How to Bring Screenwriting Into the Classroom
A high school teacher shares tips and resources for engaging students with scriptwriting.
The students work, huddled in pairs, jotting down ideas in notebooks. The classroom buzzes with collaboration, punctuated by giggles and laughter. Students are excited to be writing as we start our annual celebration of Script Frenzy.
For the past five years, my 11th-grade English students have written novels for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Both NaNoWriMo and Script Frenzy are the work of the Office of Letters and Light, whose mission is to provide programs that allow participants to “turn off their inner editor” and “write with abandon” as a way to bring everyone’s innate creativity to fruition. Three years ago I introduced my students to Script Frenzy to help them reconsider their ideas through a screenwriting lens.
Film producer Allison Vanore, who has two entries in this year’s Garden State Film Festival, reflects on why screenwriting is important for students: “It teaches them how films are constructed, that they are stories carefully constructed to make you feel a specific way just like books, television,” she says. “It’s important to understand the medium we ingest and put out. From a creative standpoint, it gives students another way to create and express themselves.”
The average U.S. teen spends more than three hours a day in front of the television, according to Nielsen. Students learn to be critical consumers of media in this unit, but they also feel empowered as professional writers.
Understanding the Words Behind the Images
I start class with a page or two from the screenplay of a film that students have likely seen. For example, in working with Toy Story, students read the scene where Woody attempts to convince Buzz that he can’t fly aloud (he falls “with style”). We discuss how the characters and the viewer feel, digging into the text for clues. For many, this is their first experience reading a screenplay. Then we watch the clip.
I talk a little about the screenplay formatting, and I point out some of the formatting, such as scene headings and action descriptions. Everything in the screenplay must be seen. A novel could say, “Jack walked down the street sadly, thinking about his lost dog.” In a screenplay, the reader can’t see what Jack is thinking, so we have to write something that the camera can film.
Students come up with a variety of clever ways to show that Jack is thinking about his lost dog, and they describe his body language (“he shuffles along, shoulders heavy”) and the details they can include (he can be carrying a leash with a dog collar; he can have a picture of the dog that he asks people about as he passes them; he can staple up “lost dog” signs).
I explain to students that the novels we wrote are excellent for people who want total control of their creation: A novelist composes every detail the reader sees, describes every bit of the setting, explains every character and his or her motivation. Then I show them a clip from Pixar’s Randy Nelson on “Living and Working in the Collaborative Age.”
In pairs, they either work one of their novel’s scenes or pursue a separate film idea. I prompt them to increase the passion and danger and to raise the stakes and add twists. Students love working together and creating something neither of them could have crafted on their own. The first day, we focus on the primary conflict. I remind students that you can tell a great story in 30 seconds, and we brainstorm commercials that do just that.
Students work through mini-lessons I put together for the remainder of the week. I offer one on emotion and how the viewer is supposed to feel, and I show two commercials: “Prized Possession” from Travelers Insurance and Ikea’s Spike Jonze–directed “Lamp” commercial. We analyze how the clips create a mood, and then I challenge them to find the mood of their piece and include that in their description.
Students ultimately decide how long to make their screenplay—the average is about 20 pages, although some write full-length screenplays. I teach a lesson on dialogue, and we cover formatting, remembering that, like their novels, these are first drafts and they can be terrible. Just get the words on the page and don’t look back.
Adapting for Other Grades and Content Areas
Younger grades could create scripts for implied scenes in stories they read or films they watched together. Shorter films can tell a big story, too. Screen some shorts and discuss characterization, motivation, and obstacles. Classes can brainstorm and the teacher can transcribe the script on a projector. Students could be invited to craft lines of dialogue individually or to vote on what sounds best, adding to each other’s ideas.
Other subject areas could benefit from encouraging students to think about what they can show on a screen to demonstrate understanding. With a documentary on rain in environmental science, or an interpretation of historical events, students can show their learning. Reading screenplays is a nice break from reading essays, too.
Initially, students are often split between hesitant and elated that they get to write something “real” (their word, not mine). Many come after school to continue their collaborations, and this year when I previewed the lesson in an after-school enrichment session, all but one student asked me to keep it in the regular curriculum this year.
Ultimately, some students join the video club to see how to move what they wrote from the page to the screen. However, most students leave the experience with a sense of accomplishment and agency and a more critical eye for the media that surrounds them.