Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Do They Ever Listen?

I just finished grading the latest script pages from my screenwriting students, and the title-question is on my mind. Some of the pages were good, reflecting understanding of previous critiques as well as stuff we discussed in class.

Others ranged from awful to mediocre. Some of this obviously has to do with innate talent. Some of it has to do, though, with not paying attention or flat-out lazy writing. Typos and grammar errors galore! Really awkward phrasing. Just not getting it.

Several students violate one of the cardinal rules of screenwriting -- they tell us things in the description that we can't possibly see. For example (not from one of the students' scripts):

We see two guys, Ryan and Jeremy, walking through the football field where the graduation was held. Their faces are blank and they are speechless for the first time in their lives. This has hit them really hard, and they just don’t know how to deal with it, so they just sit there staring off.

If you read that in prose, okay. Lousy writing, but you didn't violate any rules. In a script, you can't say things like "this has hit them really hard, and they just don't know how to deal with it." We can't see that, You have to show it in action and/or dialogue. This isn't even a particularly egregious example. I had one student turn in a script that was rife with character history and feelings written into the description. I am wondering if he misheard my admonitions and thought I told people to make sure to add that stuff in!

One colleague told me a few weeks ago that I shouldn't agonize over student work when I grade it. After all, he said, you can't care about it more than they do. Some students are content to get a C. I guess those of us who ended up in academia have a hard time with that because most of us were always striving for excellence. I was an A student who couldn't stand anything less. Yes, I was very grade-sensitive. I had a competitive streak when it came to grades and always wanted to have the highest grade in the class. That was, I admit, immature, but underneath it was an ambition for excellence. I don't see that so far in many of my students, but I'm just getting to know them.

Today, we'll be reviewing their comic boook scene adaptation assignments. I mentioned this in a previous post. They were given several pages from a comic book/graphic novel (the excellent graphic novel adaptation of Neil Gaiman's short story, "Murder Mysteries"). There is a scene, early on, that sets a sense of mood and mystery, without much action. Just two guys running into each other in the mddle of the night, sharing a smoke on a park bench, with one of them beginning to tell the story that makes up most of the action of the piece (a murder mystery set in heaven before the creation of earth and mankind).

I wanted them to take this scene, devoid of any context, and do it in screenplay form, focusing on describing the action effectively in order to create a mood. So we'll see how they did with that. Some of them have shown some real improvement, and others don't seem to be trying at all.


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