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Screenwriting Seminars Really Necessary

First, writers often (mistakenly) interchange “story” and “structure.” These are two separate elements of the writing process. Story is the creative experience that only you can uniquely express from your vision. Structure is the foundation for that story, and the rules of structure have been accepted for thousands of years. The easiest way to grasp the distinction is to think of a dinner party. What you cook is entirely up to you (story). But you must serve your guests the appetizer first, then the entrĂ©e, then the dessert, in that order, and those dishes have to complement each other (structure). If not, no matter how great the food is, your guests are going to think you have no idea how to make dinner. And they won’t come back to dine with you again. Writing seminars tend to focus on teaching structure, NOT story, so that creative genius has a chance of being understood and enjoyed by buyers and audiences who innately expect a certain foundation to a script. And story instincts can be honed and expanded with professional guidance, as well.

Second, virtually all professions have rules for writing. Just as lawyers must learn proper structure and format for legal briefs and programmers do the same with software code, screenwriters must learn and apply rules of structure and format to screenplays. Most professions have training expectations, too. Just as no one is going to give you $100,000 to perform open heart surgery on a patient just because you’ve always dreamed of being a doctor, no one is going to give you $100,000 to write a script just because it’s your lifelong fantasy. Doctors, lawyers and other professionals get degrees and regularly attend seminars to maintain their chops and their edge, and so do writers. No matter how strongly emerging writers believe that Hollywood is a get-rich-quick-with-no-effort industry, in order to succeed, you will have to replace that belief with the simple acceptance of show business as a business.

There simply is no benefit to railing against the industry’s insistence that writers get some training before they attempt to get paid for their work. Any time you are asking someone to pay you, you must anticipate their establishing rules for that income. If you don’t want to have to learn the insider rules, the simplest solution is to write for free. But if you want to sell your work, just as in any other business, you have to respect the guidelines. The good news is that the rules of writing get far more flexible after a first sale!

Third, it’s common for people to mistrust writing teachers as unnecessary snake oil salespeople who are not personally successful themselves. Yes, the rules of story structure that Hollywood subscribes to are fairly standard. The laws of physics are standard, too, but not many people easily grasp and apply them! Training helps writers master the rules so they can craft solid scripts that can actually be sold. And just as you learned better from some teachers than others in high school, you will find in the variety of books and workshops at least one approach to structure that will help you effectively integrate it into your work.

Remember, selling a script is neither a requirement for nor a guarantee of being able to teach screenwriting. I’ve produced many writing panels and seminars, and many successful screenwriters lack the communications skills and the clarity of process to adequately guide another writer to a successful script. For my part, I teach from the point-of-view of the buyer instead because that was my background and because my personal business strategy is to always understand what the person who writes the check is looking for. Believe this – whatever an individual teacher’s approach, the ability to teach a subject well enough for students to grasp it is its own gift.