Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Teaching Screenwriting

I am a screenwriter who has been produced and who has won or placed in a few prestigious competitions, so you would think teaching screenwriting would be a natural fit. It's not as easy as you would expect. The market is glutted with books purporting to teach screenwriting, from Syd Field's paint-by-numbers approach to Robert McKee's "I'm smart, really. No really" complexity in his epic tome "Story," you can find an approach that suits your temperament.

I'm not sure any of them makes you a better writer. I'm not sure I make anyone a better writer either. These books teach format (which is something you can get from a software package), basics of plotting (which goes back to Aristotle and which can be expressed as, essentially, "have a beginning, middle, and end, but not necessarily in that order"), character development, dialogue, etc. But can you teach someone to be a good (creative) writer? I think there's something you have or don't have, and then that has to be developed and nurtured. But if you don't have it, can you get it in a classroom? I'm not too sure you can. But I admit, it's just a theory right now, and part of it is based on my insecurities about my teaching abilities.

I'm struggling to teach my writing students these things in a way that's more 'full' than a book can provide, that gives them a richer experience of writing. How do I do that? I need to have them read more screenplays than I did this semester, for one thing. I didn't have time to pick scripts I thought would be good, or to figure out how to have the time to use those scripts in the teaching process, but I need to do it next semester.

Is watching movies a way to teach screenwriting? One of the profs at my university, who teaches screenwriting in another department, has his students watch a movie a week in class, and then talks about aspects of that movie as they relate to writing (might be genre, character development, etc.) But a movie is a different thing than a screenplay. Yes, a movie is the final product, but they screenplay for any of those movies was probably a very different beast. Scripts that sell are often veery good, but they seldom look exactly like the film when it is complete (for a good example of this, download and read the draft of Charlie Kauffman's Being John Malkovich that sold and compare it to the movie version we all saw in theaters. If you thought the movie was bizarre, wait until you read the script.

But my point is this: to write a good script that will sell, perhaps watching movies is not a great idea. Or not the greatest idea. Maybe if you compare script-to-film, you've got something there. The movies we see in the theater are a function of a script that went through a 'development' process and that was then influenced by the director, the actors, and any number of involved parties. The original script, as it was written and sold (i.e., in the form that made it attractive and interesting to people in the first place), sometimes represents a more original and creative product (and sometimes it doesn't, I admit).

Right now, we're focused on 'writing style' in scripts. I wonder if I'm spending too much time on style, but bad writing style (or non-existent style) is such a mood-killer in scripts. When I talk about style, I am referring to the part of a script where the writer describes the action or the characters or the room in which something is taking place. Now, in a lousy script, that style will usually consist of something like this (a real example I pulled from a script posted on the internet):

It is a high school graduation. There is a banner hanging over the stage where the ceremony is taking place that reads "Congratulations to the Eastport High Class of 2000!" It is a nice day and the ceremony is outside. There is a large crowd. They are all in full cap and gown. We hear the principal say:

You see? That's lousy writing. Lackluster. Boring. It gives us no sense of the atmosphere. More importantly, it inspires no confidence that the script will be a good read. It tells us we're not likely to be in good hands for the length of this script.

So for me, style of this sort is a necessary component to being a screenwriter. No, the WAY in which you express something on the screenplay page won't be on the screen, but it will influence whether or not the screenplay gets sold and/or made in the first place, so shouldn't that be a concern?

And shouldn't good writing style be a concern?

I haven't spent nearly as much time in class on plot and structure, and I have yet to deal with dialogue and other issues, but after reading the first few pages of my students' scripts, I felt like style was something I needed to cover with them.

Wow -- I sound like a real teacher: adjusting and adapting to my students' needs (I hope they appreciate it).

So today, they're going to be reading from a scene they rewrote over the weekend to improve its style (the paragraph you read above is from the piece I handed out to them). And if we have time today, we're going to do another writing exercise. For this one, I copied several pages from a graphic novel/comic book and plan to have them write up a compelling scene in screenplay format. The class isn't about adaptation -- it's about writing original scripts. But with a comic book scene, the images and dialogue are provided, and the point of the exercise is to learn to describe what you see (in this case, on the page; in normal situation, in your head) in a compelling manner in order to capture a specific mood.

I am hoping this will yield something useful for them.


At 7:27 AM, Blogger New Kid on the Hallway said...

Your comments are very interesting (of course, what I know about screenwriting would fit on the head of a pin) - your teaching approach sounds very effective!

At 3:21 PM, Blogger TerminalMFA said...

Thanks -- and thanks for reading. I confess, as far as teaching screenwriting goes, I'm a novice. I've been a writer for years, but this semester I've been learning how very difficult it is to convey to my students some of the things I know by instinct. But I didn't always know them, I admit, so I must have learned them somehow!

At 4:42 PM, Blogger Dave said...

I'm new to this whole blogging thing. So excuse me if this is posted twice...

Hi, would you recommend someone going for a screenwriting MFA? Will it help my chances of making contacts tremendously? Even if I intend to just write on spec? I am in the process of completing a feature length comedy. I don't know if I'd want to work for a studio. But who knows how I'd feel later on.

And any thoughts on the top schools? I live in New York, and I'm considering NYU's Graduate Dramatic Writing program.

Thank you!



Post a Comment

<< Home