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BASC0084 Screenwriting: Theory and Practice

What is a story? Where do stories come from? What makes a good story? This module integrates critical thinking with creative practice to introduce students to the narrative conventions of visual storytelling. We will begin by exploring writing for the screen as a particular kind of practice by looking at the ways in which the screenplay has been positioned in the film industry from the beginning of the 20th century to the present. We will consider the idea of the screenplay as a blueprint but also examine arguments for seeing the screenplay as a literary work in its own right. We will investigate the relationship between the words on the page and the images on the screen by looking at several case studies that make that relationship explicit, including (but not limited to) screenplays for films based on books that are considered ‘unfilmable’ [e.g. Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) and Noah Baumbach’s 2022 film adaptation; Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and Alex Ross Perry’s 2009 film Impolex inspired by Pynchon’s novel; Peter Süskind’s 1985 Perfume: The Story of a Murderer and its 2006 film adaptation written by Tom Tykwer, Andrew Birkin and Bernd Eichinger; Susan Orlean’s novel The Orchid Thief (1998) and Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay for Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002)]; screenplays for films that are considered ‘too literary’ [e.g., Bernard Queysanne and Georges Perec’s screenplay for Un homme qui dort/The Man Who Sleeps (1974) adapted from Perec’s novel A Man Asleep (1967), Robert Bresson and Georges Bernanos’s screenplay for Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Paul Schrader’s screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976)]; screenplays for films that were largely improvised (e.g., Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan’s screenplay for Before Sunrise (1995)]. We will deepen our understanding of the differences between writing and writing for the screen by exploring the ways in which the movies have influenced literature (e.g., the Nouveau Roman/the New Novel) and literature has influenced the movies (e.g., Alain Resnais’s 1961 Last Year at Marienbad, 1961, screenplay by Alain Robbe-Grillet). Students will then apply everything they have learned about the screenplay as a particular kind of practice by working on an original screenplay, from conception of the idea through the outlining process and onto a finished script for a short film or the first act of a feature film (25-30 pages). Students will learn to write from a visual and aural perspective, explore different storytelling styles, worldbuilding, creating complex and compelling characters, character arcs, conflict, inciting incident, openings and endings, dialogue, genre, and screenplay format through a series of short and long assignments ranging from freewriting to analysing screenplay structure. 

Teaching delivery: Weekly 2-hour seminar.

Indicative topics

  • Theory and history of the screenplay  
  • The screenplay as a blueprint  
  • The screenplay as a literary work 
  • Film adaptations: ‘filmable’ vs ‘unfilmable’  
  • Screenplay structure 
  • Openings and endings 
  • Character arc 
  • Inciting incident 
  • Conflict 
  • Dialogue 
  • Screenplay format 

Module aims

  • To introduce students to the fundamental principles of story structure  
  • To help students understand the connection between the history, theory and practice of screenwriting  
  • To show students how to identify and evaluate the conventions of storytelling as well as alternative forms of structuring stories.                                      
  • To enrich students’ understanding of the similarities and differences between writing and writing for the screen 

Recommended readings

  1. Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (Syd Field, 2005) 
  2. Screenwriter’s Bible (David Trottier, 2019) 

Additional costs: A trip to the BFI Reuben Library (script collection). 

Assessment:

  1. Film Sequence Analysis (500 words) - 30%
  2. Screenplay for a short film (2,500 words) - 70%

This module is taught on the UCL East campus in Stratford.