Writing workshop – an overview

For most of 2006, I attended a writing workshop in Manhattan.

To be clear, it is a workshop, not a class. A class is one where all the students sit down and listen to a teacher share his wisdom, the dos and don’ts of writing a good script, character motivations, story arcs etc. There are tons of screenwriting classes like these and the most famous are those run by the likes of Syd Field and Robert McKee. While I have nothing against these classes, I was never drawn to them mainly because, despite their protestations, they propose one formula for all scripts. These methods work for thousands of people (many of them very successful), but it is not for me, since this is not how I learn best.

A workshop is where almost every participant is working on a script. So, to start with, you can’t be a passive participant (if you are, you lose a lot). At the beginning of the semester, you pick a date when you will bring your work in. Each week a student brings in their work (for film or theater). Usually it is a set of scenes and not the whole play/screenplay. The author assigns roles and we read the script. Then all of us provide input. There are also a handful of classes set aside where we do hand-on exercises to help improve our writing. Very different from a class. Every workshop has a slightly different structure, but this is the one that I’ve been exposed to.

It was a god send when I found a workshop run by Mick Casale, the head of the writing program at NYU’s film school. It has been one of the best experiences I’ve had despite the fact that I haven’t made the most of it. Mick doesn’t believe that every script needs to follow the same structure, unlike some who believe the first turning point has to happen at the 27th minute(?!) Every script needs to be compelling. Every script needs to hold the audience’s attention. And every script is different. If you are interested in independent cinema and scripts that don’t follow a set path, Mick is your man.

I started attending early in 2006, when I was still commuting from California. That meant that for the first semester, while I had an idea of what I wanted to work on, I was not actually working on a something. This was a bad idea. As I attended week after week of the workshop, I saw the incredible value that Mick was providing to those working on stuff, but I could never apply it to my work and so it didn’t stick with me.

So, by the next semester, I forced myself to sign up to a slot. The week before my work was due, I started to panic. Mad scrambling and several late nights later, I had a six page treatment for my work. I got fabulous input into the story, what they thought of the ending and suggestions to where I could tweak things.

Realizing that these forced deadlines make me write, I continued my practice of signing up to share stuff that I hadn’t written yet. The first thirty pages of my script got written only because of this approach.

Besides the fact that the workshop forced me to be productive, I love it because Mick is one of the most insightful teachers I have ever had. He listens to the script and his comments are just amazing. He will pick out the key issue with a scene and when you hear him articulate it, you want to smack yourself on your head and say “damn, why didn’t I think of that??”. He’ll suggest that you move something around and when you do, the scene is a thousand times more powerful. He makes the most simple statements in such an understated manner that you could just ignore them, but when you analyze them, there are so many layers of wisdom.

That is why I love this workshop. I am going to try and document the key learnings from the sessions. This is going to be hard precisely because it is not a class. There is no set of bullet points that you should write down. When he provides input into someone else’s work, his statements need to be taken, analyzed and applied to your own work, as appropriate. This leaves a lot of room for interpretation and as hard as I try, I know I am not going to do him justice, so apologies in advance.

First I will try to catch up on some of the key takeaways to date and once the workshop starts up again (in late Jan), I will try to post them as the sessions happen.