Don Rearden | My Big Fat Secret to Screen Writing

Editor’s Note: Don Rearden and Bryan Allen Fierro will be teaching Screenwriting Bootcamp in two parts, February 28 and 29, 2020 in Juneau. Registration is open now. Students can attend one or both parts. Learn from these pros and get your screenplay started!

I first dabbled in screenwriting thanks to HBO’s Project Greenlight Contest. A friend from Dillingham called and told me about the contest, and suggested we collaborate on a screenplay. The winning script would be made into a movie. Like everyone else in America, I had an idea for a movie. For a kid from the tundra of southwest Alaska, this contest represented my big break.

A slight problem existed. I didn’t know how to write a screenplay. Neither did my new-found collaborator. 

But that wasn’t going to stop me. 

The plan was simple. We had thirty days before the contest deadline. I would write the first half. He would work on the second. We didn’t live in the same town. Had no idea what we were doing, and really by “simple” above, I meant stupid. Really. Really. Stupid. 

Not being one to ever let stupid stop me. I dove in head first. 

At the time I worked as a high school English teacher in Bethel. Teaching consumed my time during the day, and evenings I would usually be at the gym coaching basketball or Native Youth Olympics. So late at night, as I’d graded student work, I surfed the web, garnering what I could from a paucity of information about the craft of screenwriting available to the public back then. I struggled with painfully slow internet. Read a page or two of student work while a page loaded, read that page – click — and read five more student essays while the new page loaded. This was not an ideal way to learn screenwriting, but it didn’t take long until something besides my mouse clicked.  

I discovered that with a simple online search the screenplays for most movies can be discovered and read for free. I needed to read only a couple and realized something pretty profound (at least for me at the time…simple remember, simple). 

What I realized was: I already know this stuff

How is that possible? How could I know script writing before I’d ever really done it? How were the basics already, for some strange reason, lodged in my head? These were questions I grappled with a bit before I ever even started writing my first script. 

Then, while visiting Video World, Bethel’s premiere video rental shop, it hit me. I’m not one of those people who grew up watching television and movies, and even as an adult I’m not an avid movie or television person, but I could walk around the video rental store and think: seen it, seen it, seen it, seen it…. I could not do the same thing at a library or book store. The reality is that so many of us have spent an inordinate amount of time consuming screen content, that I will argue, we have an innate understanding of the craft. What you have to learn is how to leverage that vast knowledge with that killer movie idea you have.

I did end up writing the first part of that script (the second half as well), and although my first attempt at screenwriting collaboration failed miserably, and I missed the deadline for the contest, my initial attempt at screenwriting was successful. Not because the script won awards (it didn’t), or became a movie (it also didn’t), or because every studio in Hollywood requested it (sorry, also not true), but because I learned that screenwriting isn’t about camera angles and shots and technical crap, it’s about good story telling, and the writing process is fun and something that on some level we already know how to do. 

Now, almost twenty years later, and still dabbling with screenwriting late at night, after my kids are sleeping, and after grading my UAA student essays (or their screenplays), I’ve had my share of success screenwriting, with some breaks and heart breaks. For me one of the most satisfying aspects of the endeavor comes in the process of both the storytelling style itself and teaching others my big secret to screenwriting: you already know this stuff!

Don Rearden is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, The Raven’s Gift (Penguin) a Washington Post Notable Selection for Fiction. In his review of the novel, Pulitzer Prize winning critic Michael Dirda called Rearden, “a master of the cliffhanger.” His most recent books include the non-fiction memoirs Never Quit and Warrior’s Creed (St. Martins). Rearden teaches as a Professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and is a 49 Writers Emeritus Board Member.

Screenwriting Bootcamp is February 28 & 29 in Juneau. Registration is open now!

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