My early notes are a lot more barebones than the ones I took when I knew other people would be reading them, but here we go!
It is also worth noting that although everything here is stated very definitively, the course runner has been very clear that these 'rules' are not set in stone - but the course is about getting the tools you need to work as a professional in the industry. You can play around and do whatever you want, and sometimes you'll have a stroke of genius which defies these 'rules', but that doesn't make them any less useful to learn - especially as a novice.Introduction
There are three narration families.
Classical: Linear storytelling in which rules are established and followed, seen through the eyes of one character in order to allow us to penetrate their mind.
Non-Classical: A more modern form which is concerned with showing how the author sees the world – there are no rules which must remain set in stone. The audience is often deliberately alienated and prevented from identifying with any particular character.
Documentary: Purports to show the world as it actually is with as little author input as possible.
This course is primarily concerned with teaching classical screenwriting.Classical Narration
A continuous chain of cause and effect is known to the author and usually the audience.
Consistent rules which do not change.
Protagonist is active.
Several or No protagonist
Often a passive protagonist
Open Ending – No attempt to resolve a story.
Non-Linear time is common.
Note that these rules are per storyline not necessarily per script
Non-Classical elements have become increasingly common in otherwise classical scripts – particularly flashbacks/flashforwards, but most of the elements of classical storytelling have not changed for thousands of years.Basic Glossary
Protagonist – Main Character – MC
World – “Group” – Setting
Goal – Desire to be obtained by the Protagonist
Obstacle – Some reason the goal is not met immediately.
Solution – How the protagonist overcomes the obstacle.
Resolution – How it is all tied up.
Drama – The discrepancy between what is expected and what actually happens.
There are two goals in every story – what is Wanted – the explicit goal of the character, and what is Needed – the inner and implicit aims which make up the more compelling subtext to the story.
A story can only be successful if it says more than it shows – it is by engaging with and unpacking the story that the audience feels like participants rather than voyeurs. The Log Line
A log line is an elevator pitch summary which is used to boil down a story to its key, compelling elements. It almost always takes the form:
(Name), an (adjectives) (function) in a (setting) tries to (achieve goal) despite (obstacle) (hint as to solution/further obstacles/resolution)
All stories need a Goal and an Obstacle. If you have these two elements, you have the engine which drives the rest of the plot.
A Goal implies a Want and a Need – sometimes the Need can be the obstacle, sometimes the Main Character can be after the wrong Goal and change it over the course of the story.
We must understand the motivation behind the goal – so long as we understand why the character is seeking what they are seeking, we can empathise with them. If we don’t understand what the goal is, we lose interest in the story.
The main character in a story is the character who makes the most meaningful decisions – this can be useful to keep in mind when trying to understand stories.
Character traits should be chosen to heighten conflict.
What is at stake in a story drives the intent of the character.
There are 9 types of story.
1. Monster in the House – There is some sort of unstoppable doom coming to the protagonist as a result of their sins. Very common in horror stories.
2. Whydunit – There is a mystery to be solved! The reason behind the crime is more important than the specifics of the crime, thus whydunit instead of whodunit.
3. Superhero – Someone is placed apart from the common man by an extraordinary gift and uses it to make the world a better place.
4. Quest – A journey is undertaken; the changes that the character undergoes on the journey is the focus, not the destination.
5. John Doe in Trouble – An everyman is thrust into a life or death situation and must rise to meet the challenge. Or die.
6. Buddy/Love Story – Two characters complete one another but are kept apart/there is friction to be resolved.
7. Underdog – Helpless individual is thrust up against the establishment and has to struggle against their social status/relative powerlessness.
8. Rite of Passage – Stories about life’s major conflicts – adolescence, mid life crises, death and addiction.
9. I vs The Group – Someone struggles to become accepted by a clique.Main Characters
Characterization is what makes a story more interesting than the log line. Any story can be boiled down to its very basics and sound dull; it is the characters which elevate it.
Our story should be the worst case scenario for the main character.
We must establish that there is a chance for a good outcome – but everything should be difficult and there should always be a price to be paid.
The stakes are used to show the commitment of the character to the goal.
As a visual medium, the first few seconds of film should attempt to establish the goal of the story and set the tone for the audience – every small action taken tells us something about the kind of person we are trying to relate to, especially early on.First impressions are important in real life and in movies!
The main character is the lynchpin of the plot; a bad plot can be made compelling with a good main character, a good plot can never survive a bad main character.
Remember that what we do (and how we do it) is a huge part of ‘who we are’.
The main character must be the most effective one for the goal/obstacle challenge – they must be active.
There are three common archetypes for main characters (although some are blends of the three)
1. ‘Cinderella’ – Those who are victims in their situation
2. ‘Aladdin’ – Those who have issues they must resolve (criminals etc)
3. ‘Don Quixote’ – Those who are driven by ideals
There are three types of conflict.
1. Inner – Conflict with the self.
2. Personal – Conflict with friends/family.
3. External – Conflict with strangers/authority/’The Group’
There are five levels of intimacy. These relate to intimacies you want your audience to feel for your character, not between characters (although the relationships between characters are an important way of building intimacies)
1. Intellectual – What is their outlook on life? Can we relate to their way of seeing the world?
2. Emotional – What are their emotions? Can we relate to how they feel?
3. Physical – How do they look? Do we feel sympathy/empathy/jealousy?
4. Sexual – What is their love life like? Do we understand it?
5. Spiritual – What is their inner life? Their relationship to God/the community/a higher power?
It is useful to think of how the character acts in the three spheres of life to help build these intimacies.
1. At home – What’s their family situation like? Where/how do they live?
2. At Work – How do they make their living?
3. At play – Friends? Hobbies? How do they relax?
This should be the focus of the opening (10-15 minutes). You won’t cover everything – otherwise it risks feeling like a catalogue – but you should cover what is relevant to the story.
Character flaws are a useful tool for building empathy – they are essential to making characters relatable.
Watched this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTUgUEpqBrA
This was coupled with the log line ‘Worm transforms into a monster’.
Whilst a decent log line in theory, in practice there’s nothing interesting about a worm – we need more character traits which is what we’re working on going forward. The character, not the situation, is what makes a story really great.
The situation is the objective drama
The drama arising from the main character (subject) is the subjective drama
Subjective drama is founded and reliant on what the audience knows/expects from the main character.Three Act Story
It can be useful to think of a character’s arc as being split into three phases (or worlds) which generally follow a few particular common threads.
Inciting IncidentWorld 1
In denial of any issues
This is the status quo
Usually unconscious of goals/needsWorld 2
Mirror image – nothing seems familiar.
Forced to address issues
No access to friends/relations or they can’t help
Fully conscious of goals/needsWorld 3
Combines the best of world one and world two to create a new, better character.
The inciting incident is the event which forced the character to confront and address their issues – both conscious and unconscious. This is plot point 1.
World 1 is comfortable but not ‘right’. World 2 gets gradually worse and worse – until the character hits rock bottom, and finds a spark of hope. This is plot point 2 or the ‘culmination moment’.
In the final stage we see the character has been transformed into a new self, better equipped to deal with the reality of their situation ad having resolved their issues.
This is the three act structure and it is very difficult to write a good story which does not follow this progression arc for the main character. This is because the three act structure mirrors the way we approach real life problem solving.
W1 W2 W3
Denial > Acceptance > Outcome
World 2 should take approximately 50% of the screen time.
The rule still applies – confront your main character with the worst case scenario at every possible turn. Try to give them a mirror in secondary characters, hold up their worst excesses to revolt them and the qualities they lack to make them feel guilty.
Plot Point 1 signals the end of act 1 and shows the Main Character’s intent to engage with the ongoing plot – at this point they begin to fight back against their situation rather than accepting it.
The character arc should follow the same logical progression as the story arc.
There should also be points where the reason for the character’s motivations are implied or made explicit, but this should be handled carefully – avoid being deterministic (oh they are hurt because of this particular childhood trauma) – interpretation can be a powerful tool and audiences react badly to what they perceive as an ‘unrelatable’ explicit connection between events in the past determining events in the future.