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Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft

Lesson 9 of 18

Tools for Shaping Your Script

Hal Ackerman

Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft

Hal Ackerman

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Lesson Info

9. Tools for Shaping Your Script

Lesson Info

Tools for Shaping Your Script

There there are several tools that I have devised that I think that will help us find all of the stuff necessary to formulate our full movie story all the events in our movie story and the order in which they are most effectively placed too yield what we want which is a cathartic emotional response from an audience at first they'll be just readers reading the script eventually we hope of course millions and millions of people who will be watching it and coming out about theater related or depressed or you know however we want them to feel at the end of it. Um so um so we've talked about what you know who the protagonist is, what the protagonist most wants and now now what we have to do is start coming up with all of the events that are going to be in our story and an exercise that we you know, the thing that we did when we were talking about our six words story and I just started asking you questions asking you know what if what if this aziz said the words what if our really most magic...

al words that we can think of because it they are the words that free our imagination and the mohr provocative we ask ourselves in those kinds of questions the more wide reaching our answers are going to be and you know as we start a cz we wait did in that little exercise earlier on dh we started coming up with people that didn't exist who had lives that previous to vote didn't exist I mean that's just so absolutely amazing but that is indeed what the creative process is it is unleashing stuff and you know if you were sitting there with you know with the head of chase manhattan I promise you that he would not be able to have come up with creative answers that you that because not everybody's mind works in the same way that creative people creative people's minds work this is what makes us different from civilians this is what makes us who we are as artists and the important thing for us is to challenge ourselves to ask us all these questions and this so the first notion is I brought this little slinky here and I love the sound of it I love the feel of it on deacon go downstairs and everything but what but when I when I like about it is that it has all these turnings here and I want to call them coils but since I come from brooklyn whenever I say the word coil I think I'm trying to say the word curl but having a brooklyn accent to it so I say turnings instead you know it was a coil with a coil all right but if we think about if we think about the very first turning of our slinking as the circumstance in which we meet our protagonist for the first time in the story you know how we how did we meet don corleone how do we need michael carly it's michael story and then if we think about the last turning of that slinking and we think about who that character is now that really is the story the story is how that car character got from point a over here to point z over year all the things you could think about each of these turnings as another event along the way and and we could also think about you know, this has a nice little arc to it, but if we think of the terrain put in front of this glass here if we think of the terrain that resides underneath that arc that is the terrain of the story the story is how that character gets from there two there uh so that defines both the beginning and the end of our story I mean, if if I'm moving to new york back to new york a couple of weeks going to be driving across country so there's my three acts okay, I'm starting oh starting in l a and I'm winding up in new york where am I going to stop along the way? What am I going to do? How how how closely am I going to plan my trip on dh I like to do things kind of spontaneously and just kind of see what happens my wife is much more unorganized person so it's very likely that she might pre plan particular places where we might stop for me I'm saying you know I think well let's just wait and see what happens that is true of many of us we all have different tolerances for uncertainty there's no one right answer there's no one right key to sing any song and you might you might like a you might be like the flat no right answer but as we plan our stories each of you may have different needs tohave ah lot of things absolutely laid out and some of you might like to leave it a little bit more fluid and flowing on dh allow uncertainty to prevail all those things are fine but what is important is having really the key places laid out for yourselves so so using this sort of slinky just as you know it is a kind of a metaphorical example the next really important tool is called snowplowing this is kind of tedious but it is absolutely invaluable on dh the way the notion of snowplow he won't see my some of you maybe have grown up with there's no snow just white stuff that sometimes you and they're like bulldozes the things that push it away all right um I'm thinking about that what what what the way that the notion of snowplowing works it is requires of you that you will sit down at your writing place during the time that you have blocked out on your writing schedule uh and you will commit yourself that for the next forty five min it's your pen or whatever you're writing implement is your fingers on the computer will absolutely not stop moving no matter what no matter what I will not stop tau worry when that's up to evaluate that stuff not stuff to criticize it will not stop to be editorial you will just keep blurting out everything that you could think of about your story everything that happens now before you start it's probable if you know if you are ready to start thinking about a movie story it's probable that you have in your mind a sense of what the story is going to be you probably know who the protagonist is you probably have a sense of what's this a kind of a sense of what is going to happen in the story it's very likely that you know how the story's going to begin right? You probably know the first couple of scenes probably how it's going to start so start with that what happens now remember that nobody in the universe will ever look at this it doesn't have to be grammatical isn't he spelled right doesn't have anything nobody's going to read this ever except you so you can shorthand however you do it but this happens and then this happens and you just writing this happens she does this she does that this happens oh uh something something pops into your mind you never thought of write that down just keep going keep going do not judge, do not cross out do not evaluate do not do anything except your disgorging your disgorging and one of the amazing things that happens to writers when you're doing this is you get warm you become a typing machine you become a writing machine just like way when I started asking questions about your six words story stuff came out that you had nothing thought about before and so this is going to start to happen and you might get stuck in a particular moment you may reach a dead end don't worry about it jumped someplace else you know you know that something else could have this moment where it is it could be way over there start writing that retrofit back keep going it doesn't matter don't stop just keep going this happens this happens this happens something there will be some magnetic force it maybe maybe a very weak of magnetism that is guiding you somewhere you have some sense whether you have articulated or not about where the story is going, where it's going to end what it is pulling the character toward I call it the pole star it is pulling you may have a clear view of it. It may be a dim view the magnet the magnificent might be strong. It might be weak it's guiding you toward itself. Um so that is the first step of the snowplow. Just write everything down. You may have to do this two or three or four or five times until you finally push through from the atlantic to the pacific. Okay, each time you start this snowplow don't pick up where you left off started again you may go over material if you've done the first time that's all right, you may add to it because you're new right or the next day you may come up with lines of dialogue you may have things change, you may go off very different direction. Don't worry about it. Just go wherever your instinct shows you tells you and pulls you eventually you will finally get to the end. Okay? It may take you four five, six seven attempts at this that's fine that's perfectly fine. The next important step is to now convert to take all of the events that you can remember that that you have snow plowed all the things that happened and write an individual seeing card for each of those events you may have fifty, you may have two hundred um here is one particular, uh example of a scene card, and it just says don kali refuses to commit murder. Okay, what I'd like you to do is just put the key event, and you can write in capital letters just right on the very top of the scene card. So what? What you're doing is is making one brick for every narrative event. Now, there may be some scenes, that's all you know what, that moment, there may be other scenes where, you know, you know something, mohr, and so you could use that scene card because, like, this is the opening scene in the godfather, but maybe, you know, maybe, and maybe in the in the story, that you're thinking about a great idea, you have foreseen that that might happen deep into the, you know, deep into the story in the third act someplace, but a great line of dialogue has come to you while you were writing that and a great twist in a great way to write that scene, use this scene card to make a note for yourself right on it, because as great as pardon me, as great as that idea is, by the time he's, not too right, it might be two months later, you might forget about it, it might just go out of your mind it might have just been that one moment of brilliance so use the scene cards to keep any piece of information that will help you to write that scene when it comes time to write it. Okay, so now you have a big pile and now you can look back through the earlier scenes earlier snow plans that you've done and see gino there some scenes in there that I that I forgot about wow, those are pretty good. Let me let me write that down so now you have you might have a stack of seen cards and they may be in random order because they're just you know, they just you just wrote it down in the way that they came to your mind. Right? So now I try to put them into as much as you possibly can into a narrative linear order a sequential order from beginning toward end that there's still just existing as a pile. Now comes the fun part this comes the fun point now we are going I'm gonna flip this uh uh, board around. We're going to now find the structure of our movie we are going to now lay are seen cards out in not just linear order remember earlier we talked about that that a movie has roughly one hundred ten pages to it, okay, all right um, and we looked at that scene, oh, graham and we were talking about the each of those columns, each of those main box is all right, so now we're going to take what we learned from the scene, o gram, and now we're going to do the this is the hardest part what we're about to do now, and this is a I have found that scene cards are the absolutely grandest, most versatile it for me. Most effective device for structuring story. Now, everyone has different ideas about about how to do it. A lot of people love to use step out lines. I'm going to tell you why I love to use seen cards and all the tools that you know, that I'm going to give you that other people might have. You need to have your own what I call a writer's tool box that you carry along with you and whatever tools find thatyou here, either from me or, you know, in this course, or from anybody else, and there many, many possible tools, the ones that that you find most effective for you, the ones that should go into your writer's tool box. I'm an advocate for the scene cars, and I'm gonna tell you how I use them, and I think that you will find a very effective so what you what you see here are one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven yes there are eleven columns of cards right here. Okay, if you think about each of these columns of these cards being when you write on them being the events that will in each column that will equal ten pages of script when you write them so you have page ten twenty thirty you can multiply ten times eleven it comes out to this is your hundred and ten page screenplay. So what we're thinking the next task the way to use these cards is tau set them up in columns with the notion that when you write these scenes they are going teo each column is going to represent ten pages of script. Okay, now there's a caveat to that that the bottom card win this case here they're green I I like to use blue I don't know why blue's my favorite color I guess I'm a little color blind then I could see blue better but the bottom card in each of these scenes in each of these columns and most of these have have four or five cards in them this one thiss actually going toe turn around a little bit later and the's actually this is actually seen cards for the movie juno but roughly because each scene when we write them averages and again it's never exact but most scenes air about two pages most scenes were about two pages they averaged out to that over the long run so column with you know like four, five six cards in them is roughly for the most part going to be ten pages of script. This column here has morning because some of these scenes specifically in this movie are very, very short things but the important thing structurally this is important because it's not just four or five or six random cards but the bottom card is the most important one in each of these college that's. Why that's why I give it a different color? The bottom card in each of these columns me is the key event that all these other ones are leading up to. So when we use that example in the godfather of michael says, I'm with you now pop and michael says, you know michael decides that he is going to be the one that make the killing and that michael actually kills them. These are going to be what I call the blue carter in this case the green card scenes that each of the scenes all that the whole sequence is leading up to, okay, so again, you know, if we want to use that that slinky again, you know this is that this would be the first turning of that slinky into sequence and this will be the last turning of that slinky in the sequence. So the sequence is going from here to here just a second sequence is going from here and it's leading to hear it's not just a random, arbitrary group of ten pages, but it is ten pages leading up to a key event. And then this third one here and each of these bottom cards would be the event that goes into those those corresponding boxes in the scene. O gram so this would be in that first box will be in the second box and this would be the box that exact one. Now we have in act two it's a longer act. Somebody once I think, was michelangelo that said that all of our bodies are built into sevenths where they could be divided, and from here to here is one seventh and here here's five seven and then how many? Seven so left too uh and so similarly, a screen plate has a proportion to it. And the first act is roughly actually, we can say the first act and the third act together almost equal about the distance of the second act roughly a second act is almost usually almost always ah lot longer so in this example here first act would be somewhere around thirty pages first that it is going to be ending roughly again roughly around page thirty it's flexible right? It could be twenty five twenty eight could be thirty two thirty three in your first screenplays. It's very important that your work for the readers looks as close to a classic structures of ken what they're two different sets of rules that govern how screenplays written one set of rules applies to people who have already made a million dollars for scripts they've sold and the other set of rules applies to the rest of us I mean stu so so the people that are going to be reading your scripts, you know, in a very practical way of thinking about it are not steven spielberg are not the head of production of of fox, but are people that have graduated film school two years ago who want to keep the job you want to pass your script on or say no to it and you want to give them no reasons to say no or a few reasons they know as possible one reason that would that would give them to say no would be that that it is structured poorly, so you want to use this tool to give yourself the best possible structure. There were several other uses for the for the scene cards, and those are if you have subplots. If you have counter plots, you can use different colored seen cars in here. Let's say you have a story that has murder in it, you know, a detective story and a romance. All of one color cards might be for the main story and the romance you might use yellow cards, so you could show that it flows naturally through the story that you don't lose. It there's a lot of letters from ways. Another very important thing is, since we know that this is going to be ten pages. If you have one of these columns that has, like fifteen cards in it, and each of those scenes are significant scenes, you know that that cannot possibly cannot possibly fit into ten pages. So before you even start writing, you can start toe manipulate. You can start to combine, eliminate, move stuff around, be inventive, use initiative and find ways to make sure that since this is this is your mark, this is where you have to hit. This is the important scene, making sure that it gets to that place at the right time.

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.