Wednesday, November 16, 2005


I'm still in rant mode over my screenwriting class, so this is more of that...

Why do students take this class, I wonder? Do they just assume it's going to be easy? I guess, as electives go, it certainly SOUNDS more interesting than other so-called "communication" courses. But don't they know they have to write a screenplay?

I swear, the god-awful crap most of them turned in this week was so... well... god-awful. I've read lots of bad writing. But this stuff was -- and I'm really not joking here -- painful to read. After a while, I was having to take breaks just to slog through it. And when they send me more stuff to read, I cringe and avoid it.

I, of course, kind of expect the stories to be immature, and there's a good deal of 'telling' when they should be 'showing' (basically, all their characters have amazing self-knowledge and proceed to tell all the other characters exactly what they're thinking and feeling). So that stuff, well, it takes time to get better at it. I do know that.

What REALLY bugs me is when they just ignore me. Well, it's not really ignoring. 'Ignoring' implies that they heard what I said, thought about it, and chose not to do it. I would be giving them too much credit if I said that. It was clear from their submissions that they simply weren't listening.

I go overboard in making this easy for them. Screenplay format, while tedious and bordering on insanely over-detailed, is nevertheless absolutely essential to making it as a screenwriter. You just have to do it right. There isn't much room for error. If you submit a really badly formatted script, you are assumed to be a complete amateur.

So I teach them basic format. And I give them a simple Microsoft Word template -- they can download it from the course Blackboard site. And if they use that, it's basically just point-and-click.

Yet I still get submissions so far afield from proper format as to make me question if they came from students actually IN the class.

I tell them not to use a lot of parentheticals (the little 'personal directions' in parentheses under a character name, used to tell the actor how to say the line). And I get scripts with parentheticals on every line of dialogue. Every line.

Do not center your dialogue, I explain. Or your character names. So of course I get several submissions that have done just that.

Don't start every scene with characters engaging in small talk when they run into each other. Yes, we do this in real life. No, we do not see it in movies. Can you guess how many scripts had meaningless small talk at the start of every scene.

I have seriously lowered the standards of what I expect I'll read from these students. I don't think they'll write anything remotely produceable. But this semester's bunch really has hit a new low in quality. And it has made going to this class a chore.

It also hasn't helped that many of them don't show up at all. And they turn in assignments really late. I expect one or two of those in your average class. But out of a relatively small class (15 students), I've had 5 or 6 who have done very little of the work. One-third of the class?! That seems insanely high to me. And their slacking affects the other students, because they are all in small groups, and these small groups are supposed to critique each group member's work. So two people from a three-person group are consistently absent and don't do the work, and the one person in the group who DID do the work suffers.

Sigh. Just a little pissed about this tonight. I could legitimately fail 5-7 people in this class. I just don't like doing that, and especially not that many. And, while I am loathe to admit it, I don't have tenure yet, and good student evals matter a great deal here, especially in a course like this -- basically my specialty.

Am I saying that five years from now, when I have tenure, I would just fail these people?

Yeah, probably. I probably would have called each of them to my office weeks ago to tell them they should drop the course or accept an inevitable F. Frankly, I'm embarrassed to have these students leave my class and say they learned screenwriting from me. I wish I could just fail them or force them out. But I don't like doing it, and more importantly, I don't feel empowered to do it.

Which leads to a whole different post on the subject of how much weight in the tenure process should be given to student course evals. But I don't have the energy for that right now.


At 5:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a former almost-teacher of the arts myself (music, in my case), I encountered similar problems.

Which might be why I don't teach music, now.

Any idea what the ratio of film students to non-film students is in that class? That might explain your problem - since some just consider it a "fun" class, they're concentrating on their "major" classes instead.

And as much as I like stuff like Garden State, I don't know that movies like that help students to realize that just writing down conversations they had once, and semi-tying them together with a story in which they, they sad poet, actually get the girl, doesn't work all that well most of the time.

At 12:18 PM, Blogger TerminalMFA said...

i actually don't know the ratio, but that occurred to me, too.

Re: Garden State and films of that ilk -- yeah, the best of these movies have a real purpose to the dialogue, even when it seems random. i've been trying to teach that kind of thing to them, but you know, they just think if they write quirky dialogue, then it's great stuff.

and of course their idea of great dialogue is, well, not actually all that great. big surprise.


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