Skip to main content

Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft

Lesson 6 of 18

The Protagonist's Journey & Desire

Hal Ackerman

Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft

Hal Ackerman

Starting under


Get access to this class +2000 more taught by the world's top experts

  • 24/7 access via desktop, mobile, or TV
  • New classes added every month
  • Download lessons for offline viewing
  • Exclusive content for subscribers

Lesson Info

6. The Protagonist's Journey & Desire

Lesson Info

The Protagonist's Journey & Desire

Those of you who are watching. I hope that you made your writing schedule. Did you? Did you okay. All right, so we talked about all the things that we need to do to become a writer. Now we're going to start talking about how to take the story that is important to you and stretch it out over the canvas of a screenplay screenplays. When we were when we were in school, I think that for the most part, we were taught about literature by people who actually did not create literature. We were taught to write thie expository essay about stories. What about everything? You know, we were in school. We, you know, one of three causes of the french revolution we had. There was a form for that expository essay. Sometimes we had to write about literature, you know, tell it, tell us, you know, three characteristics of hamlet that made him become a man. They made him die, and we would start with our topic sentence, and then we would weigh would thin. Each paragraph would relate back to what the topic s...

entence wass and the very end of it, we would say. And so you have seen here are three reasons why such and such selfish that's sexy, such one of the advantages that a person has who's teaching literature that we who are writing of it do not have is that they get to look at the finished work. They get to look at the thing after it is done and they can look back and say, well, here's, why the writer did such and such here's the theme of the story here's what the writer meant to say. Well, when we are writing, though, we don't have that luxury, we do not have that luxury, because everything that's in front of us is unanswered. We have to come up with not only the ants, we have to come up the questions first before the answers, one of the things that that literature teachers, I think is important, and it's not unimportant from an academic point of view, is the theme of the story. What does it means? A lot of the early stories that we were taught with a sub stables, they had morals to them. The whole purpose of this story was to teach a kind of a lesson. And so the central port, the central central nucleus of all of these stories, was about theme lousy agree, who is a hungarian theoretician, wrote a book called the, uh the the nature of dramatic screen, right? I'm sorry, I don't remember the exact title my mind, but but the point that his that it's a very popular book and very well respected the point of the book was that every play centers around the theme and he gives examples and says that every art of dramatic writing I guess it was his books but that his point was that every story has a theme to it for instance the theme would be adultery leads to murder that that's that's a legitimate theme the sins of the father are visited on the sons that's a legitimate theme about something but if I said to you uh the theme of the story is that the sins of the father are visited on the son could you possibly envision from that theme the full gorgeous story of the characters in the godfather I think not uh so uh what I want every writer to do is to take a leap of faith with me is the first thing I want to do you know those traffic size where they say like no left turn I could put a big line right through the notion of theme which is not to say that I that that a story should not have a theme they probably do the thing is I don't want any of you to know what it is I don't want you to think about what it is and the reason is that if you think about the theme of the story while you are writing it you will make the story come out to prove that theme when we write the expository essay the verb that's attended to it is to prove something we start with the topic sentence and the whole point of that whole essay is to prove the truth of that essay if we carry and as I said, people who teach literature have that ethos around it, but if we try to write a story whose purpose is to prove a theme, then halfway through that story the choices that the character is going to make I'm going to become narrower and narrower and narrower because we want the story to work out exactly the way we needed to work out to prove that point that adultery will lead to murder well, you know a and adept and a hip audience looking at the top from the top of that hill looking down your story are they going to see how the outcome of that story is going to be way before the end of that story? Is that what we want as creative writers? Of course not if it's a mystery we're writing if it's a love story who they're going to wind up this person or that person and we know it, you know eighty minutes before the story ends there's no suspense in it there's no joy in that so writing from theme is kind of like well, think about think about think about creative writing as opposed to expository writing when we are looking at what you're writing a story, a paper abouts something that exists, we can stand here and look back at it from the finished product to the beginning but when we are creating something, all of the unfinished stuff like a chasm is in front of us, so a convenient and easy way to get across is by having a theme, but the thing is that what makes it easy for us will make it predictable for an audience and predictability is that the death of creativity? We don't want that to happen are keys to make something to become inevitable without it being predictable and that is the that is the key to it all. So I want youto forget about the notion of theme again not because the story won't have won but because I don't want you to know it and I want you to replace it in the nucleus of your story with the most important word that is going to be the driving engine of every story that you ever right and that word is desire what does the character want the beauty of starting the story of having that be the driving impetus, the beauty of that being the nucleus the driving force of your story is this the character can be a son of a bitch the character does not have to be necessarily likeable but what the character has to be and we're taught you know you hear it all the time all the characters to be likeable we all fat fans of breaking bad was that character likeable no but he was in a certain way he waas but what he was was absolutely fascinating don corleone you know think about all the things that the godfather you know if you looked at his rap sheet all the things that he would have done in his life would that be somebody that you want to bring home to mom hey mom look who I'm dating this guy who extortion robbery murder no think about hannibal lecter in you know in in the silence of the lambs you know, a cannibal but absolutely fascinating at the end of that movie when he says oh, I'm having a friend for lunch on we kind of chuckle about it but think about what we're laughing at that that that he is going to cannibalize and eat somebody who is actually on upstanding member of society somebody who works for the cia you know you know I mean without knowing anything prior to the story about that if you said who's but who would I like better a cannibal who's done these horrendous horrible things or somebody who is an upstanding member of society but of course you would guess that but in the story we don't like the other guy because he betrayed starling and can and head of elected was true to her so uh so when we can focus upon what a character once that character khun b in a kind of way almost reprehensible and it's an amazing thing that in stories and here's a little axiom for you that intimacy trumps morality intimacy trumps morality what does that mean? And we'll talk about that a little bit um so the first question when when we're coming up with our with our stories when we think about what story we want to write for our movie what we're going to spend the next you know, six or seven months working on every day according to our writing schedule the first question we want to say is whose story is it? It seems like a like a very basic, almost naive question but it is a most important question and when I say it's saying it seems like a little bit naive it's because there's so many things that you already know that you don't give enough value to knowing to being in a state of knowing this about but the first question who is the story about whose story is it and when we when we answer that question, the answer has to come from the next question which is what does the character want? What is the character want? The thing about that question is that the answer does not have to be something of a great high moral value it doesn't also neither does it have to be earthshaking in a story like well like the godfather you know what? He wants us to stay out of the family business the tragedy that story is that he can't but in a story like I don't think this is a kind of odd little movie but a story called the last seduction to small independent film but it doesn't matter what you have seen or not but the protagonist it's a married couple and they're involved in drugs and the guy at the beginning the movie smacks his wife not a very nice thing to do she then steals his money and his cocaine on dh runs off and spends the next part of the movie using her sexuality to try to seduce a young man that be dazzle him to come back and murder her husband all right murder is not necessarily something that we would you know, uphold as a no as lovely members of society that you all are despite what you wrote in your cringes but we favor her a couple of reasons number one the guy did something battery smacked er not nice but number two is that she is an underdog and that we are involved in what she wants and that is the beauty of it the event itself is less important than thin the intimacy and our involvement with the character okay um little exercise I've done uh sometimes just to demonstrate this um there was this aa group of people that were stranded in the mountains in eighteen forties called the donner party that they wound up actually having to eat themselves but they were they were starving they were out there that they have been lost in the snow in the sierras for months running out they were eating leather one guy goes out with the last one rifle we can barely hold it he's so weak and and a small game bird appears and he's barely hold a rifle up you know to shoot the thing but we have been so involved with those people who are starving and their children starving we want him to shoot that bird because it's there it's there life we have been involved with those people now transposed the exact same circumstance a man a rifle a bird there was this beautiful documentary called winged migration and we followed some birds a flock of birds on their six thousand mile migration from a farmyard in france all the way to the arctic where they gave birth endured hardships came back as their flying over this farm there's a guy with a gun and a bird is flying over exact same circumstance man gun bird and in this case when he shoots and shoots that that bird we hate him for it exact same circumstance you know it's not anything about peter but it is a question I've just come back in one second, but what we have is that we were we were involved in one circumstance with the people we're involved in a second, second circuit is with the bird, so morality is out the window it's about who we are involved with, who's ordeal, we are being made to empathize with you. So in that case, what if both were like, what if we follow the flock of birds and we fall the man well, but put in the same movie? But in this case we didn't all right that's the point of it and that's why the question is whose story is it? Is that the bird story or the man story? Now it can't now that can be, and what you're talking about is something quite sophisticated where there could be something where now we were following two characters, each of whom has something that's opposing to them on their on their objectives will talk about objectives little while our opposing to each other, and we have a really, really sophisticated ambivalence here and that, you know, that can happen, and ninety nine percent of films, mostly there is there is there is a single protagonist, but your question is valid, one on it becomes difficult, you know, then then it would become quite difficult to say whose side are we on but what we want to do as writers is make the audience v on one particular characters side which is not to say that you know that they can't be ambivalence is a really terrific film that's called the insider which is about somebody who's gotten some information about the tobacco industry and once that wants to blow the whistle on his wife becomes very threatened by that because the other side doesn't want him to do it you know, the tobacco people and they're putting all kinds of pressure on him and now you know how does he react to that pressure? So they're always there always obstacles and we'll definitely remember we talked about character in search of his heart's desire against impossible odds so that is clearly a very important part of very important component of a story not just to have somebody wants something but tohave internal and external obstacles against it so it's a good question so we we want to ask ourselves what does the character want and we need to focus on that uh we need to have what I like to call a pole star which is that thing in the distance that is pulling the character toward it um you're uh san francisco team had an unfortunate outcome against seattle and the football league but uh but I want to think about for second about a football game okay, uh let's say you have one team okay? What does that team want? Do they want to score? They wantto score a touchdown, right? If there is if all you had on the field was that offensive team and they roll down the field and scored a touchdown but without a defensive team against that who would care right? Nobody is going to cheer and say wow, look what they did they know that if there was no team opposing them the important thing is that in football is that there is another team that is trying to do everything they possibly can to smash their hopes and dreams to prevent them from doing that as screenwriter's we have tto be kind of ventriloquists we have to be puppeteers that have our hands in both puppets we have to be the directors of the offense and the directors of the defense we have to think about part of our job is as the architect of this all is that we have to not only engender who the protagonist is, what he most does he or she most avidly desires and once but now do that last part of that definition of story put it against impossible odds make it be absolutely impossible for that character to achieve what he or she wants one of my favorite writers and directors guy named billy ray we did some wonderful, wonderful films mostly most likely captain phillips but before that a couple of small films but what he talks about that a character protectors must absolutely deplete himself or herself have absolutely nothing left at the end which means that there has to be some opposition against that that will absolutely come as close as possible to destroying him or her um think about think about rocky if you will at the very end of that fight right what does he want? He wants something very well if you want something very abstract and then something very specific the abstract thing is he wants not to be a loser. What on dh sometimes when we think about the themes of our story's way think about in those terms that's kind of an abstract cerebral notion not to be a loser well, who wants to be a losing nobody but what he did it it's a really terrific screenplay rocky eleven and twelve maybe not so much but but rocky one very very well written articulate screenplay which is hard to do about somebody who's inarticulate but what what he finds in that story the very specific thing that he finds his not wanting to be a loser is something very tangible and it's a good model for all of us to think about what he wanted was to go the distance with the champ and that is something very physical very tangible weaken see if he does or doesn't and in that ring in that last fifteenth round on dh nobody's ever gone the distance with the champion for is the premise and rocky and the other thing is he's never had his nose broken in that last round he endures all kinds of ordeal he's beaten his pummeled he almost goes down he does go down his eye has to be cut so that it can see his ring second say stay down stay down all the forces around him saying don't don't but he rises up against that and the end of that story he has endured that ordeal he has gone the distance with the champion proved to himself that he is not a loser so it is his desire now that is that is a desire that we can identify with there may be other movies a movie that I that I love him whether we were we call an anti hero is the movie called they have the jackal whether we're what the character is hired to do he's a hired cold blooded killer and he's hired to assassinate charles the goal well, you think, well, how can we empathize with that? And the beauty of the writing of that movie is that he's given difficult tasks moment to moment that he has to and that he has to accomplish and each one of them is impossible and and his his the ingenuity and sometimes the cold blooded ist with which he does it makes him not likeable but fascinating and where we are and the other thing is that on this is that this is a really good trick that when you want when you have a character that is reprehensible and you want to make him sympathetic you have to make you make everybody else around him worse uh well I think about the godfather just for a second to jump away from from uh day of the jackal for a moment in the godfather you have don kolia who's done this terrible terrible things right in the scene that that shapes this movie that which is kind of part of the inciting event that story we'll talk about what that means in the next upcoming lesson we're just in step three right now but we will on we'll talk about that and step for but in the godfather in that meeting all of them want to sell heroin and he says no this distinguishes him from them and we'll talk about the consequences of that but so you make everybody else around him worse in day of the jackal there is this the head of the french city day is a very pompous jerk on so even though he's representing something good trying to catch an assassin he's just such a jerk in the other guys so amazingly inventive that we are still fascinated with him the lovely skill in that movie is that halfway through that head of the certificates fired and a new guy takes over who's this little fussbudget that runs the police department some rural area in france and now he becomes the underdog because now the killer is lost in france and they they don't know where he is and now this guy has a has a mission impossible and he becomes the protagonist of that story so there's a there's an example by the way of shifting protagonist in a kind of way that you talked about um so are the questions that we have asked ourselves whose story is that what does the character want what will the character do how far will the characters go to achieve his goal uh again to deplete himself the other important thing is you want to make the character be the least qualified person in the world to accomplish what he or she wants it's another way of making that character be the underdog uh in romancing the stone very cool romantic comedy she has to go to south america to save her sister she says we've set up she's a romance a writer she lives this completely sheltered life and she has go someplace to do something impossible in jaws you know the guy's afraid of the water can't go in the water and then eventually has to be the person that goes out to try to kill the shark so who is the character? How? What does the character want? How do we make the character be, if not sympathetic, but fascinating to the to the audience?

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


fbuser 991773eb

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.