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Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft

Lesson 13 of 18

Step 7: Understand Your Character's World

Hal Ackerman

Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft

Hal Ackerman

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Lesson Info

13. Step 7: Understand Your Character's World

Lesson Info

Step 7: Understand Your Character's World

The next thing I want to I want to do I want to talk about how we start to actually start to write this stuff on our page. I wanted just for second. Just look at you. Just look at a page of screenplay, and I think that on your beer, a little packets here, I want you there's one that says after I just I just want you to look at that for a second, okay? Um, all right, well, we're gonna we're gonna just, um, we would come back to this in a moment, but this is this is what a piece of screenplay looks like. Okay, um, there are on their way to come back to the before, okay, there are certain conventions that are necessary in writing a screen, just physically writing a page of a screenplay. I'm not going to talk a whole lot about format because there's there's so many programs that you could buy that will kind of do it for you. But it is I do want you to understand conceptually what, what it is that we're doing because it's a document that looks so different than any other document, it looks ...

different from a play different poem, different from just about anything, and it is the convention of it is it set up in a siri's of shots all right of of sean's and each scene is defined by something called a slugline that that's on the very top of says whether it its exterior or interior where it is then it has some narrative action that describes what is happening in that scene what the scene looks like then it might have some description of the characters that air in that scene because because we have to know what they look like and then it has dialogue in it who's speaking and and what they're saying so all those are the necessary components that go into a script all right, I have two glasses that both look very much similar to each other in front of me here and one of them says h two o which we all know is a symbol for okay and now we have something that says h two o two which if we don't know what it is we can we could make a logical a logical educated guess if h two o two is water it's got hydrogen and it's got oxygen oxygen is a really good thing we breathe it it's wonderful for us so h two o two must be even better than that because it's got to oxygen's and two is always better than one, so this is probably some kind of hollywood super water some new invention that makes you stronger, better so if I were to drink this it would clearly make me a better person who would be far better what this would cost a lot more because this is twice is this twice a cz much it's great so I found with the drink this I would probably very still start to choke and I would start to burn and I would very soon die worse than even the chair breaking before because h two o two is not super water its hydrogen peroxide which is good for clearing wounds in a very diluted state but drinking it pure will kill you it's poisoned so why did I bring this up because I want you I want to graphically and I would have done it more graphically for months to get very dramatic and fell on the floor and drive on you probably would have ignored it because I know you have read you cringe stuff you're very heartless people somebody might have come to my aid but not you um the reason I bring this up the notion of too much the idea that we sometimes think that mohr is better but in the screen writing world I want you understand that less is better than mohr we want to write with elegance we want to write impressionistic lee rather than expansively it's hard sometimes to recognize how true that is because we all want to maybe show off we all maybe sort of see a scene very clearly in our mind. We want to write down every little detail that happened in that scene the way we saw it. How that character winked her eye at a certain moment. You know how long a pause that you envision that actor taking the sunlight rappelling through the leaves underneath the cabin or above the cabin near the lake and how the sun rippled off the lake because that's exactly the way you saw it on that four p m day that day and fall when you were there all those incredibly beautiful, wonderful details that our wonderful in your novel, but not necessarily in your screenplay and so I want you to I want you to look at thiss sort of before picture here and wanted a sort of talk about some of the things that are there. So it it starts with that. Slugline we talked about exterior new york harbor morning. So the slug line that's there is perfectly acceptable, uh, it just says the very basics. Now it goes to narrative description and says the various andr narrows bridge arches gracefully between brooklyn and staten island. It was designed by the swedish engineer over tomorrow amon, who also designed the george washington bridge. All right, there is nothing that is untrue in that statement, however, there is information in there that as extraneous all we need to know is that waken say it arches gratefully gracefully between brooklyn staten island that is the extent of the information that is necessary for that we don't need to say and sometimes especially people who want to be directors as well as right as they might say it is shot from the bottom with, you know, with the camera following in counterclockwise motion the way the cars are going and reflecting off the windshield all of this stuff might exact may be exactly the way a director will shoot that film if that director has wonderful imagination but it is not the province of us as the writers to put it in there, our job is to get the basic information and something that might create a feeling you know, arching gracefully between brooklyn staten island is is nice it tells us that it's a piano it gives an impression six sense of what that might look like, you know, it doesn't say it doesn't say yet jackhammers don't say there's a you know, a horrible car chases and say it's stopped for terrorists it just it gives a sense of peace um the movie rocky the script, the script of rocky, the description he has of the ring he says it resembles an uncovered garbage can is a really nice description it doesn't say that it is twelve feet by seven feet but it does say it's small tent to to encourage extra extra combat and violence he does say there are twenty five what light bulbs don't say that people are making two dollar bets and the audience all these are our small impressionistic details that give a set designer and a reader a sense of where we always clearly not in you know what whatever your you know your your main arena here is we're not in madison square garden were not in the philadelphia spectrum yet were in a crappy dive so we want to give just enough information t create on emotional and physical visceral sense we want to have just impressionistic, visceral specific details what was one of the things we don't have time for today but something you might want to try to do to give yourself some practice and how to do this imagine that you are going teo put a real estate ad in the newspaper for your apartment that you were house that you live in now you're going to sell all right and you have fifteen words to do it I'll give you twenty words to do it okay what would you say? How would you create the impression in twenty words of the place where you lived okay? You don't have this much you have just this much and how do you make it stand out and how do you make a buyer say oh you know that's something that that sounds like a place I'd like to be okay all right uh so again be lean less is mohr visual visceral details don't overwrite think otherwise it's okay number two let's look at the next paragraph a scaffold carrying a pair of bridge builders just that book by weigh a little convention here tiny tiny foray into format usually when the first time you introduced a new character into a story you always capitalized that's why para bridge builders is capitalized just information they hoist on leaving unevenly into frame the veteran age fifty has been working for the city eighteen years as did his father he sits back while the rookie age twenty five does the hoisting it's only his third day on the job he tried out for the new york mets would have a sore arm his right arm is a little longer than his left all right let's let's ask you what if you were going if you're going to write this tell me what you would keep what would you keep the action telling what would what would he place unevenly and frame okay take out um the veterans backstory and the rookies attempt at becoming a new york mets player but that's so important, isn't it? No it's not okay. All right, good. Ok um so now okay veteran says your end in the rookie horses side seven inches higher good is that line perfectly weight is seven inches it's with you probably due to deal with that not not there the raider ok, so so we need to say is that rookie hoist his end? Okay all right. The kids scoot to the other side to even it that okay? Yeah all right uh um I want you to look at the words scoots the word scoots writing verbs choosing the right verb very underrated but very important I thought to go into writing your narrative description because it tells us something about the way in which the characters moving just in one word but it doesn't take a whole paragraph I didn't say you know goes the same way like a fox would who's been, you know, chasing our needle but just using that I mean, you know another exercises sometimes doing you might want to try this yourselves at home too think about how many words you can think of that for for a person and relating moving forward. Okay, um you know just right look let's just do this right now. Quick, quick, quick little okay walk sought their good. Okay, well, skip goodwill meander good. Yeah could keep going. Keep going. Keep going. Well, we get yeah, good. Okay, skip runs yeah, there you go, yeah, yeah, okay all of those words have color to them every one of those single words every one of them has a certain kind of color it not only describes the motion it describes the character who would take that motion very very important it's one of those things that helps your scenes right right your narrow description jump off the page so keep that in mind as a nice little trick all right uh skid scoots through the other end yeah, he pulls that one eleven point eight inches okay, I know that's important uh sun shines beautifully through the matrix of wire cable's foreshadowing how liars tangled in interconnected and that has to be important all right uh now if this were a novel it very well could be part of that novel but we wouldn't here's what? We have to remember that something that we talked about in one of the earlier steps that a screenplay is only a transitional document on the way to becoming a movie it isn't everything in a novel well, the words are all the purchaser gets but in a screenplay this is something you know in a cynical way you could look at a screenplay is a small business plan you know it's something that you are submitting to some you know production entity that and saying I think that however much money you pay me and however much money this cost to make it will generate more money and this is why this is why this will generate some money okay so it is in its way not its final product so you don't have to be you know I mean it's nice to give the screenplay its voice but not at the extent of showing off not at the expense of overwriting h two o two um all right veteran ten in the morning I'm already sweating like a pig this is terrible weather what do you think it's good there's no period of puncturing that's true a thousand country anything could be cut there terrible weather terrible weather maybe okay okay ten in the morning already sweating like a pig we know it's terrible weather ok rookie at least is that cold that's not bad though. Conflict here one it's too hot to cold okay come here beat four seconds kid thinks about how how he oh uh oh how he could and should should say how he could have been pitching for the mets the cheers as he struck out the last batter is no hitter that smacks him in the head anything anything necessary anything unnecessary the beat four seconds right absolutely out. Well, first paragraph yes okay thinks about way don't exactly anything in there that should stay okay good there is external action you come here back okay uh it's called you could put on a sweater that's how he could do is die all right, banning. All right now. Let's, let's, let's, let's. Look at at the thie corrected version of it and see how close you all, uh, you know, came to picking the right stuff out. You have experience york harbor. The verrazano bridge arches gracefully between brooklyn staten island scaffold carrying a pair of bridge painters courson evenly into frame. Better in age fifty sits back while the rookie twenty five does the hoisting that could possibly be a little bit mohr description of those people, but since in this movie, very not going to appear anywhere after the scene, you know, on dh dialogue kind of speaks to how they are, we probably don't have to say a great deal more about it. People tend generally toe over, describe narrative action, toe over, describe character description. Ultimately, the character will look exactly like the actor was hired to play the role. So there may be things that maybe, you know, physical things that are important that define who the character is rather than just what you think might be a cool thing about the character. You know, if somebody is, you know, like a, you know, a bar. Ah, barroom hips there well, okay, we could, you know, you could describe possibly, you know, the way he walks into a place and you know what his dress might be because that would say something very much about who that character is but if it's just some regular person we don't want you know there are a lot of people that are well paid and worked very hard on a movie production. Among them are costume designers, set designers, makeup people all those things we don't have to do their job for them. We have to do our job and that important job is telling the story through the events that is our job number one we are not the music directors we are not any other things were not the directors were not the dialogue coaches. Another thing that called something called the rileys sometimes writers are so intent on putting, um into our directing the way eh acted delivers his or her lines. Sometimes we want to direct the camera on the page by putting too many camera angles in another exercise they do it. You know, if you folks are like love directing and love owes a great exercise is to write down as many camera angles as you can possibly think of close up dolly shot over the shoulder you know there's hundreds well, it may not be hundreds of this probably about fifty of them write every one of them down just be exhaustive and then take that piece of paper tear it up throw it away because that's the last time you're ever going to write those things there's a beautiful opening of in the movie a little miss sunshine remember that movie opens little olive is there watching tv and the tv is reflected in her big glasses right? Very, very very cool shot do we write that we do not that's a great thing that director figured out and I'd like it in your minds think of the difference between a narrative imperative and something that is decorative and what I mean by that is this a narrative imperative means that whatever detail you pick is absolutely essential for the telling of the story for the writing of that scene but something that's decorative is just like a cool way to shoot something there if you know the scene somebody walking their law and reflecting off the hubcap very nice but that would be a director choice would be decorative but a little miss sunshine if you remember in the next thing when we see her father giving the speaking, you know, talking about the nine steps and on the first shot has him just on stage talking and we can presume so presuming that he's talking to a you know an audience filled with, you know, with five hundred people that were there to pay him fifty dollars a head when we turn around the second shot is who he's talking to and it's a but, you know, it's like six in junior high school kids who give a kind of a smattering of applause that is a narrative in paris because the that's, the joke of the scene so if if that whole scene was shown that we saw all those kids in the beginning, it would undermine it, that we mean you no seen there were no punch line to it, so that that's that's example that's a narrative imperative because it is about what the scene is about, where the thing with olive in her glasses that's cool, but it's not what the scene is about. She's watching television, she's watching this america she's doing those gestures and those gestures are absolutely important. They are narrative imperative because she is emulating what miss americas are doing that's exactly what the scene is about, but there's some scenes where, you know, we we over directly, so, oh, somebody taps his finger three times because they're nervous, so they twitch their eyebrow, you know, that is all decorative, that telling an actor how to how to how to play nervousness, we don't want to do that that's, decorative and the other thing so it's camera facial expressions doing blocking for the actors absolutely not, and the other thing is, is what we call when I call the rileys I'm not the only one who calls it that they're called the rileys, which is parent pathetic als that direct the actor of how to deliver a certain line and the reason they're called riley's o w r y l why? Because that's a very typical thing to put in the parenthesis how he said, says it riley who are gives the line ironically or riley, the thing is that those parents testicles when we start directing actors on the page it's like eating salted peanuts you can't stop and and what happens then is every single line of dialogue is punctuated by how you want the act hurt to say those words and the first thing first of all, it's just too annoying, very annoying to read gets completely in the way, and the second thing is it's irrelevant because the first thing actors will do is we'll just cross it out. And my colleague richard walter his tells a story about his sister who's, a quite well known actor jessica walter, and she was in a film called uh oh it's with clint eastwood and he play misty for me and she's, a stalker and he's, a late night jazz record, a deejay and there's ah line in it, where the writer wrote it the chef screams and screams at him a particular line and in the actual way that actors are very creative, she said. It very, very low and absolutely intense, and it was absolutely frightening on the weight, so the way the actor chose to do it was so, so much better than the way the writer envisioned that way line playing. So what? Our job, the way we can best make sure that the lines are delivered effectively is not to direct the actor of how to do it, but to make sure that the circumstance of the scene contains effective drama in it and that the objective of the characters are so strong and in opposition that the actors themselves will find the absolute right way to play it because we have given them the things that they need, which is their motivations, we have given that to them, then we trust and hope that we'll get actors that are competent doesn't always happen, but no matter, but if it doesn't happen, doesn't matter how many parenthetical we put in there it's not gonna work, so we're gonna have to trust that we get actors that are just as good as the writers that we are, so so we don't want to put any vote, any of those extraneous things into our stories.

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


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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.