Course Profile: English 6764-Graduate Workshop in Screenwriting

March 7, 2018
Block O

We poked around the heads of twins—balancing back and forth on that thin occipital nerve between understanding and perspective—playing with every trope that comes with having an identical counterpart. Then, we hitchhiked to the Bay Area where we sat at a trendy coffee shop to catch up with four kick-ass ladies who were well past their breaking points with macroaggressions and sexual harassment. Next, we camped in rural Virginia with 50-some adolescents dealing with grief in all forms—from woebegone tryhards to tween saboteurs. We ventured into virtual worlds while real life was crumbling around us and, for some reason, we weren’t sure whether we even wanted to stop it. We ended in the post-apocalyptic boonies of central Florida, trying to save the world with a schizophrenic beekeeper. In the space of merely two hours, the nine of us had each lived in five divergent worlds and became seven distinct brains.

“Forget your brain. Focus on their brain.”
Professor Angus Fletcher says this at the onset of his graduate screenwriting workshop—a sort of “abracadabra” that gifts each workshop participant the power to lift up their fellow writers. It became my mantra too—one that’s stuck with me each time I’ve given feedback to a friend’s story or peer edited a classmate’s essay since. As writers, so much of what we do goes beyond our own isolated pages. We observe the world and the lives around us and try to create characters in their shoes. Or we listen to our fellow writers and support them with new paths to explore or other pieces of inspiration. So, with quiet zeal, I was ready to witness this process among the minds of Ohio State's aspiring television and film writers, facilitated by Fletcher’s vibrant charisma.

“Forget your brain. Focus on their brain.”
—Professor Angus Fletcher

Circling around the workshop table, each student or student pair pitched their idea. These scripts were in their early stages—outlines for television pilots and feature-length movies. However, by the end of this course, each of the writers will be drafting submissions to major screenwriting fellowships, such as Sundance Lab, the Nicholl or Fox Writers Intensive. With a peculiar mixture of confidence and vulnerability, the writers share their vision and all their uncertainties. And at each word, Fletcher listened with intensity, ready to give advice that propels the students forward.

“We could listen to him talk all day. But when you talk, he gives you 800 percent of his attention,” said graduate student Amanda Ingram about Fletcher’s teaching. She continued, remarking how he makes everything on spot and, somehow, turns everything you say into a good idea—even when you yourself don’t always know what you’re saying at first.

I saw this as Fletcher began piecing out the details of each idea and pointing out different paths for the writer to consider. Do I want to maintain this conflict as a television show or evolve the conflict through a movie? How do I balance the familiar with the unfamiliar? What can I draw from my own experiences to give more depth to these characters? With such questions, this workshop was as much a means for the writers to understand themselves as it was for them to learn of the screenwriting craft.

Of course, the lessons of personal discovery don’t mean students go without an understanding of the realities of the screenwriting industry. As students gives their pitches in these early, early phases, they are forced to already make decisions about the tradeoffs they will most definitely face when it comes time to submit their manuscript drafts. How do I balance what I want with what Hollywood wants? How do I anticipate what audiences will take away from this? Throughout the course, Fletchers shared his wealth of knowledge of the film industry and discusses jobs and internships for his students to explore. One of his advisees, Meghan Callahan, recently turned a Hollywood internship with Amazon’s Man in the High Castle into a full-time job with Electric Shepherd Productions. (Read Meghan’s story here.)

After exploring the visions of each student or pair and listening to the collaborative suggestions, I was deeply invested with these works and what they would become. It was like I had just binge-watched three seasons about the four housemates from the Bay Area or finished watching the premiere of the grief-camp film. Each narrative had transformed in a matter of fifteen minutes, shaped by a multitude of minds devoted to supporting the ideas of another. 

By Madalynn Conkle