Why Take a Screenwriting Class? by Ted Houser

A screenwriting class will give you the tools to turn your idea into a finished script.

Sometimes when I’m out in the world and I mention to someone that I’m a filmmaker, they respond by giving me their screenplay pitch- “I’ve got this great idea for a movie.” I’m quite used to it by now. Although I’ve heard my share of bad ideas, many of these ideas actually turn out to be good ones. I know it's a good idea if it grabs my attention and makes me want to read it as a finished script.

But how does this person actually write that script from their original idea? The process can be a very long and lonely journey. Some people choose to start that journey entirely on their own. Anyone can do it; it usually involves throwing some money down on the program Final Draft and buying one of 10,000 books on screenwriting. Others choose to go to film school or take a class on screenwriting.

So why should someone take a class on screenwriting?

A good screenwriting class will help you with many things. It'll teach you basics like screenplay structure and formatting, and it will also teach you more essential things, like how to channel your own personal expression into your work. A good instructor will work as both a teacher and a coach to fulfill the potential of your good idea.

Also, writers are born procrastinators (I’m speaking from personal experience) so an added benefit of my Writing Workshops Detroit Screenwriting Class is that there’s a structure to it: we meet once a week for 8 weeks. This structure and community-like setting will keep you motivated and help you finish what you start. As I said earlier, it’s a long journey to turn an idea into a screenplay. I’ve been teaching screenwriting for many years and I hope I can start you on your journey of finishing your first screenplay.  

The Starting Point – Short Screenplay Writing by Toni Cunningham

Why short screenplays?

This is a question I asked myself when I was putting together my workshop description for Writing Workshops Detroit.  Why not “writing strong female characters” or “writing well-rounded minority characters”. While the answer is pretty clear for me, keep an eye out, as those are two additional topics that I would love to tackle. In the meantime, I can not underplay the importance of short screenplays in my journey.

Shorts are at the crux of how I learned to write screenplays. When you sit down to outline a 90-page feature, there are specific rules you need to follow. Plot points, page breaks, timeline beats – and all of those things can be overwhelming if it is your first time trying to structure a story. Shorts allow you to hit the main aspects of storytelling and perfect them before moving on to something a bit more challenging, like a feature or a pilot.

In How to Get to The End: A Short Screenwriting Seminar, the aim is to remove all of the outlying obstacles from your path and just concentrate on the story. By providing three prompts, it forces you to narrow in on the specifics very early on while brainstorming. Beyond that, a 5-page short does not allow for a lot of superfluous detail and description. It depends on you to quickly and skillfully get to the point. You will find that you are self-editing as you go, making cuts that might be painful, but in the end, necessary. Your story will thank you.

If you are a filmmaker or an aspiring filmmaker, a short can be your best calling card. Think about that when brainstorming or outlining. Keep a budget in mind. Maybe your short takes place in one location, with fewer than 3 characters. Or perhaps, you are more concerned with being known for your writing alone. In that case, create a world worthy of a Peter Jackson budget and throw caution to the wind. Either way, know what you want to do before your fingers ever hit the keyboard.

Obviously, a 3-hour seminar is not a ton of time to write a short. However, it is just enough time to get your first draft written. Don’t worry if you are over on pages or if you are unable to finish. Just know that you have dedicated this time to be create something out of nothing and be proud of what you have accomplished.

Feedback is one of the most important things a screenwriter can receive. And if your goal is to work through Hollywood, you better believe you will get a ton of it. With that in mind, I will encourage students to share their stories with the rest of the class via email for everyone to read on their own time and give notes. You are not required to do this, but it is an option. Everyone who sends me their short at the end of the workshop will receive full coverage on it within 2 weeks.

I can’t wait to get started! Hope to see you there. .

Form & Structure in the Personal Essay by Lori Tucker-Sullivan

Thanks to talented writers like Leslie Jamison, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Roxane Gay, the personal essay is having a day. A review of recent New York Times Bestseller lists, or lists of top books of 2016 or 2017, is very likely to include compilations by Sullivan, Gay, and other essayists like Sarah Gerard or Samantha Irby. It’s difficult to say why essays are becoming so popular, but I think it has to do with a few factors, including the rise of blogging as a way to express one’s thoughts or reactions to events, and an increased need to explore life’s questions in a communal way. That is, while I may think I know a thing or two about life, I also have a great curiosity to know what others—those like me and those unlike me—have to say as well. As a genre, the essay provides fertile ground for provoking exploration and new considerations.

Crafting such an essay isn’t easy. Forget what you learned in your sixth-grade Language Arts class. In addition to be longer than five paragraphs, the contemporary personal essay provides the reader with a moving lens through which she might consider a particular topic. Using vivid language, scene-setting, structure, dialogue, and other elements borrowed from fiction, the essay writer takes a subject and considers it from many angles, thereby crafting that lens for the reader. The best essays do so in such a way that the personal becomes, at least somewhat, universal; the writer’s experiences, though very personal, are relatable to readers but also nudge the reader toward new considerations. Rarely is there a tidy, simple answer at the end, as the best essays leave the questions edgy and jagged rather than smoothed down; a tidy package wrapped in a bow is rarely provocative. These are all things we will explore in my upcoming 8-Week Form & Structure Workshop in the Personal Essay.

Jamison, in writing about the “how-to” of essay, once said, “I write. . . because I’m fascinated by the ways personal experience connects to larger histories, and because I want my writing to matter to the people who read it—people who are, by definition, not me. Which raises one of the crucial questions of autobiographical writing: How can the confession of personal experience create something that resonates beyond itself?” This, I think, is one of the most important questions for the essay writer.  

When thinking about how to approach a topic for an essay in a way that allows the personal experience to become resonant, the writer pulls information from multiple sources: personal experience yes, but also perhaps reportage, scientific facts or figures, pop culture elements, and others’ experiences. A good essay, I feel, contains more questions than answers. It poses the “why” or the “what should I think?” or “what can we do?” of the particular situation.

The key to the successful essay is then figuring out how to braid or weave these various questions, viewpoints, and pieces of information into a coherent and compelling work that, returning to the lens metaphor, takes the reader from the very small and personal, focused perspective, to the broader, wide-angled consideration.

I recently became very interested in the plight of the mother orca who carried her dead calf on her forehead for 18 days, far longer than was normal. Several stories were published about the orca, with marine biologists, Native American tribal members (who follow the orcas off the coast of WA), and others debating why the whale would not drop her deceased calf into the ocean as is usually the case. Was it a symptom of the sick ocean waters, a byproduct of a lack of food sources, extreme grief, or a simple quirk of nature? I am a mother whose youngest child is entering adulthood. That child is studying environmental science and has a deep concern for the wellbeing of our planet. I am a widow with an understanding of all-consuming grief and the irrational need to hold both physical and ephemeral representations of a lost loved one. The whale was named Telequah by the Lummi Nation tribe. My grandmother was born in Tellico, TN, a town originally named Telequah by the Cherokees who first lived there. She was blinded as a child but went on to attend college, marry and have a family. When my grandmother’s infant son died of measles, she held him for most of a day, unaware that he had passed, or perhaps unwilling to accept that truth. My own mother, who witnessed this event as a four-year-old, didn’t understand and would never know the real answer.

I have been playing with an essay that weaves together all of these disparate elements: my own personal tragedy, the ancestral tragedy of my grandmother and her child (an old story connected to a current-day story through this coincidence of a name), the broader tragedies we are all bringing to bear on our planet and how they are shown to us through the actions of a mother whale, the grief of loss but also of letting go of a child who is now an adult, and finally, the terrible finality of saying goodbye one last time. What can we learn from each other’s grief? How can we better understand the distinctly individual timing of saying goodbye and moving on?

While I don’t know if this will ever result in publication, the pleasure is really in the work and the crafting. It is why I love the essay as a writing genre. Weaving these perspectives and stories together into a coherent piece that explores, questions, suggests, enlightens, and questions some more, is both the challenge and the joy of writing the personal essay.

Click on the button below to learn more about my upcoming 8-Week Form & Structure Workshop in the Personal Essay.

Looking for Talented Writers Who Want to Teach Creative Writing!

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Do you like being tethered to the craft concerns of teaching creative writing in order to fuel your own creative practice? Do you enjoy mentoring emerging writers? Giving great feedback on work and creating lessons that help students grow into the kind of writers they dream of becoming? If you're passionate about these things, have a track record of publication and have experience teaching fiction, poetry, nonfiction or screenwriting, we'd love to talk to you.

To let you know a little more about Writing Workshops Detroit, in general we'll offer two kinds of classes for creative writers:

  • One-time seminars on Sunday afternoons/evenings that cover either the craft of writing or the business of writing and last about 2.5 hours. Seminar topics will be updated on a rolling basis, and we'd like to offer a seminar a few Sundays each month. Let us know what kinds of topics you're passionate about presenting.
  • 8-Week Writing Workshops that meet once a week for two or two and a half hours each on a dedicated night of the week, ideally from 6:30PM-8:30PM or 7:00PM-9:00PM, for eight weeks straight. Our classes will meet at Bamboo Detroit downtown. What kind of workshop would you teach?

If you have any interest in teaching a workshop or offering a craft seminar we'd love to talk with you. You can see our current list of Instructors here.

We're open to your ideas for great course offerings. We follow the passion of our teaching artists, and we like to try new things at Writing Workshops Detroit. Tell us how you'd like to be part of our growing creative writing community in 2018 and beyond. Introduce yourself via the button below. We look forward to hearing from you!