I’ve just completed the John Yorke Story for Screenwriting course. A seven-session course, spread over 16 weeks with the ultimate aim of producing your own original treatment for a feature film or TV pilot.
Full disclosure: I was given free access to this course by John’s team after he appeared on the Bestseller Experiment podcast. It’s usual cost value is over £900, which is a fair chunk of change and something I kept in mind throughout the duration of the course.
The course covers story analysis to build your own understanding of story structure, it looks at the essential elements of story, the five-act structure, how to build stories, countless story tips, and all the time you are submitting your own work, which is reviewed by your peers on the course. You submit everything through the course website, which is a clunky thing that’s starting to show its age with a sometimes confusing user interface. Once you get used to it, it’s okay, but I found myself working with several browser tabs open as that was easier than trying to find your way through the menus.
Make no mistake, this is a big commitment, and people dropped off the course, most likely overwhelmed by the level of work required. It’s not for beginners or hobbyists. I would say this course is ideal for writers who are serious about making a career of writing: maybe they have an agent, or a credit, or have been optioned and want to hone their craft. You need to manage your time for this course carefully. I generally carved out time over the weekend. Be prepared for it to impinge on your regular routine.
The first couple of weeks ease you in and are deceptively simple. You’re asked to watch well-known feature films and complete exercises on structure based on your observations, while referring to John’s book Into The Woods. This was all good narrative theory and great fun: I get to watch Aliens for homework! Though, I have to confess that this was the point where I wondered if the course was going to be a bit lightweight for me, but looking back it was a good way to limber up before the main event.
As the course progresses the exercises become more involved and complex. You’re asked to rewrite scenes from films and TV shows (and due to John’s connection with EastEnders, I found myself watching more of that show than at any time in the last 20 years!) and your writing will be compared to the final show that was screened. Our course tutor was Kieran Grimes (script editor on shows like Red Rock, The Clinic and Fair City) who was firm and fair in his critiquing of our work and went into considerable detail with his observations and was always constrcutive and encouraging. You really felt that he was reading your work properly!
And it’s not all about structure. There’s excellent work on character, and self-analysis. Indeed, one of the most useful things I took away from the course were tools for critiquing my own work (something I’ve often struggled with). There were also opportunities to have live chat Q&As with Kieran and Ashley Pharoah (Life on Mars), which I managed to miss, being stuck on the train home when these were scheduled, but there was always an opportunity to post questions beforehand and read the transcripts afterwards (I never did, to be honest).
In the final stage of the course, you write and submit your own treatment for a feature film or TV pilot based on what you’ve learned. Like many writers, I can’t stand treatments and find them reductive and nigh-on impossible to write from scratch, but the guidance from the course on treatments was very helpful.
However, from the very beginning of the course I knew that I would be writing a treatment, so I decided to start writing a TV pilot script in parallel with the coursework, re-writing as I went as per the lessons learned. Having a completed script to hand at the end of the course made writing the final 4 page treatment was much less painful.
A couple of weeks after the deadline for submission you receive your final feedback on your treatment from both your course tutor (Kieran) and John Yorke himself. It totalled about 1300 words. As with any notes, I didn’t 100% agree with everything they said, but having two perspectives from two seasoned pros revealed common bumps in the road, and highlighted a couple of issues with my treatment, and gave me very clear and actionable notes for my next pass.
I’m always very suspicious of creative writing courses and contests and the like. They’re often nothing more than a way to part wide-eyed noobs with dreams of Hollywood from their hard-earned cash. But John’s course is designed to be practical and has tons of useable advice and tools for professional writers. It’s also unusal in that it’s not just Hollywood-focused. There’s so little for UK-based writers out there and this course fills a much-needed gap in the market. Once the course has run, you have access to all the materials used in the course, and you become part of the course alumni online, which is great for making new writer friends. So, yes, this is an expensive course, but put in the context of certain screenwriter conventions where you might pay hundreds of pounds to passively watch panels it provides good value for money.
While I was on the course, I had a TV show of mine optioned based on a pitch doc (a “Look book” rather than a treatment), and the lessons I took from the course helped me navigate my development meetings with the TV production company, and the TV pilot I produced for my final exercise is one of the strongest things I’ve written, so I’m quietly confident that it will make some noise and get me some attention. Watch this space for more…
In the meantime, here’s a link to the course.