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Step 2: Choose What Story to Write

Lesson 4 from: Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft

Hal Ackerman

Step 2: Choose What Story to Write

Lesson 4 from: Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft

Hal Ackerman

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Lesson Info

4. Step 2: Choose What Story to Write

What makes something become a compelling story? It takes more than surveillance camera footage.

Lesson Info

Step 2: Choose What Story to Write

We want to talk about stories about the stories that are happening inside ofyour lives. There's a great exercise. Some of you probably have heard of ernest hemingway. Yeah, okay. Some american writer guy. All right, he's the first one that I'm aware of that came up with this notion of what it calls the six word story and I think we may have given you in in your book lit a couple of examples of a six words story we're gonna have you talk about some of your six words stories in a little bit. One of them one of his famous ones is for sale baby shoes never worn, but I want to talk about story itself. What ueno the word. Another word story. You know, people could describe themselves as a storyteller, but what the heck is a story? What makes something be become a compelling story? If I were to go into aa seven eleven right now and they all have those surveillance cameras, right? And if I were to clip on hour and a half out of out of surveillance video you know, maybe it was there may be no m...

ornings from from seven to eight thirty I am well, maybe it's nighttime from two to three thirty a m and I clipped that surveillance video off. Would I be able to bring that to a movie theater? Projected and would that would that be a movie? Would that be a story would that be a film where what do you think what would happen like what can you imagine might happen in that surveillance video well let's just use your imaginations what tell me what you might imagine we'd be there still deciding between two products okay um scanning the store for other people and seeing what they might be interested in the robbery robbery okay more exciting that way maybe a robbery that very well may be it may be shoplifting certainly maybe that went off lt's transactions it's certainly there'd be a lot of those going on lottery tickets being bought yeah. Um uh so some of these things are what would you think? Well, I mean if there wasn't any I'm thinking like um uh the fritz lang when or I forgot the director's name now buddy like they're certain scenes that get cut him and put him into a certain place in the nearest the story it may be ok wait we're talking about arranging events even just for now even just that raw that raw footage andi what you're talking about actually is definitely a component of story well clearly will absolutely talk about that so so in in in our surveillance video we have things happening we have people we have certain events maybe a robbery maybe some shoplifting maybe some transactions you know, maybe you know, you know, people you know, necking in the back of the store thinking there are unseen, you know, lots of different things might happen. Would that hour and a half surveillance video? What would that do you think? Be a story? They would have to be like him connecting them. All right, so just just the fact that there are things happening there. Just the mere fact that there is a sequence of events. Not quite enough. What? What is it? Lack what isn't in those things, even though it has a lot of things that we recognize as components of a story, right? Things happening, some exciting things, some boring things. Lots of things. Lots of people action moving in and out. What? What? What is it like? Like, what is the plot? What does that mean? Um, a story. No, uh, how would you define a plot? Somebody never heard that word. How would you define it for them? A plot is, um, a siri's of events with a subject and a conflict that needs resolution. All right, good. That's that's has many, many of the components in it, so? So we need something that has some, some kind of direction to it, okay, okay, what else? What else is this? Stuff that we have your lack what do you think thank you a lot of movie well I was going to just reiterate conflict I think that's a big one for me okay well you know we had a robbery I mean it was some conflict that would that be enough to share to make this a story definitely an element on the eldest of it okay all right uh what else what else what isn't there yet you talked about some sort of arranging okay one of the things that that one of the crafts of moviemaking cutting pasting separating putting things in a different order what why why do you say that is an important component what is it meant to do some of the audience two men short so whoever's watching you know okay on what about that would move the audience in a way that just seeing it raw wouldn't teo sympathize with one of the characters are okay so their characters here okay and we want to sympathize with them all right good. Okay we're moving forward good what else what else is it like that we might need to address protagonist and it is the main character of a story who most of the action and plot is about okay okay good. So there's a good word to toe hang onto a protagonist the central figure in the story okay, so this surveillance myth mythological surveillance footage that we have wouldn't necessarily have one of those it might, but it wouldn't necessarily so as story crafts people it's something that we would want make sure we want tohave and we wanted to have a son trey said, have the audience care about that? I have sympathy for that person good what else? What else? Well well following those of the character arc so making the, uh events arranging them in such a way that it creates a change within the character shows the change with okay so in the story are you seeing a character needs to change? I believe it for a good story. Yes, alright, ok, I think we I think we were coming. You guys are very, very sharp by the way you're very good I've come up with, you know something that I think embodies and it's hard. You know, the definition of a story is hard it's like what's the definition of ah melady, you know we could say, well, it's got notes and scott rhythm and it moves and it's something, but it doesn't necessarily mean we can sing it yet. And so this is the closest tonight that I've come up with, which is, uh called footprints in the sand of a character in search of his or her heart's desire against impossible odds, and I want to sort of take apart each piece of that? Because it really echoes things that you yourself have said, one of the great things about talking with you guys about all this is making you understand how much you actually know, because sometimes we forget that sometimes things that we no and that are inherent truth that we carry with us, we don't necessarily value them, you know? But when I say footprints in the sand, if you think about what that looks like, write that that generates motion, right character, you know, some people, somebody moving in a certain direction and for a story, that direction can't be random just if we took a picture of a beach after july fourth, we'd have trillions of footsteps, footprints in that sand, but it wouldn't make any sense, it would just be totally random would be a big mess, what we want if we will find this story within that way, we're going to focus on one particular set of footsteps apps that we are caring about and what makes us care about them. You all mentioned the notion of a character of a protagonist, okay, uh, but not, but how do we identify in a story who or what the protagonist is? You know, if we were if we were writing a story about about world war two you know, hundreds of thousands of people were involved soldiers, civilians many died many wounded, you know? Could we just have a just a pan shot of all of those bodies? All of them had something poignant occurred to them but just by looking at the massive them that's not a story though embodied in any one of those many people that certainly would be a story and if we're going to tell the story about one of those people, we would have to understand why why we were focusing on that person all right? Uh and I think that very important things to think about when we think about our protagonist in this story is what makes that interesting why has shown trace said, are we going to care about that person? We want to show that person in search of his or her heart's desire? What is important to that person and what's lovely about that notion is that it doesn't have to be something earth shaking it doesn't have to be curing ebola or making world peace occur it could just be something really small. It could be like in a movie like the last picture show keeping one little movie theater in a little dusty town in texas open is that is that earth shaking not to the world but to that character it is and if we can make something even that is small toe one character. And if we could make our audience care very much about that one character and what he or she absolutely wants and desires well, how do we do that? Well, one of the things we do is we want to make that character become an underdog, make that character have whatever he or she wants become against impossible odds if it were easy, if that person wanted to keep that, that that movie show open. If the character in jaws was not afraid of the water, then you know that there would be a story. You remember that movie, right? Okay, think about who he was at the beginning of that story. And at the end of that story, you know, in the beginning is afraid to go in the water. Who is at the end, he is on the bow of a ship that is sinking with a shark coming right at him. You know, those are strong enough for you. Could you picture that character being that way at the beginning of the story? Impossible wouldn't happen, but the events of the story, we're going to talk about that as we get into the next steps lead the character from one point to another point, bit by bit. So I do want to talk a little bit about how we can come up with stories we sometimes we think about a story we think about oh it's warren peace that you know it has to be a thousand pages but it doesn't one of the things that that especially movie stories do is they have something that is at their core absolutely essential and uh and hemingway came up with that notion when he had that six words story for sale baby shoes never worn six words think about think just think about the large poignant story that tells us baby shoes never worn for that are for sale who is selling those shoes what has happened to that person or couple if you were going to write that story if you were to expand that story where would you start with it where we just who would those people be and now your imaginations tryingto work who is that couple are the people that live in hemingway's time are are the people you know have you ever known anybody that has suffered a tragedy like this how would you start to delve into their lives? Where would you begin telling the story of their lives would you begin it at the moment of conception? Where'd you begin it at that moment selling those shoes where would you start that story how would you make an audience care about those people with you know had they been artificially inseminated had they been wanting a child forever? Is that it? Is this there first last chance have they do they have six other children you know what? What might have happened had they had this been a pregnancy that was unwanted and that it was thought to be maybe terminated but no they decided to keep it there's so many possibilities that can emanate from just those six words um different ah different ocean here I think you have these in your packet from joyce carol oates revenge is living well without you so this this has this has a very different tone to it and tone is a part of a story that we really haven't talked about you know, how would somebody right about a bad you know, a love affair gone bad you know woody allen would write about it in a sort of you know, neurotic crazy comedy way joyce carol oates you know, she's writing about it in a kind of cynical, dark, angry way margaret at with same thing long for him uh got him shit. So this is this is this's a love affair that worked and I didn't want to, so I've asked all of you to come up with six words stories on I would love to go around the room and, you know, just hear you read yours if if you wouldn't mind this's the audience participation part of our show, ok? And how before we start off with the stories, I want to let the online audience know what you're and it's about why this is an important process. So why do you think this is an important exercise for our viewers at home to do this? Well, any time that we challenge ourselves anytime that we look into our own selves and movie writing somebody. David belasco, who was a theatrical producer back in the early nineteen hundreds, once said, if you can't write your idea in the back of a business card, you haven't thought about it well enough and so movie writing there's something, which we'll talk about it a little bit later on that's called the elevator pitch and why it's called that is because you have an idea for a movie and you're in the elevator with the producer, uh, and you're going from the second floor to the fifth floor, and you tell him that story before he gets off the elevator and you don't want to start, you know you have a limited amount of time, so what we're looking for and I think what's very important, is for us to understand the nucleus, the essence of what the story is so s o I think that zone important thing for all of us to think about where we start and then how we expanded and ultimately when your movies made it comes back to this one it's you know when when it's ah tv guide or tvguide still exists you know when they talk about or you know the promo the network promo comes back to that very same six word picture the movie poster eso really where it starts ultimately becomes the selling point so it's important for a lot of a lot of reasons because it is the essence of your story so let's hear a couple of let's hear yours girl loves boy boy loves boy interesting good okay has this it was just like a notion that just came up with this has come from something you know, real life notion of yours well, I saw the being interpreted in two different ways one is the boy loving another boy but also a boy just loving himself on that that's the more personal for me okay, good. So so it sets up a really inherent conflict somebody it's the old it's the oldest story in the world you know, somebody love somebody and that person is not available to them and it really speaks to it really speaks to the kind of definition that we talked about about a story about a character in search of our heart's desire against impossible odds so in your story there was somebody who wants something and all the obstacles against its very good good let's let's hear yours? Uh pet pig went missing after dinner no, I will say no more. My mom's story is just change picked carrot it just wouldn't work thank you very, very nice. I like it like yours only. Um baby breath coffee, breath out of breath so that one more time, baby breath coffee breath autograph coffee e I don't know if it's a story that would have more components, but it was more of my interpretation of, uh, the baby shoes. Okay, so let's, let's, let's, expand let's. Think about expanding that story. Whose breath is it in your mind? It's somebody who, you know has everything in the world to live for, uh, but is going back to the same dead end job each day, um, and isin the end way, teo. But now in that character, where is the end relative to the beginning and what doesn't become fulfilled? Um, it's a good question. Um, where can you repeat it? Where does the end begin or where does the started? And you talk about something in the end? Okay, my closer. How close to the beginning is that end is and and what becomes truncated, what doesn't become realized, um, passion, um okay and you know that things may not be stuff you've thought about yet but passion for what we were goingto were inventing a character as we go along and this this is this is the way characters become come to life passion for what passion for you know how they spend their days and how would that person passionately spend his or her day um exploring and learning new things and seeing colors that they hadn't seen before and there's this person and artists of a visual artist why why would color be I mean it's interesting that you would come to that person is a photographer okay, alright, okay okay on what kind of photographer? Um this person does mostly photographs people out in the street okay? So today okay candid stuff sneaking pictures of people and on dh what again? You know we're spitballing here we're inventing this is this is the two most important words were inventing the story what if okay, so what if this person is out there and who is he or is it a man or a woman? It's a man a man okay uh how old thirty five thirty five okay is photography his, uh, livelihood or a hobby? No it's a hobby that nobody ever told him he was any good at oh good ok, ok, but he has some secret thing about it that he okay he's voyeuristic and really just loves saying what everyone else is doing and not necessarily living that lifestyle okay okay now boyars think in a sleazy way or know in a way that he really enjoys the beauty that in front of him and um okay describe for me his favorite shot that he's ever done his favorite shot that he's ever done because of a woman sitting on a park bench smoking a cigarette looking up at a pigeon on an oak tree nice where's it that's in a park and does she ever see that picture no never what does he do with these he collects them and puts them in coffee table books very good this woman who was sitting at the way she was smoking she's not smoking ah she's smoking secretly or has anyway no but she looked like she felt guilty uh how old is she she's sixty four o okay uh chain smoker for all her life for this new to her um not so much a chain smoker but a bathroom smoker okay uh married uh widowed widowed okay how did her husband die? Car accident I'm sorry how long ago six years ago to this day wow that's why she's out there so that's why that look on her face that pointed look of good yeah she sees she sees something in the bird above that reminds her of her husband oh, well well well was she uh where was he going on the way when he had his accident hey was going teo their grandchildren school play um I'm going to stop you here but this is amazing I mean look look what you started knowing none of this and on dh how it took you two characters that had never existed in your life before and you started giving them a life that had never existed before uh this is you know this is exactly this is exactly the kind of what if process so thank you thank you very much I was talking about because I just wrote this one like right now maybe this love tangerines anything helps god bless love tangerines anything helps god bless okay uh why tangerines do you love the injuries I didn't yeah. What kind of um landry what kinds are there ten joint like this ten jell o's is something that is clementine's baby yeah, little one yeah yeah, I like tangerines uh I had one yesterday. Yeah how do you even if you cut it when you peel them how do you know him? I try to appeal the whole thing. Ah, so you're a sculptor? Yeah, yeah, I try to like, you know all the way around and then try to make it like, you know, stand on its own after uh yesterday I was successful because the one I had it was like further out than the meat inside so I got that yeah uh what's your technique do you choose a tangerine? You know that right like thinking depends sometimes if I want to like give some what you call it like uh perfume tow my hands uh I like you with my hands other times that I want I want toe not do that I get like a napkin and kind of do or over the knife uh do you do that? Have you ever tried it with a mango that's a good idea yeah you got to use a knife from angle but it's yeah, yeah. Mangoes yeah, thing with mangoes like their caesar like this. Yeah, I'd like to get every last bit of meat like I know. Yeah, uh and um uh uh uh what about the frosting refrigerated you ever try to get like, just like the full chunk of ice? Oh, yeah. Okay, that was a nice uh okay, so okay, so we have so it's yes tendering sandrine's a second part. Anything helps anything helps. What does that mean? I had a just a very head like it's. Just the vision of it when I wrote it it's like a just a home almost person sign, you know, standing on the side of the road like love tangerines, anything helps godless oh so this is a sign that a homeless guy's holding yeah oh that makes a whole new dimension to this so he loves tangerines yeah wow yeah that's very interesting tell me what this guy looks like uh he just you know riley biers yeah uh and he's wearing like uh dark grey um cargo jacket uh um has like um yeah he has like one leg oh how do you lose it he's a veteran of what were you know you know he's in his sixties probably yeah well well well the one thing about him though is under that jacket he has like a really bright uh yellow uh shirt on like kind of smudgy on it but and then like a little bit orange well you have a very vivid vision is this person is this somebody have seen somebody creating out your imagination's yeah creating well where is he standing um he's standing the entrance to the two eighty okay like underneath the uh overpass like right in the entrance right like this is you go in and I kind of go up okay there's like this little like nook with like vegetation here any like that where he lives does he have he lives under under one of the overpasses er was like a community of almost people there uh how did become homeless? Um well he has a lot of his um you could call them like um like mental you know problems ok does he treat is going to be a like no no uh did he before he went to vietnam did you have a family? Yeah. And what happened when he came back they left him they left him was he do you have ptsd? You're like yeah that I mean even before vietnam like he didn't get the proper you know, treatment they didn't know like what problems he had mentally but he still went he is really good there he was he was yet he's amazing he really what was his skull just like killing everyone it was it was a sniper are no injury he was like on on the ground just brutal murder really what? Particularly on all the metal what particular skills that he had that made him uh depth of that um um just no mercy, huh? How did that? What was his life before that were to grow up uh, north carolina and what was his life like he's a farmer a farm kid. So where did these where did these killings skills come from? A farmer sells like a peaceful person. Yeah, I mean, you had an uncle that would just kill the chickens oh, ok, that was like one source and then you read a book once? Well, great great, very good um is just as you're saying this is this somebody that you know no. Well so all just generating out of your imagination right now. Very cool. Good. Very good. Frank this is your story I wrote a lawson found camera with film lost then found camera with film good who lost it? Who found it? Well, I imagine this sign on christmas day in this kind of like a backpackers hotel in chiang mai and this, um person is going on a soldier and he's a young writer but he hasn't been, uh published yet, okay he's trying to go to the world to get experience, okay? And he sees this camera in this box. He just sees it lying. Where? Where is that box lost found box it's a lost and found box. Okay, okay, okay. And to me, the movie is not about him. He is like the princess bride, right? He looks at the film in a film is is the story okay? So the film that's in the camera is already story developed. Yes, well, you know, it would have to be digital, right? Oh, so they wouldn't be filling well, yes, digital film because film digital film a coalfield we still call it that. Yeah. Okay. All right, so so who did this camera belong to? And and is that's the mystery of the story, isn't it uh, yes uh huh and if we saw that story and the story got resolved to whom would it belong? Well I always thought I was like that idea that you know we go between the present where this new rider is looking at these pictures and he's imagining the story okay from these pictures right and what is what is he saying? Tell me tell me briefly what's on what? What is so compelling about what he seemed he sees pictures of like a nine month sojourn of uh but starts in hong kong and goes all the way through asia okay, so there's pictures in china okay there's pictures in tibet, japan, korea and and is it just a documentary is just seen except for is there something happening that's really interesting in it like who is there some person that's in it and there's some events that there is a yes there there is a single narrative and you keep seeing the same character in all these different place okay and who was that character? And that character is a middle aged man and I think the story is about he's also on a sojourn trying to find himself right? Okay that middle aged man is asian are caucasian or he's he's an american american okay and and have these this film that's or this these images that are being shot the contemporary or from like sometime ago know their contemporary okay and now that you say that you know, I see this kind of cross cutting happening between these two stories right there both on a sojourn uh good goes back forth between the cells except you've been thinking about no no oh just picture really is very sophisticated, very cool, very good. You know, it reminds what I once went to my from what my mother was going to be moving yeah shows in brooklyn and were just like this stuff and I found in a closet on old camera like four by six cameras that had been my father's my father died very young he was like forty eight when he died and I always remember this camera because you know, he would never let me use it was one of the things that had, like a bellows you came out and I looked at it and I saw that there was film in it and it would have been exposed up like number eight wow. And, you know, I just can't imagine what like, same things incredible curiosity what was in it and so I brought it to be developed and and I I wish it was that in the end he was as good as yours but had been there so long that whatever had been in it just yeah, I know, I know that's where the story storyteller picks up right exactly exactly exactly

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

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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.

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