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Do You Need a Degree to Be a Screenwriter?

Updated on November 19, 2021
Kenna McHugh profile image

I work in the modeling and film industries, and I like to share insights into both businesses.

"Nobody Knows Nothing"

Screenwriter and novelist William Goldman wrote "nobody knows anything" in his bestseller, Adventures in the Screenwriting Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting. Hollywood jolted, agreed, and repeated those words as rites of passage for any fledgling screenwriter.

Thus, a fledgling screenwriter might ask, "Do I need a degree in Screenwriting to be a screenwriter?"

If you read Goldman's book, you might be inclined to think not. However, there is no harm in inquiring about UCLA and USC Screenwriting programs. The programs launch careers and attract hopefuls.

Screenwriting, How to Do It

Adventures in the Screenwriting Trade was written in 1982 and is a dated book. It's worth the read for anyone who is considering a career in the film industry, whether it be a screenwriter, producer, or director. Goldman is the wise mentor in his book on how to deal with dealing with Hollywood.

Goldman places you in his shoes and walks you on a journey -- an adventure where you observe, learn, and realize the hard work it honestly takes to succeed in Hollywood.

Be it on the set of Marathon Man with Lawrence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman or catching an unforgettable and poignant moment between the famous, then divorced, Hollywood couple Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood -- their ingenious scene written as a screenplay.

Is Luck and Timing Learned in a Classroom?

Goldman defines who is whom in Hollywood and the instrumental role in getting a film made or not made. Their roles in getting the film made. Something you most likely will not learn in a classroom.

He even talks of the legends such as Joseph Mankiewicz, John Huston, Billy Wilder, Sydney Pollack, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and Norman Jewison.

He talks of the difficulties in writing and rewriting notable movies, All the President's Men, Grand Hotel remake (never happened), and The Right Stuff. Losing deals and the sheer timing of getting the jobs back. Which offers the question: "Is luck and timing learned in a classroom?"

"Her heart was like a secret garden, and the walls were very high."

— "Princess Bride" by William Goodman

"Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"

Goldman includes his popular script, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with a five-chapter dissertation on weaknesses and strengths in the screenplay. Any screenwriter who reads these chapters learns multitudes of screenwriting tips.

Nevertheless, there is more. Three chapters strictly focus on adaptations in which Goldman uses one of his short stories as a model with critiques from major Hollywood players -- all the better for writers.

Goldman resonates with such words as, "And in movies, the screenwriter is the odd man out.

But there is a trade-off. That beginning lap we run, regardless of what happens later -- that lap is ours. We have the privilege, if you will, of the initial vision. We're the ones who first get to make the movie..."

I sensed a bit of cynicism, but who can't help but detect such skepticism if you had walked in his shoes.

Sundance: I can't swim!

Butch: Why, are you crazy? The fall'll probably kill you.

— "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" by William Goldman

"The Princess Bride"

Goldman wrote The Princess Bride, a 1973 fantasy romance novel, and is considered his best work. The story brings together romantic love, romance, comedy, adventure, fantasy, and fairy tales. The names of the characters alone bring great delight to my imagination. With names such as Buttercup, Inigo Montoya, Fezzik, Prince Humperdinck, it's fanciful. However, Westley is a common name.

I am awed by his talent because he not only writes screenplays but novels. He writes in different genres and not just a western or political thriller, which has made him famous. His work inspires me to write and to write well.

Screenwriting: Scenario Construction

Goldman makes a strong point as a screenwriter, but we need to master our craft by studying and practicing. Such as one of the first books on screenwriting is The Photoplay Handbook of Scenario Construction. It was published in 1923, in the time of silent films, a time before the word "screenwriter" existed. The advice in this early screenwriting book still applies today:

"Our ultimate purpose, as a photo playwright, is to arouse the emotions of the audience--to make them weep, to grip their hearts with pity, to thrill them, to make them laugh, and fear; and shed tears of joy. We strive to do these things utilizing the actions of the people we create. We make our characters struggle and suffer and win and lose in their fight for happiness. Every act of every character may be regarded as an effect."

Those words were correct in 1923, and they are today.

Screenwriting is writing your story with vision and action.
Screenwriting is writing your story with vision and action. | Source

Writing the Picture

Another great book about screenwriting is Screenwriting: Writing The Picture by Robin Russin and William Missouri Downs. It is a virtual screenwriting class for a fledgling screenwriter who wants to enroll in a college screenwriting program but can't for whatever reasons.

The college textbook starts with a professional view of how screenplays can be read and valued in the industry. It moves onto chapters dealing with the character, theme, and story environment.

Then, there are six complete chapters on story structure from historical approaches to how genre influences the form of screenwriting.

The book also devotes chapters to pitching, rewriting, and creating a career and television and playwriting as viable alternatives or adjuncts to writing for movies.

Top Screenwriting Program

Russin and Downs both received their Master of Fine Arts in screenwriting from UCLA. The university's screenwriting program is the top program in the country, including notable alumni as Michael Webb, Michael Colleary, Jonathan Hensleigh, and Ed Solomon. Russin and Downs each won the Jack Nicholson Award for excellence in the field.

Russin wrote, produced, and directed for television, theater, and movies. Downs, an award-winning playwright, has sold feature screenplays and written as a freelance and staff writer on TV.

I talked with both Russin and Downs about screenwriting and invited them to interview their vast knowledge of screenwriting. I took copious notes while we kept ourselves pumped with drinks.

Talking with Robin Russin and William Missouri Downs

Both working writers and teachers, "Bill and I were frustrated by the many books out there that approached the process of writing from an 'after the fact' standpoint," explains Russin. "They attempt to show how a script should be written by taking something finished and assuming that by critically dissecting it, a writer can then figure out how to create something new."

Russin believes this approach is helpful and can be used to some extent. "It doesn't really get at the core problems encountered by someone who is approaching the blank page, trying to get a handle on what and why and how he or she should be writing. There's far too much 'if you write it, they will come' pie in the sky cheerleading, and far too little hardcore advice on how to make sure your script will not only be artistically successful but survive in the marketplace."

Royce Hall is the defining image of UCLA.
Royce Hall is the defining image of UCLA. | Source

Create Characters, Dialogue, Environment, and Structure

They wrote the book because of so many unfortunate quality books on screenwriting out there. "We wanted a book that concentrated on all techniques, not just one method of writing a screenplay. Our book covers just about anything you want to know about screenwriting," explains Downs.

Russin agrees, "Probably the most valuable aspect of the book is that we go into much more specific detail than most in terms of how to create characters, dialogue, environment, and especially structure."

The heart of our book is a six-chapter section devoted to how the structure works on a deep level, not a rather superficial, put-a-plot-point-on-this-page approach. "Most books out there push a specific formula to be imposed on the screenplay. After years of both writing and teaching, Bill and I came to realize that in fact, no formula--even the hallowed three-act structure applies to every screenplay, or even to most of them," explains Russin.

Familiar Formulas

"These are straitjacketed approaches to a fluid, organic process, and so we wanted to come up with something that would free the writer to create in new and inventive ways. But we also included a very detailed description of the various familiar formulas, both because it's important to know the terminology and expectations of producers who are familiar with those formulas and because our philosophy is that whatever gets the job done is the right approach."

"The book is a graduate-level college textbook on screenwriting. It covers the whole spectrum. That is the book's most valuable aspect," concludes Downs.

Screenwriter Dan Gilroy

Below is an interview with a talented screenwriter and director, Dan Gilroy. His writing credits include Two for the Money and The Bourne Legacy. In the interview, he talks about making movies and the art of screenwriting.

Dan Gilroy Writer & Director - Talks about Attraction in Stories

Start Writing Screenplays

It's up to you to decide to go to college and get your degree in screenwriting or start writing screenplays. Either way, you still need to write a script to be a screenwriter. The more you write, the better you will become as a screenwriter.

© 2007 Kenna McHugh


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