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Do you need a degree to be a screenwriter?

Updated on July 7, 2017

William Goldman

Nobody Knows Nothing

Screenwriter/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 fledging screenwriter might ask, "Do I really 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. These programs have their successes, which they predictably and rightly boast to entice wannabes to their programs.

Adventures in the Screenwriting Trade was written in 1982 and is clearly a dated book. In spite of its dated material, it's worth the read for anyone who is considering a career in film 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 famous, then divorced, Hollywood couple Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood -- their scene ingeniously 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. Something you most likely will not learn in a classroom. What their roles are when a film is made.

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: "Luck and Timing is that learned in a classroom?"

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 would learn multitudes just reading these chapters.

Nevertheless, there is more. Three chapters dedicated to 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 fine 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. His work inspires me to write and to write well.

Scenario Construction

Goldman has a point as a screenwriter, but we still can 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" had even been invented. The advice given 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.'

This was true in 1923 and it is still true today.

Writing the Picture

Another really great book about screenwriting is Screenwriting: Writing The Picture by Robin Russin and William Missouri Downs is a virtual screenwriting class and should be read by any fledgling screenwriter who would love to enroll in a college screenwriting program but can't for whatever reasons. A college textbook starts with an insiders' look at how screenplays are read and regarded in the industry, and moves onto comprehensive chapters dealing with the character, theme and story environment, and then devotes six full chapters to story structure, from historic approaches to how genre affects 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 MFA's in screenwriting from UCLA, the top program in the country with such notable alumni as Michael Werb, Michael Colleary, Jonathan Hensleigh and Ed Solomon, and both won the Jack Nicholson award for excellence in the field.

Russin co-wrote the number one box office feature On Deadly Ground (starring Steven Segal and Michael Caine) and he has written, 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 ran into Robin and Bill while surfing the Internet on screenwriting. They were in cyber-space promoting their book, Writing The Picture. After brief introductions, they offered to buy me a drink. So, we had a couple of cyber-drinks and discussed the screenwriting business. I looked at their book and was immediately drawn to interviewing them on their vast knowledge of screenwriting. I took copious notes while we kept ourselves pumped with drinks.

Q & with Robin Russin and William Missouri Downs

Kenna: Give us an idea as to why you wrote Screenplay: Writing The Picture?

Robin: As working writers who are also teachers, Bill and I were frustrated by the many books out there that approached the process of writing from an "after the fact" standpoint. That is, 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. While this approach can be helpful--and we certainly use it 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, particularly with an eye to how a screenplay is viewed in a real-world context by readers, producers, etc. 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.

Bill: We wrote Screenplay: Writing The Picture because there are so many inadequate 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.

Kenna: "Writing The Picture" covers the whole spectrum of screenwriting. What do you feel is the most valuable aspect of the book?

Robin: 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 structure really 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. 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.

Bill: I think your question is the answer. Screenplay: Writing The Picture is a graduate level college textbook on screenwriting. It covers the whole spectrum. That is the book's most valuable aspect.


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    • Kenna McHugh profile image

      Kenna McHugh 3 months 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 6 months 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 image

      Kenna McHugh 5 years ago from Northern California


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

    • Rubysprings profile image

      Rubysprings 5 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!