Online Course Syllabus



Hello and welcome to Get Your Story Straight, my online course designed especially for beginning screenwriters! In this course you’ll learn what makes a movie, key elements of idea generation, story structure, plot and character development, scene-writing and dialogue, and how all these elements work together to create a compelling narrative.

By the time the class is complete, you’ll have created a three-act outline of your script and begun writing your first scene. You’ll also have learned some of the best ways to break into the business, and tips and tools for dealing with the creative challenges that inherently come with it.

I come to this course with experience as a screenwriter and as a development executive, as an instructor and a consultant. Prior to becoming a full-time writer, I worked for various studios and film companies as a story editor, acquisitions executive, and finally as the Vice President of Creative Affairs for Academy Award-winning director Sydney Pollack. While working for Sydney, I wrote my first screenplay after hours, got an agent, and then left the company and wrote my second script which became the film ONLY YOU, starring Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey, Jr.  I also wrote the original script for WHAT WOMAN WANT, starring Mel Gibson. Both films were recently remade in China featuring major Chinese stars, so you just never know what kind of life your work can have.

I have also taught screenwriting for the UCLA Extension writers program, spoken on panels for the Austin Film Festival, the Storyboard Development Group, Screenwriters Network, and served as a finals judge for the Austin Film Festival Screenwriting competition and the UCLA Screenwriters Competition.

Movies We’ll Watch & Analyze

You’ll be expected to rent and watch the following films at least once, (twice is better ; ):


Optional Recommended Books

Don’t be daunted by this list, these are simply suggestions for further reading should you be so inclined. That said, if you want to write scripts, you must read scripts! I highly recommend you seek out and read the scripts of your favorite films. Many can be found for free online, some of more popular websites for these are listed in Bonus Module #1, but these days it’s probably easiest to just google the script. Also, week #3 you’ll read the script for Thelma & Louise (I’ll provide the link.)

About the Mechanics of Screenwriting:

  • “GET YOUR STORY STRAIGHT” – My own newly published step-by-step guide to screenwriting
  • “HOW TO WRITE A MOVIE IN 21 DAYS” – Viki King 
  • “STORY” – Robert McKee 

About the Movie Business:

  • “WHICH LIE DID I TELL?” – William Goldman, his follow up to “SCREEN TRADE”
  • “WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN?” – Budd Schulberg, technically “fiction” and decades old, but a classic novel about the business and how it operates  (still) 
  • “SLEEPLESS IN HOLLYWOOD”  – Lynda Obst, a producer, about the business

About the Writing Process, Creativity and, oh, yeah, The Meaning of Art & Life: 

  • “ON WRITING” – Stephen King – a terrific book, even for those who aren’t horror fans
  • “IF YOU WANT TO WRITE” – Brenda Ueland – An extraordinarily insightful and inspiring book about the creative process in general, and writing in particular, originally published in 1938. 
  • “BECOMING A WRITER” – Dorothea  Brande – Also a great book from 1934, (women in the 30s!)  with much contemporary resonance.  Reads like an antecedent of Julia Cameron’s “The Artists Way.”  
  • “BIRD BY BIRD” – Anne LaMott – More about getting out of your own way, letting the unconscious in, making your work personal and being present.  Witty and readable. 

Optional Reads & Video Links

As you’ll see from the weekly class descriptions below, each week there are additional video links and an optional read, usually an interview with the screenwriter or another piece which sheds additional light on the subject. While these are not required, I encourage you to check out the links, most of which are quite short, and avail yourself of the additional insight and information contained therein.

On a related note, I’ve done my best to try to make sure all links are viable and live, but it’s possible that one or two may be glitchy and not lead where they’re supposed to. Please let me know if you have any trouble reaching any of the linked sites, especially if even cutting and pasting the url doesn’t work.  

PLEASE NOTE:  If you have opted for the premium version of the course with my feedback included, my goal is to strike a balance between offering you constructive critiques and guidance, and at the same time allowing you to do creative work without what a friend calls, “too many other voices in your head.”  To be clear, my job is not to be your collaborator. My job is to share with you the knowledge and expertise I’ve gained and distilled over many years of working in the film business, and thereby help enable you to create your own best work in your own voice.  

For some assignments you will turn in your work the week you do it. For others, like the three Beat Sheets you’ll create, (one for each Act),  in modules 5, 6 & 7, you’ll work on these on your own, and then turn them all in to me together as a set when you’ve done all three.

Always feel free to let me know if you have any questions.  

MODULE #1 – Introduction & Overview

1.  Introduction

2.  Movies You’ll Watch, Recommended Readings & a Suggested Viewing List

3.  What Movies are Really About

4.  How to Know What to Write About; Idea-Generation Suggestions

5.  Log Lines or One-liners

6.  Six Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Idea

7.  The Big Picture: Why we go to the movies, and the Moral to Almost Every Story

8.  Writing Personally – Watch a clip from FREAKS & GEEKS, the first really personal scene Judd Apatow wrote.

9. Assignment:


– Watch a TED video by writer Elizabeth Gilbert, (EAT, PRAY, LOVE) on the creative process.

Writing Assignment #1 – Write TWO movie ideas/log lines of 1-3 sentences each for your own ideas. 

MODULE #2 – The Three Acts; Plotting Your Story

1.  Structuring your story, the Three Act Breakdown

2.  General Length and Purpose of Each Act

3.  Plot Points. (including my own definition of Plot Point #1 which can often function as a one-liner)

4.  The “Engine of the Plot”

5.  Analysis of all these elements in action in TOOTSIE

6.  Watch Sydney Pollack on setting up the Character of Michael Dorsey

7.  Watch Plot Point #1 in TOOTSIE

8. Assignment:

– Watch:  TOY STORY

– Read: “Twenty-two rules of Screenwriting from Pixar.”

Writing Assignment #2 – Write a one-page, and one-page ONLY,  3-act breakdown summary of TOY STORY.  Try to  identify the three acts as well as the Inciting Incident, Plot Points #1 and #2. 

MODULE #3 – Act I, The Set Up

1.  Structural Analysis of TOY STORY

2.  Watch Screenwriter Michael Arndt on Setting up your Story

3.  Structural Breakdown of TOY STORY, with special emphasis on Act I, including the Inciting Incident, its relation to Woody, the hero, and to Plot Point #1.  

4.  My Beat Sheet of Act I of TOY STORY

5.  Plots, Goals, Characters & Stakes and How They Intertwine

6. Assignment:

– Watch: THELMA & LOUISE  

– Read: the script for THELMA & LOUISE.

Optional Read:  an interview with the writer, Callie Khouri. Also, Vanity Fair on the Making of Thelma and Louise

– Writing Assignment #3 –  Write a brief, one-paragraph synopsis of your story. 

MODULE #4 – Act II, The Body of the Story

1.  Breakdown of Act II – The Body of the Story aka the “Murphy’s Law” Act

2.  Obstacles, Complications, Side Effects & Character Evolution

3.  How to Keep Your Story Moving in this, the longest act.

4.  Analysis of THELMA & LOUISE

5.  Assignment:

– Watch: THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN.  

– Optional Read: an interview with Judd Apatow

Writing Assignment #4 – Write a one-page, and one page ONLY, synopsis of your story.  As you did with the TOY STORY assignment, see if you can identify the premise, the major characters, and major story beats including the Inciting Incident; Plot point #1, Plot point #2, and your Ending/Resolution.

MODULE #5 – Act III, The Resolution

1.  Breakdown of Act III – The Resolution, “Or Else…”

2.  Know thy Ending

3.  Stakes:  A Matter of Life or Death

4.  Character Arcs & Satisfying your audience

5.  Act I Raises the Question, Act III Answers It

6.  Analysis of THE 40-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN

7.  Assignment:  


– Watch: Screenwriter David Seidler talks about his creative process

– Optional Read:  An interview with David Seidler

Writing Assignment #5 – Write a one-page, and one-page ONLY, Beat Sheet of your Act I, using my TOY STORY example as a model. Please Note: This is simply meant to be a work in progress, a way to get down whatever you know so far about your story, and to brainstorm what you don’t – so don’t freak out.    

An optional WORKSHEET of questions to ask yourself about your Act I is included.

MODULE #6 – Putting it Together & Building Character(s)

1.  Putting Plot, Structure & Character together

2.  One Thing Leads to Another; Scene Connection & Purpose

3.  Building Character(s): Creating a Hero Your Audience Will Really Care About

4.  Analysis of THE KING’S SPEECH

5.  Assignment:

  Watch: ARGO

– Writing Assignment #6 – Write a Beat Sheet of your Act II of NO MORE THAN TWO PAGES.  Again, don’t sweat every little detail here, or worry that this will be set in stone.  Brainstorm what needs to happen, what you’d like to see happen, and get those things down on paper. 

– An Act II WORKSHEET to help you think through your Act II is included.

– Write a short description of your hero and why an audience ideally would care what happens to him/her.  (3-4 sentences).

MODULE #7 – Writing the Scene

1.  Writing the Scene

2.  Essential elements: Who, What, Where, When & most of all, Why?

3. Ten Tips for Scene Construction

4.  Making your Story Build, not Simply Add or Repeat – Great Advice from Matt Parker & Trey Stone of SOUTH PARK fame

5.  Analysis of ARGO

6.  Assignment:


– Optional Read:  On Michael Arndt’s journey to the big time.

Writing Assignment #7 – Write a NO MORE THAN ONE PAGE Beat Sheet for your Act III.   An optional Worksheet to help you think through your third act can be found under Modules in Week 7

MODULE #8 – Dialogue, Theme & a Word about Ensemble Pieces

1.  Putting Words in Their Mouths – Ten Tips for Writing Dialogue

2.  Subtext – The Power of Letting the Audience Put 2+2 Together

3.  Varying Character Voices

4.  Communicating Necessary Exposition; The Value of Wit and Conflict

5.  “And Your Point Is?” or Theme – Video Michael Arndt, writer of LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, talks about theme.


7.  Challenges of Writing an Ensemble Piece

8.  Assignment:

– Watch:  SIDEWAYS

– Optional Read:  An interview with writer/director Alexander Payne

– Writing Assignment #8 – Write your opening scene, aim for no more than three pages. 

BONUS MODULE #1 – The Business of The Business

1.  Script Formatting, Submission & Registration

2.  Protecting Your Material and Getting Covered

3.  Contests, Pitchfests and Other Ways to Get Your Work Seen

4.  Rejection, Survival & How Bad Do You Want It?

5.  How to Win and Oscar: The Power of the Unlikely

6.  Analysis of SIDEWAYS

7. Assignment:


– Read: “Throw in the Towel” by Terry Rossio

– Watch for fun: Audrey Hepburn’s screen test

 Do at least one thing this week that inspires your creativity, feed the muse.

BONUS MODULE #2 –  Wrapping Up

1.  Analysis of ROMAN HOLIDAY

2.  On Being a “Content Creator”

3.  Assignment:

  Watch one of your favorite movies and get inspired

– Bonus Read: My Custom Worksheet to aid you as you continue to craft your script: 12+ Questions to ask yourself about your script

Finish your script!  

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