Screenwriting 101

By Melissa Coleman

There’s this thing that happens when you publish a first book—people suddenly assume you know what you’re doing. Truth is, after all those years of struggle and reward, you may have figured out the first one but that doesn’t make the next any easier. Herein, the tale of how a screenwriting class helped ease the pain.

About eight months following the successful publication of my first book, the new story I wanted to write was withering under attempts to bring it to life on the page. Days were short, dark, and unproductive, yet nights long and fulfilling—having, as I was, an affair with Netflix until it was too late to get up early and write the next day. This ensued for a mini eternity until one morning, after watching movies back-to-back until 2am, I woke with clarity: what I needed to write was a screenplay(!). And the only problem—that I’d never written a screenplay before—felt like an opportunity. That is how I found myself seated around the table of Mark Fogarty’s excellent “Beyond Hollywood Structure” ten-week Grub Street class.

The transition from prose to script, I discover, is not unlike learning to snowboard when you already know how to ski. You can get up and carving pretty quickly, but have to put in some serious time to master a double McTwist. The cool thing for beginners, however, is that Syd Field and others have boiled screenwriting down to a science. (This is why everyone has a screenplay in a drawer somewhere.) There’s even a neat little formula Mark gives us for that indispensable 25-word elevator pitch, the logline:


  • describe the protagonist + the inciting incident + the objective


Who knew it could be so easy? Past attempts to explain my writing projects were often rambling monologues grasping for a concept of which even I was uncertain. Now everything becomes a logline: An author (protagonist) gets writer’s block (inciting incident) which leads her to take a screenwriting class and confront what’s holding her back from writing another book (objective).

We also learn that most movies, according to Syd and as explained by Mark, consist of Act I (the setup), Act II (the confrontation), and Act III (the resolution). Within this structure are the following elements:


  1. Inciting Incident – occurs in the first ten minutes to change course of protagonist’s life (ie: Melissa gets writer’s block.)

  2. Plot Point I – about 27 minutes into the movie at end of Act I the protagonist embarks on a journey with a specific objective (Melissa takes a screenwriting class.)

  3. Act II – a series of escalating incidents where protagonist tries, but doesn’t quite succeed in reaching objective (Melissa struggles unsuccessfully to write screenplay.)

  4. Plot Point II – the darkest moment when all seems lost, at end of Act II (Melissa realizes screenplay sucks and all is for naught.)

  5. The Big Change – when protagonist learns knowledge needed to reach objective (Melissa gains deeper understanding of concepts of storytelling.)

  6. Resolution – when objective is reached, or not, near end of Act III (Melissa finally completes brilliant screenplay. Or: Melissa puts aside screenplay and uses concepts from class to write next book.)


Simple, right? Luckily, no—not exactly. The creative process is never simple, nor should it be. You still have to develop great characters that evoke love/compassion or disgust/frustration and learn something important in the process that changes them, and you. But the cool thing about screenplay structure is that the tenets of a dramatic narrative can enhance any medium, from personal essay to blog post, and even, the next book. Taking Mark’s class not only helped crack my writer’s block, but clarified something I knew instinctively, though didn’t fully understand—what makes a story work, and why.

And so, the nugget, in the words of Qi Gong Master T.K. Shih: “You must empty yourself to receive. Even if you already know something, still be a student.”

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Screenwriting

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