 25 years of experience. I’ve written on King of the Hill, Wilfred, Maron, Just Shoot Me, Rules of Engagement, Beavis & Butthead, Brickleberry, Tacoma FD and many others. I’ve sold screenplays and pilots, and written on single camera shows, multi-camera shows as well as animation. Before any beginning writer decides to take a script writing course, I always recommend they have a first understanding of what “story” is.
Most script writing courses for beginners start with this: Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
According to this graph, you need a guy wearing a backpack, a call to adventure, some kind of supernatural aid, then a threshold guardian…. are you still reading? I’m not.
As tool for intellectual discussion, this chart is really interesting. But for someone who writes stories for a living, I don’t think it’s helpful. If it was, there would be a copy of this chart hanging on the walls of every writers’ room in Hollywood.
Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it all enough.” I think the wisdom of this statement also applies to screenwriting. So before you sign up for any script writing course for beginners, I would encourage you to ask yourself this one question: can you define what a story is in one clear, succinct sentence?
It’s not so easy. In our gut, we think we know what a story is. We may recognize one when we see one. But it’s very hard to actually define what one is.
And if you don’t know what a story is, then how are you going to be able to write one?
You may get lucky once in awhile, but if you want become a professional screenwriter, you need to be able to do this on a consistent basis. So take a minute, stop reading this article, and describe what a story is in one sentence. Take your time, I’ll still be here when you’re done.
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I remember when I first came to Los Angeles back in 1992, I wanted to learn screenwriting. But I didn’t want to study under a professional teacher. I wanted to learn from a professional sitcom writer — someone who had done it every day, day in and day out, for fifty years. Fortunately, I found a retired sitcom writer who, just to keep busy, taught screenwriting lessons out of his living room. This was long before the internet, and he didn’t even advertise. He found his students through word of mouth, so finding him was incredibly lucky. He asked us this same exact question: what is a story?
I remember a brave student answering, “A story is a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.” And the my gruff teacher responded, “You know what else has a beginning, middle and end? A piece of shit. Congratulations, that’s exactly what you just wrote.”
So what then is the correct definition of story? Here’s the definition that I use every day as a television writer and showrunner.
A story recounts the struggle of a hero, fighting an obstacle, to achieve a goal.
If that’s too hard for you, just remember “hero, obstacle, goal.”
This is what I wish every beginning script writing course would teach, instead of delving into theory which isn’t very helpful at all. For those who are interested, I offer a script writing course for beginners as well as more advanced writers. Click here to learn more about script writing online. In that article, I discuss the first step towards writing a TV show.