Screenwriting 101: Mastering the Art of Story

Course No. 2126
Professor Angus Fletcher, Ph.D.
The Ohio State University
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Course No. 2126
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What Will You Learn?

  • How to reverse engineer any story to discover its effect on the audience and how you can use the same tools to tell your own story.
  • The four components of storytelling and how they work together.
  • What makes film and television different and why each form has its own advantages and disadvantages for storytellers.
  • Why you should discard artificial three-act structure and other storytelling "formulas."

Course Overview

One of the 20th century’s greatest fiction writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald, was lured by the promise of Hollywood glamour to try his hand at screenwriting. He failed. His misadventure became a cautionary tale for aspiring screenwriters for decades. Meanwhile, Oscar-nominated scriptwriter John Milius, who penned the script for Apocalypse Now, once said that his job was “hackwork.” So which is it? Is writing for the screen a glamorous vocation or formulaic drudgery? Is it a difficult undertaking that can sink a great novelist at the height of his career, or simply another boring day job that requires minimal skill?

What lies at the heart of screenwriting is the same thing that undergirds all great fiction writing: the story. Writing a script is simply another way of telling a story, albeit one with its own special set of possibilities and limitations. If you want to write stories—in any style or genre—the practical and versatile skills you can learn from screenwriting will enhance any tale you want to tell.

Whether you want to write your own scripts or simply gain a deeper appreciation for the great stories you see unfold on the screen, Professor Angus Fletcher is here to show you the way in Screenwriting 101: Mastering the Art of Story. Professor Fletcher, Professor of English and Film at The Ohio State University, brings both a personal and scholarly perspective to this craft. As a screenwriter himself, he has experienced the ins and outs of the process first-hand. And as a key faculty member in Project Narrative, a think tank devoted to using cognitive science to study the effects of stories on the human mind, Professor Fletcher offers unique insight into storytelling from both a neuroscientific and a literary perspective. In the 24 lectures of Screenwriting 101, you will understand not only how to write a script, but how to tell a great story that moves audiences—the ultimate goal of storytelling in any medium.

As you learn the structure and techniques of screenwriting, you will also receive an immersive education in effective storytelling by looking at over a dozen successful film and television scripts. Whether you want to achieve the grand vision of Star Wars or challenge your audiences like Do the Right Thing, charm viewers like The Princess Bride or sustain comedy over time like The Simpsons, Professor Fletcher shows you how to use successful scripts to write your own, as well as come to a deeper understanding and respect for outstanding stories.

For those just starting out, understanding the reality of writing for the screen—what it can accomplish and the best methods to achieve your vision—is the first step to deciding if it is the right way to tell your story. If you have already tried your hand at screenwriting but don’t quite know how to best use the form to your advantage, the next step is to see how great scripts work and how the tools used by screenwriters can be used by anyone. And even if you have no intention of writing but want to see the inner workings of how great film and television works, learning the creative process is the key to genuine appreciation.

Begin at the End

There are two key questions a screenwriter must ask when embarking on a story: Where do I want to take my audience? How do I get there?

The question of where is about more than just physical time and place; it is the “where” of cognitive effect—the emotional and psychological response you want to elicit from your audience. This makes the “how” more complicated, as it goes beyond settings, costumes, and characters, and instead goes deeper, into the most fundamental processes of the human mind.

Despite what you may have been told, writing a great script is not about formulas and three-act structure. Great scripts—great stories—are those that create the desired emotional response in audiences, something that can only be achieved by knowing which methods are most effective and how they suit the story you want to tell. To uncover these methods, Professor Fletcher gives you an invaluable tool that you will put to use in every single lecture of Screenwriting 101 and in your work beyond: reverse engineering.

Reverse engineering a story allows you to begin at the end and work your way backwards to uncover the “secrets” of the story’s influence on the audience. It is not used to uncover tropes or archetypes—those are easy enough to discover without any special tools—but something much deeper and more fundamental. Start with the effect you want to achieve: from the tragic sublime and existential meaning to sympathy and romantic longing, the cognitive effects of storytelling tap into the primal roots of the human experience and are powerful because they are universal—just ask the ancient Greeks, whose storytelling techniques are one of many foundations Professor Fletcher utilizes as he shows you how structure can lead to innovation. Once you have identified the effect of a story, tracing the story structures that created it will give you limitless possibilities in your own work and a greater understanding of what makes great film and television work so well.

The Elements of Storytelling

Understanding the overall cognitive effect of a story is a crucial step in creating and understanding audience response, but that is not the only thing you must do. While there are no templates or formulas for the perfect story, there are four key elements that must work together seamlessly in every successful narrative:

  1. Story world: The rules of your creative universe. Is your story world one where dreams come true? Where superheroes can fly? Or is it rooted in harsh reality? Genres and other pre-existing structures can give you a little help, but you must always give the rules your own special twist.
  2. Character: A great character can lead an audience anywhere. Main characters need to be special to stand out from everyone else, but they are all created by tapping into three basic human experiences: conflict, fear, and sympathy.
  3. Tone: Every story has a narrative voice, a lens through which the story is viewed and which determines how audiences should feel about the characters and story beats. Film and television are visual mediums and the language you use as a writer is crucial to how your story will be translated to the screen.
  4. Plot: The plot is the engine that keeps your story moving forward. Humans are actually naturally inclined to plot, which can be a problem if you don’t know how to constrain your plots in the face of limitless possibilities. Rather than using diagrams and formulas, plotting your story beats backwards can keep you on track.

Study the Greats

Once you have a grasp on reverse engineering and the basic elements every story needs, you can take your newfound knowledge and apply it to a range of powerful and effective stories of film and television. First, you will study 12 film scripts selected by the Writer’s Guild of America as some of the greatest ever written. Then, turn to television by looking at several representative episodes and genres. Each story you encounter demonstrates a different sensibility in both technique and cognitive effect.

As you study the work of over a dozen great screenwriters, you will also get fascinating glimpses into the production and ongoing influence of groundbreaking films and TV shows. Throughout the lectures you will:

  1. See how a forgotten Hollywood genre can be revived by the right script at the right time;
  2. Understand how a film that flopped on initial release can go on to become a beloved classic through the power of community;
  3. Witness the ways collaboration can shape a film throughout production and shape the story beyond the script;
  4. Discover how a script that went through nineteen rewrites ultimately rewrote film history for decades afterward;
  5. Compare the storytelling structures of television and film and see why it is so important for writers to understand the different opportunities they offer; and much more.

Each story you encounter uses different tools to achieve a variety of psychological and emotional responses. Your journey through each script mirrors the pattern Professor Fletcher establishes within the first six lectures, beginning each by reverse engineering the overall story, then similarly deconstructing each of the four story components to see how they operate as part of the whole. From the redemption arc of the Western Unforgiven to the romantic longing of Annie Hall, each story offers invaluable insights you can bring to your own writing—and viewing—experiences. While Professor Fletcher encourages you to watch each of the stories he discusses in their final form, he forgoes video clips in favor of line readings in the lectures, adhering closely to the way screenwriters work from day to day. To further immerse you in the process, the video versions of the course feature on-screen scripts with highlighting to follow each passage and scene.

There is no cookie-cutter formula for writing scripts and no checklist for what makes a film or television show great. What Screenwriting 101 offers instead is an infinitely flexible storytelling tool that has worked for the greats—from Euripides to Shakespeare to Pixar—and a selection of resources to show you how to put it to use. In the end, you will have gained the invaluable ability to appreciate more films and TV, tell better stories, and write your own scripts. How you decide to use these limitless creative possibilities is up to you.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 1
    Thinking like a Screenwriter
    Before "Lights! Camera! Action!" there is one thing a film must have: a good story. This first lecture introduces you to the importance of story and Professor Fletcher's unique approach to it. Look to the literary past to see how the earliest stories shape the ones we create today and use that knowledge to look at scripts and storytelling. You may be surprised to discover how cognitive science can shed light on how humans experience stories. x
  • 2
    Reverse Engineering Successful Scripts
    The first question any writer must ask is: where do I want to take my audience? Professor Fletcher shows you how to reverse engineer stories to pinpoint their cognitive effects and put those tools to use in your own writing (and viewing) experiences. Travel back to the dawn of scriptwriting and reverse engineer three major storytelling innovations of ancient Greece, connecting each to a successful modern film script. x
  • 3
    Building Your Story World
    Every script has a setting, both a time and a place where the story occurs. Your “story world” is, however, more than the physical or temporal—what makes the world are the rules you create for it. Understand the value of the rules that underlie your story and see how genres allow you to use pre-existing structures while enabling you to embrace a multitude of possibilities. Then, look at the “big three” genres: Tragedy, Comedy, and Heroic. x
  • 4
    Developing Your Characters
    Character is the key ingredient in most successful stories; make great characters and audiences will want to follow them anywhere. Professor Fletcher presents a simple recipe for creating memorable characters with three simple ingredients. Discover why fear is the most powerful driver of human behavior and why this is a key to creating and sustaining great characters. x
  • 5
    Tone: The Screenwriter's Lens
    One thing budding screenwriters often forget is this: you are not the director. Your job as the writer is to create a great story; the rest of the work is up to others. So how do you make sure your story creates the cognitive effect you want? The answer is tone. Look at the two most important ways writers shape tone and then dive into four influential tones used in screenwriting, using both literature and award-winning scripts as your guide. x
  • 6
    Plotting Your Story Beats
    One of the most common pitfalls of scriptwriting is poor plotting. The human mind is actually designed to plot—the key is learning how to constrain this natural tendency so your story doesn’t simply wander. See how plotting backwards can help you stay on track and why you should forget about creating a three-act structure. x
  • 7
    Sentimental Return: Casablanca
    Begin your exploration of great film scripts with Casablanca. Learn how to identify its cognitive effect and reverse engineer the four main story components to unlock the tools you will use to understand every script. Casablanca will also introduce you to the first of the “big three” storytelling genres: the heroic. x
  • 8
    The Tragic Sublime: The Godfather
    How does a script go through 19 rewrites and multiple directors to emerge as one of the most influential films of the 20th century? Reverse engineer this story that traces its roots back to ancient Rome and see how a sublime tragedy can be even more powerful when brought down to a human scale. x
  • 9
    Romantic Satisfaction: When Harry Met Sally…
    The basic plot of all romantic comedies is essentially the same, so the surprise success of When Harry Met Sally can teach writers volumes about all the other ways you can make a story great. Professor Fletcher demonstrates the subtle ways screenwriters can add naturalistic details to make a predictable story still feel realistic and rewarding. x
  • 10
    Suspense and Relief: Jaws
    Take a look at the film whose immense success gave us the term “blockbuster,” examining why the feeling of relief is one of the most primordial of human emotions and how it can best be put to use in good storytelling. Also gain an appreciation for the value of improvisation and collaboration with actors in the filmmaking process. x
  • 11
    Romantic Longing: Annie Hall
    A comedy with an ending more like a tragedy and with a tone that effortlessly fuses irony and sentiment, Annie Hall was an instant success that almost didn't happen. Use what you have learned about reverse engineering stories to better understand how to reach your ultimate (psychological) destination in a script. x
  • 12
    Big Wonder: Star Wars
    The influence of Joseph Campbell and the idea of an archetypal journey have long been credited as part of the success of George Lucas’s epic space opera. However, neuroscience has since debunked the idea of this “monomyth” and Professor Fletcher shows you how the power of the script comes down to something much simpler: childlike wonder. x
  • 13
    Charm: The Princess Bride
    The Princess Bride is the first film thus far that was not a hit on its initial release. Instead, its popularity grew slowly over time, engaging small audiences who were connected by a sense of being “in on the secret”—the essence of charm. Solve the riddle of how two different worlds can actually be the same and discover why community can be an important element of storytelling. x
  • 14
    Alienation Effect: Do the Right Thing
    Most Hollywood films use simple but strong emotional effects to lull audiences into an easy enjoyment in a world with moral certainty. But some movies want to make you think critically and offer no easy answers. Ambivalence can be a crucial tool for writers who want to challenge audiences and this lecture will show you how it can be used to powerful effect. x
  • 15
    Redemption: Unforgiven
    The gritty soul of the Western genre was revived by the release of Unforgiven—a film that is not just a lesson in great genre writing, but in how to bring old stories back to life. Look at the ways the various story elements help create an anti-hero audiences will root for as you explore how a seemingly forgotten genre can be revived with the right script at the right time. x
  • 16
    Surreal Connection: Pulp Fiction
    Film scripts often use literary techniques to build the story world, form characters, and set the right tone. By adopting a collage method taken from the surrealist movement, Pulp Fiction shows that visual arts can influence story in much the same way. Explore the various ways connections can be made between seemingly unrelated characters and events. x
  • 17
    Big Sympathy: Toy Story
    How did a film that began as a computer demo become an unexpected smash hit? Solve this mystery as you discover why having an engineering mindset can be a great advantage in screenwriting, and reveal how Pixar changed the direction of Disney films for years to come—by looking at a surprisingly dark side of storytelling. x
  • 18
    Existential Meaning: Fargo
    Some films defy easy explanation. Fargo is an eccentric story that uses its oddities to its advantage—like delaying the appearance of the main character for almost a third of the film. Explore existentialism and see what can happen when writers stop thinking about fixed structure and focus on the desired result. x
  • 19
    Film versus Television: MASH and M*A*S*H
    Begin your transition from the big screen to the small by looking at the different ways television and film scripts approach storytelling. See why the conflicts and plotting of TV must operate differently from film to sustain story over time and how you can determine which format is best for the kind of story you want to tell. x
  • 20
    Writing a Television Pilot: Game of Thrones
    Follow Professor Fletcher as he shows you how a television pilot works. Or, in the case of the original Game of Thrones pilot, how it doesn't. Compare the initial failed script with the later successful one and see how a story can be reshaped to better achieve its desired effect and discover why writing a TV pilot is like building an engine. x
  • 21
    The Sitcom: The Simpsons
    In the first of three lectures focused on successful TV genres, look at the longest running sitcom in television history, The Simpsons. This lecture shows you why jokes are not the key to humor; it’s all in the characters and their ongoing conflict with the world around them. Look at the episode “Duffless” and see how it works as a great example of sitcom writing. x
  • 22
    The Procedural: CSI
    The success of the procedural story harkens back to the Victorian heyday of Sherlock Holmes, whose adventures always followed a similar pattern but with important variations. This same technique drives the success of shows like CSI, as this lecture demonstrates by looking at the pilot episode, which encapsulates the show's combination of problem solving and problem making. x
  • 23
    The Prime-Time Soap: Grey's Anatomy
    See why soap operas are an enduring and brilliant form of storytelling, despite their reputation. By focusing on the subjective and the most primal of human emotions, soap operas allow viewers to experience deep feelings that may be difficult or absent in real life. Grey's Anatomy shows how the conflict between wanting to belong and feeling like an outsider can fuel this kind of storytelling. x
  • 24
    Becoming a Screenwriter
    Professor Fletcher concludes the course with a look at the ultimate goals of Screenwriting 101: to help you appreciate more film and TV; tell better stories; and write your own scripts. As he takes you through each of these points and sums up the scope of the course, he also gives invaluable practical advice on how to become a screenwriter from a professional perspective. And that's a wrap. x

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Your professor

Angus Fletcher

About Your Professor

Angus Fletcher, Ph.D.
The Ohio State University
Angus Fletcher is a Professor of English and Film at The Ohio State University and a core faculty member at Project Narrative. He has previously taught at Stanford University, the University of Southern California, and Yale University. He holds a Ph.D. in English from Yale. Professor Fletcher’s academic research into story science has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the...
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Reviews

Screenwriting 101: Mastering the Art of Story is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 27.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Screenwriting 101: Mastering the Art of Story Screenwriting 101: Mastering the Art of Story Sorry, could not recommend "Mastering the Art of Story" to a friend. Video is amateur and not reverent to today's filmmaking. Too many references to the early Greeks -- If you have never studied Greek Tragedy, you're left in the dust.
Date published: 2018-12-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Learned new tricks I learned how to write to project what I want the audience to experience, not in screenwriting but in other writing. Taking the screenwriting course gave me a new perspective.
Date published: 2018-11-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from In Service of Appreciating Story Telling My angle on this series is that I have no intention of writing a screenplay. But I do have family and friends in film & TV etc., some of whom have Oscars. After decades of enjoying being involved with all the characters that populate “the business,” I finally came to understand the importance of it in shaping the world and what is believed to be true. From that context, I would recommend this series to help appreciate more the nature of all storytelling. It is really quite good in that way as Mr. Fletcher roots his view in the Greeks and Shakespeare and with the benefits, lightly touched, of insights from neuroscience.
Date published: 2018-08-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Remarkably pithy info delivered with conviction Yup. This guy does the job. Can't remember his name, but I remember his Delivery. He speaks in declarative sentences and the content of his statements are succinct and informative. This is not all that common. Furthermore, what he shares about the mechanical elements of story are remarkably perceptive- illustrating exactly how a narrative achieves a certain effect on the viewer. This is not simple information. I've read multiple books by self proclaimed authorities that simply lack the unusual depth and clarity of the information in this course. A remarkable opportunity to turn the lens of story from the enchanted to the enchanter, to see how the magic happens. Definitely recommend.
Date published: 2018-08-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent presentation I learned a lot watching this program. I'm going to watch it again so I can see if I missed anything. I recommended it to anyone who's interested in writing stories.
Date published: 2018-07-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Broadly applicable to all types of writing. Fantastic course. Well structured and presented. Story concepts applicable to all genre whether writing screen play, novel or memoir.
Date published: 2018-06-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from My Personal Favorite I own nearly tree dozen Great Courses, and this is my favorite. I'm a geologist by profession and have enjoyed courses related to my profession, but the insights and way this course is presented was outstanding.
Date published: 2018-05-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Teaching Style I have read several books about the craft of writing and storytelling, attended workshops, and watched other tapes from The Great Courses on these subjects. "Screenwriting 101" is a quantum leap above the pack. Most "how-to-write" material is tough to get through, in my experience. In comparison, here I couldn't wait to get to the next lecture. I felt I was really getting to the heart of what makes a great story tick. In other words, this course provided a blueprint for crafting a story that was to the point, concise, and understandable. The focus here is really about storytelling, and can be applied to fiction writing in general, not just screenwriting. Professor Fletcher has a scientific approach to the craft that makes intuitive sense and provides a clear roadmap for effectively hooking your audience into your story. Examples from classic movies and popular and successful television series were used to illustrate the methods and nuances of several different types of story. The examples were not only entertaining, their familiarity made it easy to connect to the points that were being made. And the writing exercises were well conceived and helped to convey the point of the lecture. When I finished the course, I immediately went though the catalogue to see if Professor Fletcher has done any other lectures. He did a great job staying focused on the art of storytelling and presented his knowledge in a very relatable way.
Date published: 2018-04-21
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