Dramatic Screenwriting: Professor Julia Lesage

Course Objectives:

The purpose of the course is to learn about film and television screenplay structure, analyze dramatic strategies in film and television, learn and apply correct script form, and creatively engage in the various stages of original scriptwriting. The assignments will include the writing of scenes, a treatment and a half-hour script, with special emphasis on the steps leading toward creating a final screenplay.

Screenwriting has as a prerequisite a course in media aesthetics or film history; acting experience; or video production experience. Students who have done television or video production through journalism or cable access will also be familiar with the technical terms needed to write screenplays. The course places an emphasis on analyzing dramatic structure and visualizing dramatic elements. Such an emphasis is important since anyone working in a creative or executive capacity in the media industry needs to know immediately what good dramatic material is and how best to present it in audio and visual terms. Your screenwriting will carefully present expressive visual elements.

This course teaches dramatic screenwriting. The class will let you understand the dramatic formula for creating successful film and television fiction. It does not teach how to make films that depend on shock value, bloodshed, or vulgarity. Although certain writers and directors who rely on sensory shock value are currently doing very well in Hollywood, your scripts must have the dignity worthy of a university setting. I will not accept writing that relies on gratuitous violence, sexual and racial stereotypes, prolonged explicit sex scenes, or excessive vulgarity. You can do comedy or action-adventure or deal with controversial themes, but the basis of your work must be writing with a good dramatic structure. And you will learn how to develop good dramatic structure in this class.

During the class sessions, I will go over key points from the readings, using DVD clips to illustrate those points. Since the purpose of the in-class screenings is pedagogic, I will talk over the videotapes to point out dramatic and cinematic strategies.

A key element of your learning experience comes from discussing your work with me during office hours. At certain times, this is required (see below). Other times you will come in for a consultation because you want to revise your work for a higher grade. You can raise your grade on any paper except the final project by revising it, after talking with me on how to improve it. Revisions are due within two weeks after you get the paper back, and the final day to hand in revisions is Thursday, March 10, the last day of class.

Many books on scriptwriting and by writers are in the library. These give hints and ideas for screenwriting and for analyzing dramatic structure. Other books tell a lot about the technical aspects of media production. And there are many original screenplays of original movies. Go frequently to browse.

Expectations and requirements:

You will have seven written and one oral assignments, with their percentage of the final grade stated below for each. Late papers will be penalized one letter grade for each week they are late. Complete instructions will be given for each assignment in class closer to the due date, but if you wish to work ahead of schedule, you can come in and discuss a future assignment with your instructor.

The writing done in class will be oriented toward scene writing, the writing of a treatment for a half hour dramatic fiction, and the writing of a screenplay from that treatment. You will have two required consultations with me. The first consultation will prepare you for writing the treatment. For this meeting, you will bring in a written “spine” to discuss with me in terms of developing that idea into a treatment. Everyone will write a treatment (see more on this below, and more instructions will be handed out closer to the date). This consultation will take place by appointment.

The second required consultation will be for your final project, a screenplay for a 28-min. drama. You will have this appointment with me in the last two weeks of class.

If any of you have a screenplay you are already working on, I am available to direct independent study for those who complete this course. Usually, for the writing of a dramatic fiction, the student will spend one quarter of independent study writing the treatment and one quarter doing the screenplay itself. However, some students do a whole script in one term of independent study.

All students must do their written work for this class on computers. Much of what you have to do involves correct script formatting, done easier on a computer. And the computer spell-checker is a life saver. Since you will be working in a very demanding and competitive field, there is no room for grammatical and spelling errors in your work. If you know you are weak in these areas, pay a friend who is a good writer $5 to proofread all your work. Spelling, grammar, and script form errors will be graded off severely in this course.

I will be teaching you a particular script format in class, and that is the one you must follow exactly. If you have a computer program that does script formatting, you will have to alter it so you follow the one taught in class.

The final paper will be due Wednesday of exam week, March 17, handed in to my office under my door by 9 a.m. There will be no final exam. After the final papers are turned in, everyone will be assigned a grade. There will be no incompletes.


The main texts for the course are these:

Screenplay: Writing the Picture (2003) by Robin Russin and William Downs. Referred to below as Russin. This is the main text, and where the two texts disagree on formatting or terminology, this is the one we will follow.

Story Sense: Writing Story and Script or Feature Films and Television by Paul Lucey. Referred to below as Lucey. Lucey has some serious errors about formatting, which I will try to point out in class.


Team Formation and Functioning: Students will be placed into one of five teams the first day of class, and they will stay in the same team throughout the term. By the second day of class, they will have chosen a name for their team based on the name of a screenwriter or screenwriter/director. The teams will each lead one day of class discussion on the readings and the topic for the day. They may show clips to discuss the topic or a half hour film or TV fictional show. I have a number of such shows you can preview and choose from, or you can tape a show off television.

Team Presentations: One team presents the class discussion on a designated day. The students from a specific team will present the readings and other aspects of the day’s topic, stimulating class discussion. They will each speak and give a specific presentation. At the end of class, each member will hand in a written summary of what s/he said. The grade will be based on effectiveness in presentation and in leading discussion, and on the written statement handed in (1-2 typed pages per person).

In the classroom presentation, each of the readings should be summarized, and key issues or questions raised for class discussion, applying the readings to films the team members have seen out of class. An analysis of a good script may be prepared by one or more of the team members and read to the class as a discussion starter (more scripts are in the library). A team member or two may summarize ideas related to this topic from screenwriting books in the library. Also, one or two team member should address the larger issue that is the topic for the week, indicate briefly how other films or TV programs deal with that topic. The team may bring in clips to initiate discussion or propose specific questions or ideas for the class to consider. The team may want to pass out a list of films or readings related to the week's topic that they recommend classmates pursue on their own.

I will pass out a sheet telling some possible ways to make a presentation and also offering some hints on how to get discussion moving. I will also be available, especially by email or in office hours to help team members prepare their collective and individual presentations. If a team needs my help, they should come to me in advance of the class period itself..

The team grade for the presentation will be based on how effective the team is in getting the class to consider the main ideas in the reading and the screenwriting topic under consideration.

During the discussion, I will explain difficult points, if necessary, or summarize some debates that have occurred in film criticism around these topics or films. If it seems useful, I will write out notes to distribute to the class as a follow up.


Week 1: 1/4-6:

Tuesday: Course handouts, goals, procedures, grading policy.

Discuss correct script form. See scene from a film that is shown and discussed in class. Take notes to write up the scene's script in correct form. Oral presentations assigned [5% of grade]. These will be explained below.

Readings: Russin, Chapter 2, "Format"; Lucey, Chapter 10, “Script Format for Feature Films.” If authors disagree, follow Russin.

Thursday: Class exercise on conflicts.

Readings: Russin, Chapter 7, "Power and Conflict.”

Week 2: 1/11-13:

Tuesday. Class exercises on conflicts, developing the ideas to include the three act climaxes.

Readings: Russin, Chapter 3, "Theme, Meaning and Emotion"; Lucey, Chapter 2, “Building the Story Structure.”

Script of scene analyzed in class last week is due in correct script format: 5% of final grade.

Thursday. Finding your dramatic center. Overview of dramatic structure.

Readings: Russin, Chapter 6, “Historical Approaches to Structure” and Chapter 7, “Power and Conflict.” Lucey, Chapter 3, "Writing the Plot."

Writing exercise: write five "spines" for dramatic fictions. That is, you will write the dramatic spines for five different screen dramas, of any genre. Follow the format in Russin, exercise #1 on the Three Act Formula, p. 106. Set up your spine for each film just as he has it there, repeating his words and adding your sentences. Do this five times for five film plots. Do not be goofy in your ideas for film plots, but take this seriously and develop ideas that you could be committed to developing and that viewers would find interesting; the plot structures should be have conflicts and problems that are engaging emotionally. This will be due Tuesday, typed, double space. (10% of final grade)

Week 3: 1/18-20:

Tuesday. Scene construction, types of scenes and the organization of time.

Readings: Russin, Chapter 8, “Beats, Scenes, Sequences.” [use this concept of beat.]

* Team Presentation 1: Effective Scenes (oral presentations are 5% of grade)

Thursday. Dramatic progression and dramatic economy within a scene. Practice in writing a scene with obstacles. Scene on overcoming obstacles assigned. Due Tuesday, week 4, 1/27, at beginning of class.

“Spines” exercise due: 10% of grade.

Readings: Lucey, Chapter 4, “Scene Structure and the Basic Dramatic Units”; Lucey, Chapter 7, “Dramatization.”

Week 4: 1/25-27:

Tuesday. Dialogue.

Next scene assignment given, taking place at a workplace, with family members coming to visit, and incorporating a subtext. 3-5 pp. double spaced. Due Tuesday of week 5, 2/3.

Readings: Russin, Chapter 13, "Dialogue"; Lucey, Chapter 6, “Dialogue and Character.”

Scene on overcoming obstacles is due, 10% of grade, 3-5 pages, in correct script form.

Thursday. Instructions for writing your treatment. Discuss writing a treatment, and make appointment with teacher. Handout for outlining the beats in each scene of the treatment. How to make scene cards. Note: on pp. 370-376, Russin gives a treatment or story outline for an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air

* Team Presentation 2: Good Dialogue

Readings: Handouts of sample treatments. Russin, Chapter 9, “Scene Cards.”

Week 5. 2/1-3:

Tuesday. Subplots, b-storylines, complex structure.

Reading: Handout on complex structure.

* Team Presentation 3:  B-storylines and Subplots

Workplace and family, subtext scene due, in correct script form: 10% of grade.

Thursday. More on complex structure. Note use of scene cards for this.

Reading: Lucey, Chapter 5, “Creating Emotionally Dimensional Characters.”

Week 6. 2/8-10:

Tuesday. See film to analyze dramatic structure.

Thursday. Finish seeing the film. Analyzing the complex structure, b-storyline(s), and subplots of your own treatment.

Reading: Russin, Chapter 11, “The Structure of Genres”

Week 7. 2/15-17:

Tuesday. Treatment due: 20% of final grade. This is 8-10 pp. of prose description, written in present tense, for an original screenplay. It may be for a fiction film, video, or television program. It can be an adaptation from literature or an episode in a tv series. Follow the instructions given in class. You must consult with me about this project a week or two in advance.

In-class writers' workshop with students writing critiques and suggestions about each others' treatments with an eye toward revising and then writing the final screenplay.

Thursday. Screen directions and writing visually. Discussion of imagery and set or locale in scripting. Construction of cinematic space. Making the set speak.

* Team Presentation 4: Dramatic Use of Locale and Cinematic Space

Readings: Russin, Chapter 12, “Narrative“; Lucey, Chapter 9, "Writing Stage Directions."

Week 8. 2/22-24:

Tuesday. Establishing mood through mise en scene and camera work. More work on writing visually in your screenplay.

Readings: Lucey, Chapter 8, "Writing for the Camera."

Thursday. Begin discussion of characters and dramatic structure. Value of character biographies. Ways to get "into" your characters. Character biography assignment, 5 pp. double spaced. Instructions will be given in class, due Thursday, 3/4.

Reading: Russin, Chapter 5, "Character." Lucey, Chapter 4, "The World of the Story."

Week 9. 3/1-3:

Tuesday. Analyze the characters in your treatment.

* Team Presentation 5: Effective Characterization

Thursday. Character biography [10% of grade] due, 5 pp. In paragraph form, double spaced.

Week 10. 3/8-10:

Tuesday. Work on scene outline, pacing.

* Team Presentation 6: Fast Pacing in a Scene

Thursday. Rewriting.

Reading: Russin, Chapter 14, "Rewriting." Lucey, Chapter 11, "Rewriting."

Final project: Write an original screenplay of 25-30 pages for a fictional film or television program. This must be based on the treatment which you wrote earlier It is due on Wednesday, Mar. 16,in Lesage's office 357 PLC by 9 a.m. Slip the script under the door. The script is worth 30% of final grade.

To prepare for the final project, the students must attend a workshop with professor Lesage for the screenplay project beforehand. Students who do not do this can receive a maximum grade of C- on their final project at best.No late papers for final screenplay will be accepted. No incompletes will be given as a course grade.

Anyone who plagiarizes at any time will automatically get an F.