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Do You Need a Degree to Be a Screenwriter?

Updated on April 11, 2019
Kenna McHugh profile image

Kenna wrote and directed several plays, taught acting for kids. She is a former talent scout, and at times directs or performs.

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 repeats 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 UCLA and USC Screenwriting programs. The programs launch careers and attract hopefuls.

Adventures in the Screenwriting Trade was written in 1982 and is a dated book. In spite of its dated material, 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.

Goldman defines who is whom in Hollywood, and the instrumental role they play 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?"

William Goldman

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 cynicism if you had walked in his shoes.

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 tale. The names of the characters alone bring great delight to my imagination. Think about it with names such as Buttercup, Inigo Montoya, Fezzik, Prince Humperdinck, and Westley. Westley is somewhat a common name, but the others are fanciful.

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

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 proffered 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 by means of 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.

Writing the Picture

Another great book about screenwriting is Screenwriting: Writing The Picture by Robin Russin and William Missouri Downs is a virtual screenwriting class and A fledgling screenwriter who wants to enroll in a college screenwriting program, but can't for whatever reasons, needs this book. The college textbook starts with a professional view of how screenplays are read and regarded in the industry. It moves onto chapters dealing with the character, theme, and story environment. Then, there are six full chapters on story structure, from historical approaches to how genre influences the structure.

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

Russin and Downs both received their Master of Fine Art's in screenwriting from UCLA, the top program in the country with such notable alumni as Michael Webb, Michael Colleary, Jonathan Hensleigh, and Ed Solomon, and both 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 both as a freelance and staff writer in television.

I talked with both Russin and Downs about screenwriting and invited them for an interview on 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 are working writers who happen to be 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."

They wrote the book because of so many poor 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, and 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.

"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.

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 screenplay to be a screenwriter. The more you write, the better you will be as a screenwriter.

© 2007 Kenna McHugh

Comments

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    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      3 weeks ago from Northern California

      Thanks for conversing with me. I love talking about screenwriting and such.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      3 weeks ago

      Understood.

    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      3 weeks ago from Northern California

      By talent, I mean they can write beautiful prose. By structure, I mean they had no format or blueprint of writing a screenplay.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      3 weeks ago

      Talent in the sense of a knack for doing things, such as following an odd set of rules.

    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      3 weeks ago from Northern California

      Talent and screenwriting structure are two different things. Screenwriting structure is following formate and keeping within the rules of screenwriting. Talent is the ability to write prose well.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      3 weeks ago

      It could be a talent thing. Some authors may have had a natural talent for writing for both book and movies.

    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      3 weeks ago from Northern California

      You are welcome. I am surprised about Dorthy Parker because she wrote with such wit. Then there is Emma Thompson's "Sense and Sensibility."

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      3 weeks ago

      Thank you. It does seem it might have been more than structure to it. I remember the rule use to be to avoid having the person who wrote the book write the screenplay. I can see where a great work of literature can be directly transposed into a screenplay and end up being a plodding movie.

    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      3 weeks ago from Northern California

      During the Golden Age of Hollywood, the studios needed worthwhile stories, so they sent for the notable writers of the time. We are talking about Fitzgerald, Parker, and Hamet, to name a few. Because screenwriting is a technology or tightly-structured that these writers were not familiar with it drove them to exasperation. They failed terribly. The studios did not educate them on proper screenwriting technology, so that made it even worse.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      3 weeks ago

      Can you expand on that "ruining the great writers" a bit?

    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      4 weeks ago from Northern California

      True. Screenwriting is nothing but structure. It ruined the great writers of the 20s - 50s until someone figured out to teach them.

    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      7 months ago from Northern California

      Tim, That is a great track record. What is your genre and titles?

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      7 months ago

      Congratulations Tim.

    • bat115 profile image

      Tim 

      7 months ago from Los Angeles, CA

      What an informative Hub!

      I can say from experience that not having a degree hasn't stopped me from being a Screenwriter. I have sold a couple specs and was hired to write a couple more and this year I will have 2 in production, 1 under my own direction.

    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      7 months ago from Northern California

      It goes without saying, King wasn't talking about HP. Two HP articles a day are a bit of work. It is not just writing. HP requires images, tables, and so forth. Two words a day is productive in any media.

    • Leland Johnson profile image

      Leland Johnson 

      7 months ago from Midland MI

      One more thought- that's inspiring because 2,000 words a day amount to 2 hubs a day. Very productive!

    • Leland Johnson profile image

      Leland Johnson 

      7 months ago from Midland MI

      Kenna- Good advice. I actually read, and still have somewhere, King's book. Yes, Louis Braille created the writing system for the blind of the same name. He was a remarkable man who is vastly understudied and underappreciated.

    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      7 months ago from Northern California

      Hey Leland, I am not familiar with Louis Braille. Did he create Braille for the blind? William Goldman's book needs to be read by all aspiring screenwriters. Stephen King's book is the next one to read. In all honesty, writing every day and writing some more every day is the key to success. I believe, Stephen King wrote/said "Read and write 4 - 6 hours a day. Write 2000 words a day."

    • Leland Johnson profile image

      Leland Johnson 

      7 months ago from Midland MI

      This is a great article. The title grabbed me right away as I've had aspirations of writing a screenplay about Louis Braille. I'm inspired! I've never heard of these industry moguls but I'm sure reading their work would be valuable to anyone trying to nudge their way into the industry.

      Cheers!

    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      8 months ago from Northern California

      C.M. Some people do go the safe route and get a "normal" job while writing off hours. If the passion is there, they write.

    • profile image

      C.M. 

      8 months ago

      Screenwriting sounds like a great job, but it is too much work, and how do I know I will succeed. I'd rather be safe and have a job with a steady paycheck.

    • profile image

      Jen 

      8 months ago

      I found this article on screenwriting thorough and helpful. Goldman, may he RIP, was a brilliant writer. Names like Buttercup and Humperdink is pure imagination and wit.

    • Natalie Frank profile image

      Natalie Frank 

      13 months ago from Chicago, IL

      Great article and all the examples really strengthen it. My mom keeps saying she can't understand why I don't just "write a movie," ever since she saw an article about two people who wrote a screenplay and managed to actually sell it for a million bucks. I can't seem to impress upon her that not everyone who writes passably well can write and sell a screen play and certainly not for big bucks! Thanks for the interesting read.

    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      15 months ago from Northern California

      Dale, Thank you for reading. I have met and worked with screenwriters. They are an interesting breed because they get caught up in the Hollywood scene compared to novel or fiction writers. For the most part, if they last, the come down to earth and are humbled. Goodman is a fine example of a screenwriter that has lasted in the business for a long time. His book is worth reading.

    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 

      15 months ago from The High Seas

      I had a lot of fun reading this hub of yours. I have met a lot of screenwriters, ranging from good to inexplicable (!) but all of them were interesting characters. The ability to spin a good yarn that keeps people interested and involved is almost magical to me.

    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      2 years ago from Northern California

      You are welcome. I am amazed and awed by the fact that Goldman shares so openly about his career and the business.

    • Robert Sacchi profile image

      Robert Sacchi 

      2 years ago

      Thank you, these sources seem good starting points for an aspiring screenwriter. I am impressed Goldman would write about the good and bad in his own screenplay, especially one as successful as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

    • Kenna McHugh profile imageAUTHOR

      Kenna McHugh 

      7 years ago from Northern California

      Ruby,

      Thanks for posting! Good luck in your career, too!

    • Rubysprings profile image

      Rubysprings 

      7 years ago

      Very interesting article, as I am an undergraduate student wondering if I should apply to USC screenwriting graduate program. Thanks for the great read!

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