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CMS 370 A: Basic Screenwriting

Meeting Time: 
to be arranged
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Shawn Wong
Shawn Wong

Syllabus Description:

CMS 370: Basic Screenwriting

Shawn Wong, Professor of English & Cinema & Media Studies

B423 Padelford Hall

Office Hours: by appointment via phone or small group Zoom

This course will be taught remotely and will be asynchronous, which means that the class  will not meet at the scheduled time listed in the schedule on MW, but rather we will arrange a convenient time for small groups of students to meet with the instructor.  Much of the discussion will be completed on Canvas and/or Zoom.

This is a screenwriting class, which means that the bulk of the responsibility for the success of this class is based on the writing you produce for the class and your critique of the writing done by your classmates.  

The goal of the class is to prepare you for more independent writing and self-critique. The focus on the writing is centered more on revision, editing, adaptation of an existing fictional story and understanding the craft of the screenwriting.

Required Text and Podcast:

There will be a textbook for the class, but it can be ordered as an e-book or in hardcopy.  The required text is "Invisible Ink" by Brian McDonald and is available for order online from many sources.  Here's the listing on Amazon:

I'm combining the text with a multi-episode podcast by Brian McDonald in which he discusses both his book and provides many more examples of his storytelling and screenwriting principles.  Here is the link to the podcast:

The book, "Invisible Ink," is meant to be a companion to the podcast, rather than the other way around.  The podcast episodes are long, some over an hour, but they are important because they lay the foundation for screenwriting and storytelling.  Think of them as a partial replacement for the time you would've spent in class and commit to listening/watching them.  Take notes while listening and jot down what you think are the most important qualities you need to remember when you sit down to write a screenplay. 

Brian McDonald and I have been working together for the last seven years on a storytelling project, The Red Badge Project (, and many of the principles we use in our workshops are described in these podcast episodes.  He is a master storyteller, drawing from extensive knowledge of film, stories about directors, and his work with many production companies such as Pixar.

Given the nature of remote teaching, I thought the podcast is particularly useful and has much higher production standards than me trying to replicate in-class lectures with substandard video and sound recording.  I will hold Zoom meetings with students in small groups to discuss topics both in the book and in the podcasts as well as ask you respond in Canvas under Discussions.  Canvas Discussions allow threaded replies so that it can, in some way, take the place of in-class discussions where we can share ideas.

Reading Schedule for "Invisible Ink" and Podcast Viewing:

As you make your way through the podcast, "You are a Storyteller," here are the chapters from McDonald's book that generally coincide with the episodes:

Chapters 1-3 & Episodes 1-4

Chapters 4-7& Episodes 5-8

Chapters 9-10 & Episodes 9-10

[To repeat, you are only responsible for podcast episodes 1, 2, & 4-10, episode 3 has been deleted.  There are 25 total episode, but we're only using up to episode 10.]

A Note About Assignments and Grading Policy:

I realize that teaching remotely isn't ideal for you or for me.  In addition, many of us are under a lot of stress with respect to the pandemic, the economic situation, uncertain employment, and the current nationwide and worldwide protests.  While this class is billed as a screenwriting class, at its core it is a storytelling class and the strategies for telling our stories.  I think that skill is now more important than ever.

Under Canvas Assignments, you will see your responsibility for keeping up on assignments.  There are due dates, but with everything that is going on in our lives, I'm not holding you to those due dates.  The due dates are markers that are meant to help you keep pace with the material in the class.  There is no grade penalty for turning in work late with some exceptions (see below).  Not turning in work will affect your grade.  It boils down to this:  if you turn in everything by the end of the quarter, you will receive a 4.0.  Any grade lower will be determined by the percentage of work that is missing. The only exceptions to this policy are some of the early assignments, which are meant to establish the screenwriting tools and knowledge you will need to navigate the later assignments and preparing yourself for collaborative group writing.  Those early assignments will have due dates and turning those in late will result in some grade penalty as described in the assignment.

There are no points or grades given out for assignments.  This is a project-driven class, which means assignments and task either are done or they're not done, much like a real world writing job.  You will see on Canvas that your assignments are either "complete" or "incomplete."

If you are having trouble turning in work, please contact me earlier rather than later so that we can find a path for you to succeed in the class.  My classes have always been structured in way to support your success in the class. 

There is one small group screenwriting project and your group might set recommended due dates for each group member in order to complete a writing assignment.  These group projects are meant to replicate the structure and function of a "writer's room" and the natural collaborative nature of screenwriting in the real world of working screenwriters.  Many of my former screenwriting students are still working and writing in their teams long after our class ended.  Some have even produced short films based on material they developed in class.

I will discuss on Zoom more about the group writing project which will be mostly during the second half of the course.


A Note About Exams:

Also, there will be no exams, rather there are questions on Canvas Discussions I'd like you to answer after viewing various short films, film clips, podcasts, and/or from your reading material.  Those entries will serve as "exams."  These Canvas Discussions will allow all of us to view the discussions going on between us and you can respond with threaded replies, questions, etc.  I will post things on Discussions that I would normally say in class and most of these discussions simply ask for your experience, opinion, or questions.

Canvas Discussions are informal, but they are also mandatory and are considered part of your assignments and part of the consideration for receiving an overall 4.0 grade in the class.  You are required to participate in each and every Canvas Discussion in some way, either by posting a comment or response of your own or replying or adding to other posts in the threaded replies.

The list of Canvas Discussions might out of order on your Canvas page, depending on when the discussion was posted.  The Discussion titles correspond to approximately the order in which you should respond to them.  Some are listed by the podcast episode and others are numbered in the order I'd like you to read them and about where we are in the class in terms of content.


Course Structure:

Our course is separated into four sections:  Story, Structure, Characters & Action, and Dialogue & Setting.

Story:  As screenwriters we are storytellers so need to understand how a story works, our responsibility to the story.  We learn what are the essential elements of story and storytelling.  What is a story?  What is its function?  What is it about?  What are you trying to prove?

Structure:  All stories must have a structure.  What is the premise of a story?  We will examine the three-act structure of stories, film, etc.  and how each act works in service of the story.   Brian McDonald calls it "Proposal, Argument, and Conclusion" in his podcast, while others call the  three-act structure--character, conflict, and resolution and there are still other versions of the same point.  Whatever you call it, it's still three acts.  

Characters & Action:  We will learn that characters drive action in a story or more precisely motivated action.  It's the meaning behind the phrase "a character driven story."  How do you move an audience with real drama?

Dialogue & Setting:  We will learn not so much what characters need to say in a screenplay, but rather why they have to say what they say.


Writing Rules:

  • Download script writing software from (it’s free if you choose the student edition) or from Arc Studio Pro at (also free) or use any other script writing software you might already have.  Other script writing software is available at (also free student version).
  • All scripts should be in .pdf format when you upload them to Canvas (your screenwriting software will convert it to .pdf for you).  Be sure to fill out the title page information for your script.
  • Proofread, proofread, proofread all your writing assignments before turning them in.  You are writers, therefore the use of your only tool (writing) should be flawless and free of typos, misspellings, improper punctuation, etc.
  • For the group writing project, try to pick a story to adapt that is a complex, multi-layered character driven story, rather than action driven (meaning little dialogue is required), or bodice ripping Gothic romance (lots of sighing and pining for your heartthrob), or pure fantasy (no unicorns), or talking animals.
  • The following stories can no longer be used for adaptation: “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor, “A Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff, “A Perfect Day for Banana Fish” by J.D. Salinger, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “How to Tell a True War Story” by Tim O’Brien, “The Rocket Man” by Ray Bradbury, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” by Raymond Carver, "Speech Sounds" by Octavia Butler, "The Veldt" by Ray Bradbury, "The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell, "Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut, "The Lotttery" by Shirley Jackson, and any Edgar Allen Poe story, "The Story of an Hour," by Kate Chopin, "Gift of the Magi," by O. Henry, "The Monkey's Paw," by W.W. Jacobs, "The Highwaymen," by Alfred Noyes.  The reason for this is I've read too many versions over the years teaching this class.

University-Wide Policies


CMS 370 Code of Conduct and Mutual Respect

This course aims to create an ethical, caring, reciprocal environment for safe learning about our roles as writers who record and observe the world at large.

To that end: recognizing and valuing diversity is essential to the learning goals of this course and the critical thinking endeavor at the heart of university education.

Respect for difference includes and is not limited to age, cultural background, ability, ethnicity, family status, gender presentation, immigration status, national origin, race, religion, political belief, sex, sexual orientation, preferred names and pronouns, socioeconomic status, and veteran status.

Your participation will require careful and ethical engagement with people and ideas reflective of diversity, including those not in alignment with your personal beliefs and values.  

To that end, you are asked to be mindful and respectful to others (and yourself) in all course interactions.   Act with best attentions, assume best intentions from your colleagues, and give each other the benefit of the doubt.  

Failure to comply with the code of conduct will result in meetings to further discuss pronoun use, respecting diversity, and other learning opportunities.  We all make mistakes, and it is from these that we often learn the most.  


Further Resources

Our current college life is a stressful time, and feelings of anxiety, doubt, loneliness, fear, and even guilt are completely normal.  This is especially the case this year, due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.  If, however, you begin to notice that such feelings are negatively affecting your mental or physical health, please contact me.  




Catalog Description: 
Students develop collaborative critical and creative skills; studying screenwriting manuals and techniques; adapt stories for screenplays; and/or write synopses, treatments, and first acts of their own screenplays.
Department Requirements Met: 
Pre-req to Declare Literature Major
GE Requirements Met: 
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Last updated: 
November 3, 2020 - 9:22pm