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Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft

Lesson 5 of 18

What Makes a Compelling Story?

Hal Ackerman

Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft

Hal Ackerman

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Lesson Info

5. What Makes a Compelling Story?

Lesson Info

What Makes a Compelling Story?

These kinds of things that were, you know, that just spontaneously asking the kinds of questions that we want to start asking ourselves on, we're going when we start talking about story itself, thes questions that came up here just sort of about non existent stories are gonna be the same kinds of stories that we're going to ask ourselves about our protagonist and about all of the characters and people that surround that person, because sometimes when we, when we come up with a movie idea, we have a very narrow view of it, you know, we sort of think about thematic, always a coming of age story of somebody who used to be shy and now is confident, you know, you know, somebody that it was a bad baseball player and became a good baseball player, and sometimes that story line becomes very narrow, and we think about it only in terms of what we want toe happen, what, you know, the sort of thematic understanding of what is the most narrow through line of that story, but what we sometimes forget...

to do is realize that these characters have lives totally surrounding them, people in their lives, you know, like ellie was talking about the woman that was smoking well, at first, it was just a story about the photographer, and then we sort of gave that other personal life and you know and all because the pig unfortunately didn't have to with your life but but went on to give life but but but the cup of these kinds of questions are things that we want to ask so that we can just enrich the fullness of the experience that surrounds our character because a very important word for all of our vocabularies and we've all heard this one we went to school the word verisimilitude and what it means is giving the appearance of truth uh similar tude very embarrassing truth and similar tude being similar to and and part of how we do that is by creating an environment that surrounds our character that israel emotionally psychologically narratively um but what one of the stories that we want to tell what one of the things that are like from that anne lamont quote that we talked about earlier what are the things that are meaningful to us? What are one of the things that are pushing against us that we sometimes pushback against um you know, when you when you were in a restaurant um you you know, there's people all around and, you know, table next year something hey, how is he that was fine? How about yours always find, you know, kind of boring you or listen to that but maybe two tables over there's a woman it takes us you know her glass of water and throws it in the face of the guy with her said you slept with her I'm goingto you're going to listen to that story okay uh what you shot that cat with that bb gun what um all of us uh I'm not just the people three tables away you know have done things that we're not proud of all of us have done things you know we have our dating profile you know that's the emissary that we send out to the world you know what makes us the most attractive candidate for a relationship but there's that other side of us there is the hannibal lecter side of us there is the down carl young side of us and it's very important I think that we don't just you know what when we create our characters and we create a story that that our stories are not just about our slide shows seventy you know those are very nice you know yeah we saw that big eyes oh yeah we saw that bear but yeah uh oh here's another view of that bear oh and look at that guy's no, but look at it from this angle no hears that okay gets a little bit boring but the story about when you slept with your girlfriend's boyfriend that I want to hear about on dh so all of us have done things in our lives is that when we think that when we think about them it physically makes our bodies just cringe jj and I gave you ah list of a couple of real doozies that that a minister if you have this list but I'll read a few to you uh that I've gleaned from the years of my students sneezed on my newborn sister and nearly killed her pick mushrooms off cow dung and eighth um uh farted in yoga with my mom explain to my dad why I wanted to wear a thong yeah stepped on a screw and sawed go through my foot demand that a reward for finding a dead cat I know broke into people's homes let an artist plaster cast of my body ah made out with I love this one made out with a preacher's daughter in the laundry room yes why the laundry room met a man on a plane on the way to visiting his wife and yes told my mother I wish you were dead purposely didn't answer the phone when best friend called the day before he died smoked catnip shot my sister with a bb gun slept with married men uh so I've asked all of you and you know it would be great and great exercise for all of you folks watching this to make a list of those things for yourself on dh you know, hear these courageous people are actually going to reid there's out loud you lucky folks could do it in the quietness of your of your home but the important thing is really to be honest and to be open about it because if you just give your your slide show to yosemite that's not going to be really interesting so let's let's just go around here and let's hear uh who who would like to start first and get it over with or shall I just choose to keep everybody in their highest level of anxiety? Okay, okay, here we go. So like when I first discovered how to masturbate I told my cousin through a mme and then immediately signed off why we'll ask techniques a little bit later on um my first blowjob was um in my high school's bathroom. Okay, okay um okay, I won't ask that question get next. Yeah um maybe I will ask given or gotten um uh so I was like yeah blurted out baby yeah drunk and experienced came too quickly so I just left early um and then I had sex with a girl I just met a munich I'm beauty under munich on the beauty acts on them you near you I met her on the munich way one of those I had earlier with somebody had sex in a mini cooper which is almost the same but well to yours smaller tio hardiman ever since your insects on the munich alright if we're on the topic of sex I had sex in the toy store I worked at inside a fake mountain ah that train's going around it while we were open interesting and that was this with ah an old acquaintance or so it was with my coworker who I was dating who I had gotten a job they're at the toy store was good um uh another one is I knew my friends stopped taking the medicine that was keeping her alive and didn't say anything about her I mean only to her um I served them some cocktails and they had no idea that I was on acid. Uh um I threw a rock at the patrol car and cracked the window nice good arm. I was ten time e I catalyzed roommates moving out by insisting that my other roommates choose between us great one more I don't know a that's a lot of a lot of fringe there e yes, I'm jumping around. Oh yes, because I want to keep you on the high level of anxiety uh only had to that I was there that I dare write down one was I was caught by my high school crush stalking him at his house I was in an open convertible at the time not too smart welcome teo exactly not good at it andi I've never done it since because of that on then the everything more recently I had my laptop stolen so I had to upload all my photos from the backup and I uploaded it them on tio my boyfriend's computer not really realizing what was on there and all these naked pictures of an ex boyfriend popped up one by one by one by one as he stood there behind me yeah, if I may ask what was his next thought he was silent that's why I knew it was bad and did he become your export friends? No no my current wow. Very good boy my gosh and well that's it e all right and to you now is this the same when you stalked? No, no, no, I was in high school. Okay, okay. Uh okay um first blood stream down my face after the tip of a knife iron fell on my head and I like an ironing board ironed yeah oh my god! And he was like six wow um shots fired heard my mother scream my baby my baby my second one ah, I studied right before an exam e ah like everybody you terrible terrible next one is I was in I was in church and was flirting with this boy because I was walking in tripped was bearing down no but it was I might as well okay good, good, good good number four and that was that was for those four give it yeah counting the studying yeah yeah, that was that was three okay think saw climber bleed to death on mount mckinley and, uh this one thes other two are interesting because they touched me personally really personally I remember my dad he was a man of few words and I'm probably my whole life I've only had six conversations with him but I remember a conversation he had with me when I was but fourteen about the birds and the bees really cringe worthy for me. What do you say it was just I was so uncomfortable with the idea of sex at that age and then that it just came out of the blue I just wasn't prepared for it I just I just remember it would be a very cringe worthy event for them that eh uh huh yeah. Another cringe worthy moment is I remember the first time I sw I saw my mom and dad have sex wow, that would blew my mind. You know, I just wasn't prepared for that one in there. Did they call you in the demonstration or no, I remember the birds and being okay here's just barge in the room in the middle of the day was just wow just like parents having sex disgusting yeah on dh how did they deal with it I just remember it being really quick I just remember close the door and getting out as soon as I could weigh never talked about it after that never no, I don't know do we want that remember probably that's the one that sticks out who remembers when there were fourteen that was so long ago um and the fourth one is I remember I crashed I had a head on collision on a fire road outside of yellowstone in the back on the wilderness you know, one lane fire out, you don't expect another card come around the corner it's there's no money on these fire roads, you know, bam him on collision I remember that thinking wow, time just kind of slowed down the reason I've asked you to come up with all of these because for a lot of reasons but but all of these things that you said have have a lot of a lot of powerful emotion that are attached to all of them and one of the things that we I sort of skirted around a little bit about when we talked about our definition of story, which is really amazingly important part of it all is you know, it touches a little bit about what you know about what we all talked about what you specifically mentioned about you know about having emotion about caring about about a character is that is that stories? They're not just sequence of events they're not just things that happen to have happened, but there are things that their stories that have powerful emotions attached to them back in the back on the ancient greeks when they talked about the notion of catharsis what I'm talking about is the release of pity and terror and that really hasn't changed the notion of catharsis what it means is, you know, in our in our jargon it means stories having an emotional connection to our audience we want our audience to care about our characters and if they and and in order for the audience to care and to feel what happens them we ourselves have to feel it and we have to be ableto put our feelings into our stories into our characters because if they aren't there, then they're not gonna be there for the audience to to receive and one of the things one of the difficult things about being a writer is accessing that in her life that inner part of ourselves the places where emotions reside because when we live our civilian lives you know we live with teflon how are you all fine, thanks how you doing? Oh, ok, you know, you know, you don't necessarily say, oh, you know, I just found out that my mother has terminal cancer oh, I just, you know, you know what all what whatever the terrible things that may be happening because we try to you know we're taught to go through life with a kind of a semi smile on our face everything's cool we're doing okay and that's fine for a civilian lives but as writers we have to be open wounds and it's hard to go between the two you know to go into our writing you know into our writing schedule to the places where we become writers and open that a way to take that stuff away but it is the essence of what makes stories have their pulse and we have to as writers be able to be able to do that for ourselves and it's painful because you know some of the stuff that we've talked about are not things that you talked about him and I want to thank you again really for being as open and frank and honest and give all the disclosure that you have I know it's not easy you know we're kind of strangers and you know and and few folks that are you know that they're watching this you know it's it's you know it's not easy to do but it's really important for all of us to be ableto access the artist part of us there there goes into everything the art on the craft we're going to talk in the in our next session about the craft about how we take this stuff, this raw stuff that we're talking about, and how did now start crafting this into the needs and precepts of the three hour movie structure. So that but the art part, the craft part is teachable. And we will learn all that in these next upcoming steps. The art part. That is what distinguishes somebody who really wants to be an artist from somebody who would kind of think. Maybe they'd like to but don't have the courage to and part of what you folks are all demonstrating. And what all of us have to do is tow. Have that courage to reveal the, you know, the less favorable things about ourselves.

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.