Screenwriting lessons I learned from Stewart Stern

Stewart Stern
Stewart Stern (1922-2015)

I want to preface this post by saying, emphatically, it’s not about me. But, as Stewart Stern would insist, despite my state of denial, it really, really, really is. And that’s why so many are mourning his death this week. You may have seen the headlines about the death of the guy who wrote “Rebel Without A Cause,” but Stewart, of course, was more than a gifted screenwriter. His screenwriting instruction transcended “instruction,” as anyone who studied with him would attest. And it got me thinking about what I learned from his class at TheFilmSchool, because it was unlike any screenwriting class or workshop I’d had, and ever will have.

Stewart’s class was more about the students, not the screenwriting

Stewart aptly called his class “The Personal Connection” because, as he passionately advocated, the best path to crafting an emotionally enriching story starts with a deep exploration into your own life, to uncover one’s own universal truths that, in turn, through specificity, translate into characters and stories that resonate deeply with audiences. Paul Newman in a 1996 interview summed it up best: “Stewart’s words give an actor a kind of emotional depth that you can just ride on, like a wave.” And when you think about filmmaking, that’s kind of the point: to engage audiences on an emotional level. Stewart’s classes transcended such “film school speak” of plot and structure, which is why his death is a monumental loss for screenwriting instruction.

Beyond instruction

stewart-stern-yoda-luke_500Nearly every screenwriting book, class, and workshop focuses on the process of screenwriting — developing plot, structure, characters — and applying segments of that process in some orderly fashion, which, after a certain amount of time, yields every screenwriter’s dream: a completed screenplay.

Related: Writing Rebel: Screenwriter Stewart Stern Remembers

But process is really just another word for discipline, and speaks to organizing those disparate pieces into a cohesive whole, like assembling a jigsaw puzzle in some symmetrical fashion, assuming you know what all those pieces are. Sure, the result is a story with a beginning, middle, and end, but often times a story without deep emotion.

Embracing the “river teeth” that snag our lives

So, no, Stewart’s classes didn’t focus on plot or structure, they focused on the students’ personal lives, forcing us to look deep within to uncover our “river teeth” moments — those highly emotional extreme highs and lows that, while personal, are universal truths. Stewart showed us how to break through the barriers that otherwise prevent us to write what we feel, to write what resonates.

Writing exercises in a class taught by Stewart Stern are not “exercises,” they are journeys deep into the psyche of why you are who you are. And, while wholly unnerving, that is wherein lie the precious gems of why you’re writing the story you’re writing. And if you have the nerve to inject it into your story, it will resonate. Any student having endured one of Stewart’s lengthy pen-to-pad write-a-thons perhaps are forever haunted by the ensuing self-revelations, but such exercises yield more compelling characters and stories because of it. Stewart wasn’t teaching screenwriting, he was teaching how to break down the barriers to engaging the audience.

The following video snippet offers a glimpse of Stewart’s approach to screenwriting instruction. And as you watch, note the focus.

All screenwriters, filmmakers, artists of any trade, get asked about their influences. What Stewart taught us is that our best influences are those river-teeth moments in our lives — pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of who we are. And while one of those pieces, Stewart also was a kind of primer who illustrated how the pieces all could fit together, if we allow them to.

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