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Can Scriptwriting Be Taught? By Samuel Caine

I’m trying to resist the temptation to shock you all now, by saying ‘I don’t think it can’, but I can’t resist and I’m going to say it anyway: no, I don’t think it can. I still think writing courses are very useful though. If you think I’m mad, get in line, but hear me out first.
Here are 6 problems with teaching scriptwriting, but why you should do a writing course ANYWAY:

1. Talent is innate …

This is an oft-cited criticism of creative courses. ‘You can’t learn to be an artist’. As cynical as I am, I’m not entirely convinced of this. However, I do think that there are some things you simply cannot learn. I have a couple of writing buddies that could come up with 100 ideas for stories in a matter of hours. I am in constant awe of how many ideas they can produce – this doesn’t mean that all the ideas are actually good, but being that creative is a skill in its own right, and one that can’t be learned…

… BUT talent is overrated.

Wow, that makes me sound bitter and talentless, but my point is a serious one. Even if talent is innate, that doesn’t take away from the fact that every single person on the course I’m on has become a better writer. Even though I want to ignore every ‘rule’ of writing I’ve ever heard, the fact that I am conscious of their existence makes me a much more thoughtful and considered.

2. Everyone has a different POV on what is “good” writing …

‘Good’ is completely subjective. Whenever we’re told that something is ‘good’, we all accept that it is only ‘good’ in the eyes of the person that is saying it. There is no universal good. So how do marking lecturers separate taste from objectivity when marking something? Admittedly, it’s difficult. When reading scripts myself, I’ve often audibly groaned at concepts that don’t interest me and said ‘oooh’ when I like the sound of something. Our individual tastes always AMPLIFY our feelings about a script…

… BUT ‘amplification’ is all that it is.

Taste aside, a well read script reader knows a ‘good’ script and a ‘bad’ script. Good scripts stand out, for one reason or another, from all the other derivative stuff that floats around. I’m not a huge fan of romcoms, but some AMAZING romcoms have crossed my desk. Writing is deeply personal and we’re all too willing to dismiss criticisms as ‘just’ being the other person’s opinion. Whilst there is no objectivity in reading and writing, I can guarantee that a professional script reader is a lot more objective about the pros and cons of a piece than the person that wrote it. Listening to criticism, even through occasionally gritted teeth, is a great way to learn about your own work.

3. The industry is constantly changing … 

How can you teach someone something that’s in a constant state of flux? Is it not like trying to learn exactly where all the clouds are in the sky? The industry is a moving beast, there is no doubt about that. Things drift in an out of favour, and even the most ‘finger on the pulse’ courses will remain a while behind the curve on the industry.

… BUT does that mean we should only endeavour to learn things that are static?

Particle physics is constantly changing too. It doesn’t make studying it any less relevant. Writing changes less than you might think, and is less ‘random change’ and more ‘sustained evolution’. Big changes, like new mediums, such as writing for interactive media or videogames DO impact writing courses. Any good course will try to keep evolving in the same way that the industry does.

4. We don’t like to be told …

This isn’t a generalisation. I’ve never met a writer who’s said ‘I love people tell me where I’m going wrong!’. Well, I suppose I have, but they were definitely lying. One of the biggest obstacles for learning scriptwriting is that people simply do not like to be told where they’re going wrong. It’s not dissimilar to somebody telling you that you’re raising your child badly. It can be offensive and upsetting and is more likely to cause you to ask ‘who the hell are you?!’ than wonder if they might have a point.

… BUT that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be.

There’s only so long you can put your hands over your ears and adopt the ‘LA LA LA I’M NOT LISTENING’ approach on a writing course. If you’re writing spec scripts and firing them off in to the industry, you’ll rarely hear where you’re going wrong and if you do, you might say ‘well they just don’t GET me’. You can still accuse the people marking your scripts of not ‘getting’ you or your style, but that won’t improve your marks. Sooner or later you’re going to pay attention and you’ll learn from your mistakes.

5. Mistakes are made through practice …

If learning comes from mistakes, then you need to make a lot of mistakes. The best way to do this is to practice. Practice a lot. Write all the time. Write right now. You can practice whenever you want. You don’t need a course to write, so I’m not even going to pretend that you can’t learn in your own time…

… BUT you’ll have to be your own whip-hand.

One of the best things about being on a writing course is the deadlines. My fellow students wince at the very word, but what better way to test your professionalism than to have someone launch a disturbingly large amount of work at you, with set-in-stone hand in dates? You will have to practice and you will have to practice a lot, even when you’re ‘not in the mood’.

6. You have to learn about a bunch of stuff that you hate …

Yep. You do. You absolutely do. There is not one person on my course that could tell you they have enjoyed every single project and brief they’ve been set. I for one, nearly vomited with apprehension at the thought of being put to work with a bunch of people from other courses, and writing for them. Oh, and don’t get me started on that time I had to design a series based on the RNLI… I could barely contain my contempt for the brief.

… BUT we don’t always know what’s best for ourselves.

The two projects I just mentioned have been my two most successful pieces of work to date, both for my own development and in terms of marks. Oh, and they were great fun. Being forced to work on things you THINK might be dull and uninspiring sounds terrible, but as a writer and creative, making it exciting and inspiring is YOUR job. Most briefs are surprisingly flexible and you can easily find yourself having fun working on something that sounded terrible at first.

For all the problems with teaching scriptwriting, I still think that most writers can learn a lot from a writing course!


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  1. Pingback: 7 Writing “Debates” To Avoid In 2013 | Bang2Write

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