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Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft

Lesson 15 of 18

Flashbacks, Voiceover & Non-linear Scenes

Hal Ackerman

Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft

Hal Ackerman

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Lesson Info

15. Flashbacks, Voiceover & Non-linear Scenes

Lesson Info

Flashbacks, Voiceover & Non-linear Scenes

They're a few other techniques that we can use the color our scenes we talked earlier, I believe uh tara but I believe you asked about about what were the things have to be forward always forward moving they do not. There is a device called flashbacks and flash forwards that could be used extremely effectively and like anything else like like any any time that we use any device people tell voiceovers no good oh flashbacks and other it's nonsense they they can absolutely be good be necessary be useful. The important thing is to use them to their best advantage. Sometimes they can be easily misused sometimes flashbacks sometimes they used almost arbitrarily there's almost no moment in our any life that doesn't have some and decedent in some part of the past, but does it? But it doesn't necessarily mean that it's effective storytelling to jump into that past moment just because a characters that were remembering something or because something happened to have happened that has some releva...

nce to what's happening now. But if it does, if there's something happening now and it's important for you, the writer and for the character toe have that memory that memory is triggered I mean a great a member of a movie that has a great it's a great movie if you don't know it it's not a gigantically popular film should make this all of you should make this part of your library is ordinary people. It is absolutely stupendous dependence film, and if you haven't seen it, fill in that gap in your knowledge, but but the narrative of that is told very much through flashback it's a guy who's just come out of aa a mental institution. His brother has died and he has committed suicide has attempted suicide, and what and the key thing that has caused his his problem is some event that happened between him and his brother in the past that he is just be set with guilt about and in little fragments, and then larger and larger and larger ones. That event is pull out of his pulled push out of him, three tectonic forces until and he has a shrinking so but it's necessary. We need that to come out because we know that he has endangered. If it doesn't, he may very well kill himself, too, and eventually that eventually that whole thing comes out and that is the catharsis that is kind of the orgasm of that story, when when the truth of what has happened in the past comes out and it's, not what he thought it wass so very, very, very important device, but can be misused, and the worst offense that excessive use of flashbacks happens is that it can use it can eviscerated the energy of the present tense we want to make sure it doesn't do that would make sure that whatever non linear device we use is the best possible device and enhances the story moving forward rather than taking the energy away from it. Okay, voiceovers again can be a very effective vice and also can be like anything else can be ill used and overused voiceovers is a way of bringing us into the characters. Inner life it's, kind of the same thing that they and shakespearean times soliloquy might do. It's character almost kind of stepping outside the action and it's revealing something privately to the audience. The device can be used very effectively. There are many movies where it is gigantically effective sunset boulevard manhattan. You know, terrific uses of the opposite of sex is an interesting movie because you have a character's voice over coming at the same time that her actual dialogue is coming. It's, a very, very inventive but again, like anything else, it can be misused way can give away too much, you know, like when we talked about theme giving away too much using a voiceover can reveal too much information without it coming organically out of the moment, we always want whatever information comes out to our audience. Why was that? Actually we said information best is a byproduct of conflict and generally voiceover is not a boy is not a does not come as a byproduct of conflict. It comes because the writer decides to now so we have to we have to make sure that whatever whatever devices we use especially voiceover that and dialogue to that they're not just captioning the action, okay? Because if dialogues just you you know you know you have you seen two people have a fight and you know, it was his boy, I just had a fight well, we don't need that dialogue, we know that way, you know that another another thing about dialogue is that sometimes this is important too is little fine points. Sometimes information will become manifested in particular one scene and then we sometimes repeat that information because somebody else has to know about it. Something is repeat that information in another scene it seems logical because in real life you know if characters they'd be talking about something and then we have to tell character see well, character sees being told that same information, so it seems logical, but think about it from the audience's point of view they've heard it already you don't need to hear it again, so we have to we have to, but but it may be necessary for us for the story for character see to become privy to that information so we have to think of clever inventive ways of making sure that we get that information passed on to a character without the audience hearing it a second time and there are things that are called ellipses which is we can cut from one moment to another moment with the implication that somebody that action has occurred you know somebody says what was a huge sale on cat food down down at the food fair oh yeah and the next scene we could see somebody coming home you know, carrying six cartons of cat food well, what do we know? We know that person went the thing about the stuff you know brought it back home so sometimes we can use implied action as we can use implied dialogue without actually re stating it or we can if the point of the scene is that maybe one character lies or exaggerates when a tells be something and be tell see something be comptel see the same the invasion in a different way can lie about it ten exaggerated so s o that is telling us something not just about the information but about the character here's a lot you know here's a liar he was an exaggerator here is somebody covering something up? Okay? Okay all right um so nonlinear sequential non sequential our choices that we make most movies move in straight line it most western films moving straight linear fashion because most western people believe in that emotion happening in that direction a lot of other cultures you know see things all happening at the same time some films that we see in from different countries you know we see way see events happening without without necessarily explaining them you know in an american movie of time passing nine months later three months earlier you know were very very linear people but not every culture is that way but it is definitely an effective and can be an extremely effective storytelling hwe eun in the right hands if you know if it feels organic and true both to you and to the events of the story and it is a perfectly legitimate way of moving um um subtext is also going to come to this in just one second uh subtext is a very effective way of telling something that has happened and um creating a sense of almost like a private moment between the movie and the viewer that is withheld from one of the characters in the story subtext is obviously something that is happening underneath the text. Okay, I'm gonna give you a great example and we'll give you a bad example in a good example a bad example is people try to cram subtext into one moment they'll say she was smiling in a way that tells us that she's remembering that her aunt moved from norway to minnesota and watched some cattle be slaughtered on realized that was the way of things that's a hell of a smile tells you I know I know what that smile would look like so that that's a bad example of trying to cram too much information to what we might call subtext but a good example is there is a movie that I really like a lot that's called sea of love it's a murder mystery but in that scene al pacino plays a cop and in the opening scene he is opening scene and we talked about opening scenes there's a great example of things we talked about from a movie that you may not have seen but in that scene he uh there's a bunch of guys in a room and apparently the yankees going becoming talk them in this bunch of guys and pacino comes up there and he says, well, I got good news and I got bad news uh, what do you want to hear and somebody else? Good news is that it sends out that let's hear the bad news is comes with even in the grace note they says, well, the bad news is this yankees can't make it guys and that you can't make it to the stadium because you're all you're all criminals eating our pancakes here and a cz part of the special services unit here you're all arrest that we all got. We got you and it was a great scam. So it reveals him, puts him in his defining action that we talked about right and is grumbling and grumbling rooms is all what's the good news and good news coming around some vodka gets poured. All right, uh, so that scene is established. We know that all these guys, we've seen him coming in and having to show invites to get in. So we all we know that an invite is it a warrant for their arrest? All right, next scene comes and there's some other thing between katrina and somebody else now petunias just about to leave. And another guy comes running on the street, him in his kid kid and his frantic. So he says my late I'm here to see the yankees says, oh, yeah, well, you got an invite says yeah, manya and he shows the person between shows that these guys in a car that read it says grand theft auto, two counts and so has got a way. Now we talked about circumstance, okay, here is an important piece of circumstances. We review some of the stuff we talked about a couple of steps ago. Here's a circumstance is a guy with his kid grand theft auto two counts pacino has a choice choice my friends is one of the most absolute powerful devices that we as writers should set up for ourselves because when a character chooses and and you should never make the choice easy the choice always should be difficult that's too easy means nothing is too hard it means nothing has to be exactly the right level of difficulty. All right, here is a guy he's got his invite he's got his kid grand theft auto two counts it's what does pacino do? Okay, now this takes place in new york if he was in l a where? Ah, your property is much more important than your life. Of course he's arrested but this is new york where people little bit hip okay, let's, talk about circumstances he's got his kid with him. Why does he have his kid with him? Did this clue kid just happen to be on the set and I thought, hey would be fun to bring my kid all just get along no, of course not a writer I was going and his kid. Why? Because it makes a difficult choice. Grand theft auto two counts is it murder? No murder definitely arrest him is it person acting no purse snatching of course you let him go grand theft auto could go either way pacino now says uh he says that we're all booked up so what do you mean we're all booked up I got an invite character objectives were seeing we're all booked up what is his objective? They begin to go I got my invite what is his objective to get in? He said nice is the invitations just for one again trying to get him to go what could I can't get it to go to see the yankees without you know I can't go myself but I'm taking my kid coming back and forth back and forth finally finally he shows him his badge covers it up so the kids can see it the guy says oh thanks man and so pacino's objective is accomplished the guy slips and a great talk about dialogue great tagline says a catch you later okay so good for examples of great screenwriting here but but but the subtext which is when I started talking about is the invite okay, we know the invite is a warrant character doesn't know how do we know not because he's smiling in a way that shows us that an invite is it is but because of a scene that we came before so just a good working clue for you all to make scenes that have subtext in them make sure you use two scenes, establish it and seen one resolve it and seem to subplot very important um in this murder mystery and sea of love there was there is a plot to catch a murder and there's also a love story that is spread through very, very sexy love story in in juneau this thing that we looked about looked at earlier there is the main plot juno her pregnancy, her relationship with her with paulie bleeker and subplot is the relationship between juno and the characters who will be the adoptive parents I find using another a separate colored index card to use for all of the scenes that are in the subplot to be a very, very effective device on the board over there. I don't know if you could see it from here, but I've been dispersed a bunch of yellow cards there on the board theo card would be the scenes that involved market vanek and vanessa now I just put them there randomly, okay uh, but using that as a technique for yourselves is a junk again, I find it to be far more effective than just doing a step outline because it is physically right there in front of you. You can see where those scenes are are they woven uniformly through the whole story so that we don't lose track of it is that we've done you know or are they all clustered together and then a long period of time goes by without without seeing them at all when we come back we forgot all about those people so again the scene card itself is executed the same exact same way you know with the thing that happens and that whatever information you know you know if if as you're writing the scene if you remember that what you want to make sure that you're right tarik objectives you know you might you know great because in time it's a great technique for all of you you know especially as especially as you know, you know we're all beginning right? Something tony said we're all amateurs uh in a craft that has no masters were all apprentices in a craft that has no masters because you always want to be better than we are it's true but but a great again a little bit tedious but something it is very important to do is whether it's on your seen carter whenever you set out to write a scene somewhere on the scene card is a perfectly good way to do it is right down the objective of each character write it down and remembering what an objective is at his urgent specific immediate and it's it's a verb to get out of the room to get the phone number toe get godfather to say yes to get the car t to delay getting the car um in all the president's men every scene is about covering information, uncovering information cover uncover uh write down the immediate specific objective of each character then write the scene then look at the signature of written and read it out loud and can you feel in every moment in that scene that the characters are trying to do everything possible to get what they want like that little example I just gave hey come on man I got an invite invitations just to you I can't bring my can't go in without my kid boom boom boom boom boom boom boom the end one of them wins okay it's just four lines back and forth but every every line is about everything a character can do to accomplish what he wants in that moment and I want you to make you sort of think about that using is a paradigm for yourself one of the things I wanted to talk about before before the red card green card exercise is again about information this is a little something that I think it's a really good little trick to keep you because sometimes we as writers it becomes our writers objective to get information to the audience okay and very often the way in which we do it is that a person who needs to give this invasion will just kind of blurted out you know you meet somebody in a you know sitting next to somebody you want to talk to it any telling his life story okay? It is a far more effective far more effective device for a character to need to get information than for one to do that then for character who needs to give it okay, so just remember that that when you is the writer need information to come across set up your scene where somebody needs to extract the information because then they'll be resistance rather than someone who just needs to give it in which case they could just blurt it like vomiting into a pail and, you know, I'm sure you know that you've all had the experience, you know, somebody sitting next to you know, bart it's not telling your life and you couldn't care less but there's somebody that you really liking, that person is secretive and you want to get the information on their secret about it. Any little tidbit that you can get is valuable because it comes hard earned but stuff that's just gifted that joe one means nothing. So you as the writer, you're the boss you want to create a circumstance where somebody needs to go get information and that information is hard earned and that will feel good to the audience it'll feel like it has come as a result of a struggle once again out of conflict okay, uh the last last technique I wantto leave you with is a very important and interesting one, and I called the red card green card and the idea is this again, it comes out of the same thing of making sure that whatever happens happens as a result of opposition. Thie exercise is to pick in each of your acts to pick a least one scene, maybe more, but one senior time that absolutely must happen in your story. Absolutely must, like in the godfather. We know what the end of act one michael kills those people must have. Okay, just separately just write that on a green card just because green means go on red means stop. Okay, so you write that on a green card. Now you're the next part nixed that the effective and tricky part of this exercise now is to take a least one red card, maybe more. And on each of those red cards create a an event that doesn't yet exist in your movie that will absolutely prevent that green card thing from happening. Things we gotta worry a lot of words with intimate, even prevent and I just want to walk. You have walking through that works in the godfather. Okay, michael's going to kill the guy? Okay, first red card. They don't know where the hell'd they don't even know where the things get way thiss meeting is supposed to take place. They're trying to find out trying to find out trying to find out finally okay right at the last second they find out because police captain has toe sign out where he's going okay, now they know where it's going to be so the plan is a guy is going to hide he knows that there's one of these toilets that have a tank top is going to hide the gun behind it and he knows that this is a very cool place perfect for a meeting it's a small family restaurant in the bronx so we know that michael's told how he has to act you gotto come in there they're going to frisk you so we can't give you a gun in the car and we're gonna hide it for you and you know you come there and you start talking you on do you say you just want a truce and you excuse yourself to the bathroom you get the gun, you come back and you start shooting, you drop the gun, you walk there's a plan okay? Very specific plan plans themselves are very powerful devices because once you have a plan that is specific, any aberration from it creates great anxiety especially if it's a plan that leads that the only way that there's danger if it fails and we were rooting for the protagonist and if something goes wrong we are in high high anxiety all right so there there are five things that happened five red card moments that happened from moment that michael gets into the car with a lot so who's going to kill and the mccloskey the police captain's gonna kill the last time we saw mccloskey again we talked about emotional flow circumstances the last time because he he had michael's hands pulled behind his back and he sucker punched him busted his jaw thirty thirty fighting we hated it so we're angry mcclosky we're glad that he's going to kill him okay um um so first red card thing that happens is an emotional red card gets into the car and mccloskey apologizes we'll shit we don't need to apologize apologizing means he's recognized that he did something wrong and we don't feel as bad as we did you know that righteous indignation is taken away from us we don't want that um next thing that happens of course he frisks him on and of course he has no no gun on him. Okay that's all right now they're starting to drive and there's some little dialogue back and forth and michael's clearly clearly on edge. Now they get up to the top of the to the top of manhattan and it's a turnoff to the right is the bronx and to the left is the george washington bridge new jersey and we know that the meeting is going to take place in the bronx so we know that the car has to turn off the bronx but what happens? It turns off to the bridge in jersey oh oh oh and michael can't give himself away you can't let them know that he knows where the things he says are we going to the bronx it's lots of kind of grins and says maybe we are frightened right now because here's comes and this's an aberration to the plan if they got to the bronx I mean if they go to the jersey there's no gun and michael's a dead man and michael spot is gonna be a dead man halfway across the bridge suddenly the driver will's around makes a huge u turn comes back the other way on the bridge now on one hand we could think oh what a cheat they just tease us they were just going this way just to tease us but no there's an absolute organic reason for a clever smart driver doing that what is it if somebody is following them thrown off their path so it works emotionally scares the hell out of us but it also is perfectly organic and true toa to the wisdom of what these people would do this is great writing ok, now they don't need to see the rest of the drive you know we cut the ellipse we get to the bronx now we were in the restaurant and the dialogue has to happen in italian and michael is an american he doesn't speak italian well so that's difficult and he's trying to say what he's going to try to say and so lots that we know is lying to us to say hey we blew it you know we don't have any power anymore we know he's full of crap we know that you know what his goal is you want to kill michael father find out where he is and kill him and michaels you know he said all I want is a truce man you got me and michael michael we know what we know the whole subjects that why michael was there and he's trying to speak italian it's hard and finally you no excuse if you could go to the bathroom and he goes and now he's there and he reaches up behind the toilet for the gun no gun gun isn't there again we are breathless what is he going to do he's going to come out it was like sonny one said you know make sure I'm going to say we don't have to come out holding his johnson in his hand write some good dialogue up reaching no gun no gun wrong god desperation and finally it's there he finds it huh fine okay I just wanted to wrap the flow of this for a moment and tio make you realize what is happening with you we are so involved in this plan going awry were so involved in these red cards making this thing so difficult that what we are forgetting is that what michael was about to do is commit a capital crime and we are rooting for it right he's going to kill a new york captain he's going to kill this other guy in cold blood and we are glad we were petrified that he might not be able to do that once again intimacy trumps morality into c comes from a character's vulnerability to being inside of them those examples given the early steps with the gun in the rifle in the bird and the you know we are with michael doesn't matter what he is going to do, it doesn't matter it's against the law it doesn't matter it's a capital crime it is the fact that there is opposition that he has to overcome on we are absolutely involved in the moment and that is our task as writers to keep our audience so absolutely confined inside of the of the moment that is defined by the immediate character objectives of what a character must do whammo, what matters most? What do g what is a character one what will he do to get it thes red cards like everything about water flowing down a curb after it rains? I think it wants rain in california and if it just just flowing in our normal ebb the flow if you put a brick there it will be backed up and then when it over goes over there it's it's much more of a torrent it you know being stop it gains momentum same event same thing happens here in our stories by making oppositions to what is happening it generates more momentum and that is what we want to do it generates narrative and emotional moment um now michael comes back in with the gun and what again what is the plan he has to come back in no more talking just start shooting what does he do something different he comes back in he starts talking again earlier in the scene when when when it was first decided one blue cartago that michael was going to be the one that michael volunteers sonny says no no no no no you know your war here usedto shooting somebody too in your farm you know be able to do it close up a whole different deal and so as michael comes back in we think that's possible it's possible he won't be able to do it. And now what again that level of tension will he be able to not think about committed capital crime? We're just think will he be able to do do the thing that we are so committed toe wanting him to be able to do because of all of those things? And finally he does it boom boom boom does any family does the one thing is supposed to be drops the gun no hurries out music comes up and act one uh irrevocable act the point of no return having happened all of this all of this all of this dramatizing creating the intense emotion that brings us from where michael said that's my family it's not me to the person that has just done this thing and is no longer ever the person who'd be able to say that, okay? The reason I took this time to go through this slowly and and minute lee did is because it is a gigantically powerful device and I think and I would love all of you as you start to you know what? When you start creating your stories, remember that the things that you're going to be the index cars that you're going to writing from your snowplow are things that, you know are goingto happen you are you're you're not thinking when you're doing that of things that are going to prevent that thing from happening. Okay, so all of these tools all of the demonstrations from from films that have been made they all have one purpose and that is to be used as paradigms for you when you get when you delve into the thing that you are doing is they're all tools to keep in your toolbox a lot of things to remember that's where you're gonna have this teo to make to make reference to. But but this is one of the most gigantically powerful devices that you can you can use. You could just see even just talking about it. How, how it makes your stomach turn well, imagine actually doing it, and it takes courage to do it because in a kind of way, you are trying, you are doing everything we can to to subvert what you know is going to happen, and you want, you know, you don't want to go too far because, oh, my god, well, I have to be able to make it happen what I want to happen. And, yes, you have the challenge yourself so much that you are afraid that you won't be able to cause the things that happen that, you know is going to happen and that if you're doing that, if you were to that level of anxiety, you are working, you're working well

Class Description

The most overwhelming, yet critical step for the screenwriter is the first draft. Staring at a blank sheet of paper can induce "writers block" faster than any other challenge facing a screenwriter. Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft will equip you with a roadmap for tackling your initial draft and guide you to the next steps on the scriptwriting journey. 

In this class, Hal Ackerman will teach you how to jumpstart the writing process and complete a written first draft of your screenplay. You’ll learn how to:
  • Organize your ideas into scenes and acts
  • Approach character development and dialogue
  • Take next steps after the first draft is complete
Hal has been teaching screenwriting to students at UCLA since 1985. He has sold material to all the broadcast networks and authored well-known books on the art of screenplay writing and selling In this class, he’ll offer actionable insights on developing your concepts and turning your ideas into a compelling and complete script.

Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft is your opportunity to learn how to conquer one of screenwriting’s greatest challenges and get your ideas developed and down on paper. 

Check out our complete collection of filmmaking classes here

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Resource Guide - Script Contests

Sample Script Pages

Writing Exercises

The Godfather Scenogram

Character and Writers Objective Diagrams

Blank Scenogram

Ratings and Reviews

Student Work

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Hal Ackerman is the Man!!! Loved this course and will be watching it again. Mr. Ackerman is one of those people who truly wants to help you get better at your craft. He's encouraging yet realistic about what it takes to write a great screenplay. I highly recommend this interesting and helpful class.


After taking a number of other screenwriting courses, I can tell you that Hal Ackerman's course, The Art of the First Draft, is the BEST EVER!! His methodology of teaching is fantastic. He takes you on this journey from start to finish in a way that you WILL KNOW how to write a script by the time you finish this course. I liked how he used examples throughout his training to help you better understand screenwriting. If you really want to learn how to be a good screenwriter, then I would highly recommend taking Hal's course. You won't be disappointed.


I've read a lot of books on the subject and I've been to a few seminars. Hal Ackerman's class is genuinely one of the best and the most helpful classes I have experienced. What makes the class so great is that every concept has you putting pen to paper or fingers on keyboard right away. Ackerman really has tools that are called to be used. Thanks for the wonderful resource.