You are on page 1of 9

TeachingScreenwriting

Ibeginwithachallenge:alargegroupofstudents,allundergraduatesomeona
CreativeWritingprogramme,othersonaFilmstudiesorFilmmaking
programmemostofwhomhaveneverwrittenascreenplaybefore.Theyareall
takingasecondyearundergraduatescreenwritingmodule,afinalproductof
which(theirsummativeassessment)willbeascreenplayofapproximately15
pages.Wheretobegintofacilitateaprocessofeducationwhichwillenablethem
tocompetethetasksuccessfully,passtheassessmentandfeelconfidentinthe
writingofscriptsforfilm.Inthefollowing,Iwillsetoutsomeofthestrategies
thatIhaveusedoverthepastfewyearsasaCreativeWritingtutoratMiddlesex
Universityandelsewhere.LikemanyCreativeWritingtutors,mystrategieshave
beenamixtureofexample(showingstudentsexamplesofHowItHasBeen
Done)andpractice(supervisingstudentsintheirownpracticeofscreenwriting).
Idonotintend,inthisarticle,togetboggeddownintheproblematicsof
screenwritinginbothfilmtheoryandfilmandcreativewritingpractice,although
Idointendtoacknowledgethem;forthemostpart,IwilldealwithwhatIdoin
theclassroom,andwhyIdoit,inthehopethatsharingthismightbeofsome
helptootherswithsimilarproblems,intheparticularfieldofteaching
screenwritingandpotentiallyinotherfieldsofpracticebasedlearning.

ButbeforeIgetintothis,Idowishtoacknowledgeanissue,whichisthat
screenwritingisacontentiousarea.Whatisascreenplay?Whowritesthem?
Whatfunctiondoesascreenplayfulfilintheproductionofafilm?Canwe
generalisethis,oraresomefilmproductionsdifferentfromothers?Clearly,a
filmwhichiswrittenorcowrittenorevensupervisedinthewritingbya
directorislikelytohaveascreenplaywhichplaysadifferentroleforthat
directorandinthatfilmproductionthanascreenplaywhichiswrittenby
someonewhoseroleissimplytowriteascreenplay,andwhomayhavewritten
thescreenplayinitiallywithnootherfigureplayingadevelopmentalroleinthe
writing.Thisisimportantformetoconsider,astheFilmmakingstudentsthatI
amteachingtendtowardsdirectionorotherpracticalfilmmakingroles,whereas
theCreativeWritingstudentsaretakingascreenwritingmoduleasanother
methodofcreativeselfexpressionthroughwriting.Inthiscase,Ihavetomake
particulardecisionsaboutmyemphasisontheroleofthescreenwriterand
his/herplaceinthedivisionoflabour.StevenMarasinhisrecentbook
Screenwriting:History,TheoryandPracticeidentifies"thewayscreenwritinghas
emergedasanautonomousarea"andhowcriticandtheoristAdrianMartin
"picksupacommonthemeregardingthetreatmentofascriptasadistinctwork,
andthewritingofscriptsasaseparatepractice."1Ihaveusuallyencouraged
studentstoconcentrateonprovidingscriptswhichareawrittenblueprintwhich
willthenbeturnedintoactualfilmsbydirectors,cinematographers,actorsand
productiondesigners,anddisencouragedthemfromdirecting,shootingor
designingthefilmonthepage(whilstacknowledgingthatascriptcansubtly
prompt,moreofwhichlater).ButIquestionmyselfastowhetherthisapproach
istooacceptingofanideologicalgiveninthedivisionoflabourwithinfilm
productions,andtoorigidwithregardtostudentswhomightwishtowriteand
shoottheirownfilms.

Nevertheless,thebasicsofwhatanyscreenwriterisgoingtobedoingarelikely
toremainthesame,whethertheyaresimplyafilm'sscriptwriteroralsotakeon
otherroleswithinthefilm'sproduction(aslongasthescriptingmethodremains
oneofwritingsomethingwhichwillthenbefilmed,asopposedto
writing/improvisingonsetduringthefilming).Thefirstchallengeinthemodule,
then,istointroducestudentstothebasicskillstheywillneedtowrite
screenplays.Someofthesedevelopingcharacters,dramaticsituations,plotting
storieswillbetransferablewithothermodesofCreativeWriting,prosefiction
ortheatrescriptingforexample.Othersaremorespecifictothescreenwriting
field,anditistheseIwilldealwithhere.Thefirstoftheseistheabilitytotella
storythroughmotionpictures,advancingnarrative,introducingcharactersand
developingdramavisually.

Ibeginherebecause,whenImadeapersonaltransitionbetweenwritingforthe
stageandwritingforthescreen,thisisthefirstskillIhadtolearn.Ifindthat
studentsoftensetoutbytellingtheirscreenstoriesprimarilythroughdialogue,
asIhadpreviouslydoneinmytheatrepieces;Iwasaparticularlydialogicstage
writer,andalthoughdialogueis(nearly)alwaysintegratedonstagewith
physicalaction,theratioofdialoguetoactionismuchmoreactionorientatedin
mostfilmsasopposedtomoststageplays.McKeestatesthatthe"aestheticsof
filmare80percentvisual,20percentauditory."2Filmstendtoconveymuchof
theirnarrative,characterandsituationalinformationviavisualcommunication,
anddevelopingtheskilltodothisisagoodplacetobegin.

ThefirstsoundfilmwasAlanCrosland'sTheJazzSinger,releasedintheUSin
1927.Thiscame25yearsafterwhatmanyacceptasthefirstnarrativefilmin
cinemahistory,EdwinS.Porter'sTheGreatTrainRobbery(US,1903).During
those25years,cinemastorytellinganddramaasweknowittodaywas
developed,andmanyofthepeoplewestillthinkofasthemastersofthecinema
D.W.Griffiths,F.W.Murnau,CharlesChaplin,G.W.Pabst,ErichVonStroheim
didtheirmajorworkentirelyduringthesilentera;othersthatwerecogniseas
mastersofsoundfilmmakinglearnedtheircraftbeforethedevelopmentof
soundCecilB.DeMille,AlfredHitchcock,FritzLang.Introducingstudentsto
silentcinemaasanintroductiontothebasicsofscreenstorytellingseemstome
tobeagoodidea.Averyearly,prenarrativefilmlikeBamfordandSon'sTheKiss
intheTunnel(US,1899),whichbeginsbystartsbyshowingasteamtrain
enteringatunnel,thencutstoacouplewhoshareachastekisswhilstwithin,
thenfinisheswiththesametrainexitingthetunnelandpullingintoastation,its
funnelbellowingsmoke.Thethreeshotsofthefilmeffectivelyillustratethe
juxtapositionofexteriorandinteriorsceneswhicharebasicbuildingblocksto
mostscreenstorytelling,andmoreoverimagethetrainthrustingintothetunnel
andthencomingintothestationwithwhitesmokepoutingoutofitsfunnel
introducestheideathatscreenimagescanhaveametaphoricalaswellasliteral
meaning,despitetheMichaelBrooke'sprotestationsvisvisthe"apparent
sexualsymbolismoftheopeningshot(especiallygiventhecontentoftherestof
thefilm),thereisnoevidencethatthiswasintentional."3Itcertainlywas
intentionalwhenHitchcockappropriatedtheimageforhisNorthbyNorthwest
(1959).Introducingstudentstotheseearlyfilmsgivesthemaninsightintothe
rawformsofthestorytellingtechniquestheywillusingintheirscreenwriting.
StayingforamomentwithHitchcock,theopeningtoRearWindow(1954)isa
goodprimerintherevelationofcharacterandsituationthroughvisualmeans.
Thefirstshotslookthroughtherearwindowofatenementblock,ontotheback
yardandrearwallofanotherblockopposite;thecamerarovesacrossthe
oppositeblock,thenbacksinthroughthewindowoftheapartmentwhichpoint
ofviewitisfavouring.WecatchaglimpseofJamesStewart,headbackwithhis
eyesclosed,sweatpouringdownhisforehead,thenathermometerwitha
readinginthe90s;weknowit'ssummer,andhisbacktothewindowandeyes
closedtellushe'sdisengagedwiththeworldoutside.Thebackoutofthe
window,foraseriesofvignetteswhichgiveusthumbnailsketchesofthe
neighbours:weknowthattheshavingmanisconsciousofhisageing,ashe
switchestheradiostationwhenanadvertaimedat"menover40"comeson;the
couplesleepingonthebalconyhaveasexlessmarriage,astheysleeptoptotoe
and,inanycase,couldhardlymakeloveonthebalconyinfullview;thetwenty
somethinggirllaterknownasMissLonelyheartsisalone,uninhibited(she
walksaroundwithherbraoff)andisadancer(shepractisesstretchesasshe
makesbreakfast).Eachofthesecharactersissetupswiftlyandeffectivelyinthis
firstglimpse.ThecameraretreatsbackintoJamesStewart'sapartment,butasit
doessoweseeahandtakingthecoverfromabird'scagesurelyametaphorfor
thepeoplewehavejustbeenintroducedto?WenowseeStewardagain,andthat
heislyinginawheelchairwithhisleftleginplasterweevennowknowhis
character'sname(L.B.Jeffries)asitiswrittenontheplaster;wepanaroundthe
room,andseeabrokencamera,aphotographofaracingcarspinningonitsfront
bumpertowardsthelenssitsbehindthewreckedequipment,variousother
framedphotographsshowscenesofexcitementandadventure(madesinisterby
oneofthembeingofamushroomcloud)wegetnowthatL.B.Jeffriesisa
photographerspecialisinginadventuresubjectswhowasinjuredinafreak
racingaccident;then,extraordinarily,weseeseparatefromtheseaphotograph
ofGraceKellyinnegativeweimmediatelyunderstandthatthisisJeffries'girl,
andthathisviewofherisnotentirelypositive.Wethenseheronthecoverofa
fashionmagazine,andunderstandsheisamodel.Thescreenfadestoblackand
wecanbeginthestory.Withouthardlyaword(excepttheradiobroadcast)
beingspoken,weareintroducedtotheleadandmanysubsidiarycharacters,
theirpersonalsituationsandtheirattitudes.Itisamasterpieceofvisual
exposition,andwhatismorethecamerarovingfromtheapartmentthroughthe
window,overtheneighboursandbackintotheroomtellsusboththescopeof
theentiredramaticactionofthefilmandthefilm'scentraltheme,thevoyeuristic
camera(itsnotcoincidencethatJeffriesisacameraman).Thisisscreen
storytellingatitsbest,andthestudentsbywatchingandtalkingaboutwhat
theythinkeachthingtheyseetellstheviewerinaseminarsituationgetanidea
whatisexpectedoftheirscreenstorytelling:thatitbevisual,inventive,multi
layered.

Allofthisismereinformationunlessthestudentscanputittopracticaluse.Now
it'stimetosetthemanexercise,andbecauseitisearlyinamoduleteaching
somethingmostofthemhaveneverdonebefore,Imakeitagroupexercise.I
givethemthissituation:
Alowermiddleclassmanandwifelivetogetherinahouseinthe
suburbs.Itisanunhappymarriage.Thewifehasterminallung
cancer.Thehusbandfeelsimpotentandguiltythathecannotsave
her.Thewifefeelsconstantlyirritable,andtakeshisoutonher
husband.Onthisparticularoccasion,thehusbandletshiswifeknow
thatheisgoingtotheshopsforhercigarettesandformilk,asthey
haverunout.Whenheisgone,shefeelssadthattheirpreviously
happymarriagehascometothis.Insteadofgoingtotheshops,he
headsforaprostitute.

Thetaskistoconveyallofthisinformation,includingthedetails(typeofcancer,
hercigarettes,runoutofmilk)withoutasinglelineofdialogue.Studentsnow
haveapracticalproblemtosolve,andhavetothinkvisuallywhichisrather
morethansimplybeingtoldthatthinkingvisuallyisthetrick.Thegroupsdothis
exerciseintheseminarandsharetheirsolutionswiththeentireclass(Igive
themabout20minutestocomplete).Anumberofsolutionsrecurfromgroupto
group,yearinyearout(forexample,thewifelookingsadlyatoldphotographs
ofthemsmiling)butmostgroupsusuallycomeupwithanovelvisualelucidation
ofoneormoreoftheelements.

Oncethisbasicskillisdeveloping,wecanbegintolookatthetellingofstories
withtheskill.ItisatthistimeIintroducethestudentstotheideathatthe
sequenceisthebasicdramaticunitofthescreenplay,thatshortfilmstendto
consistofasinglesequenceandthatfeaturestendtobemadeupofanumberof
sequences(laterwillwedealwiththeideaofActsaslargerdramaticunits).A
goodsequenceexemplaristhatknownasTomHagenGoestoHollywood,from
FrancisFordCoppola'sfilmTheGodfather(US,1972).

Inthissequence,Hagen,theconsigliore(personalattorney)ofMafiosiDon
Corleone,travelsfromNewYorktoLosAngelesinordertosecureafilmrolefor
Corleone'sgodson,thesingerJohnnyFontaine.Thesituationhasbeensetupin
theprevioussequences.HagenapproachesstudiobossWoltzthreetimes,once
athisstudiolot,onceathishomeandonceinhismostpersonalspace,the
bedroom.Itisimportanttoemphasisethemovementofdeeperpenetrationinto
Woltz'life(workplacetohomeintobedroom)whichhappenshere.Woltztwice
refusesHagen,butthethirdapproach(theleavingoftheseveredheadofa
prizedhorseinWoltz'bed)paysdividends.ThismeansthatWoltzischangedby
theactionofthesequencehejourneysfromcontemptforCorleonetofearand
respect,fromrefusaltoagreement.Thesequencealsoworksinthecontextofthe
wholefilm,byemphasisinghowpowerfulCorleone,theGodfather,is.Butthe
sequencedoesn'tmerelytellanarrativestorythroughamixtureofinteriorand
exteriorscenes(asmostsequencesdo);italsotellsasymbolicstorywhereby
Corleone'sphallicpowerpenetratesintothedeepestpartofWoltz'slife,
symbolicallycastratinghim:thehorsewasduetobeusedasastud,andits
severedheadisabloodymessnearWoltz'scrotch.Earlierinthesequence,the
phallicimageryhadbeensetupwithaplanecomingintolandandashotof
HagenwalkingerectupanalleyattheWoltzlot.Thesequence,likeAKissinthe
Tunnelbutfarmoresophisticated,worksonalevelofnarrativestorytellingand
dramaandalsosymbolism.ThismakesTomHagenGoestoHollywoodanideal
sequenceforstudentstotalkoverinseminarandtakeasaparadigm.

Asbefore,thislearningisthentranslatedintopractice,whenthestudents(again
ingroups)takethebarebonesofastoryideaandturnitintoadeveloped
scenarioforasequence.IgivethemafewversesfromtheBible,those
recountingthevisitofthethreewisementoHerod,andgetthemtoplana
sequencebasedonwhatlooksverymuchlikeastepoutline.Providingthem
withcontentatthisstagemeansthattheydon'thavetothinkaboutcomingup
withastory,theconcentrationbeingontheirgraspingthestructureand
detailingofasequencewhichhasdramaticandnarrativecontentinitselfbut
whichisalsopartofawiderstory.Thereisroomforindividualimaginationhere
someofthegroupsstayverytraditional,somecharacterizetheMagiandHerod
inintriguingways,someupdatethestory.Thisisimportantworkwhichcanbe
referredbacktowhentheycometodeveloptheirownstories,andwhichgives
themdirectexperienceofputtingfleshonthebonesofanidea.

Otherearlyworkinvolvesgettingthestudentstoidentifyvisualimagesfrom
theirownlifewhichhavestruckthemasintriguing,andgettingthemtodevelop
narrativesequenceswhichincludethese(imaginationfillinginthegaps),and
juxtaposingimagestogether,inordertolearnhowfilmscutbetweenshotsand
createparticulareffectsfromthis(cuttingfromanantonabladeofgrasstoa
forestwillbringinideasoftheindividualandthewiderworld,forexample).All
oftheseexercisesaredesignedtodevelopthestudentsabilitytothinkandtell
storiesandcommunicateideas/feelings/effectsinvisualterms.Onlyafterthis
importantpreparatorywork,inbuildingthemuscletothinkvisually,willthey
beintherightconditiontoruntheracewhichiswritinganactualpieceofscript.
Later,theyhopefullywillbeuptothemarathonofwritinganentirefilm
certainlythosethatgoontodoscreenwritinginyearthreeandatMAlevel,or
professionally,willhavebenefittedfromthisexperience.

Itisworthnotingthattheexercisesaboveareaboutencouragingthestudentsto
thinkandwritelikescreenwriters.Theyareaboutdevelopingskillsand
understandingwhatascreenwriterdoes.Eachofthestudentswillthenhave
theirownstoriestotellinthemedium,buttheseexercisesarenotabout
generatingideas(thereareotherexercisesforthat)butabouthowto
communicateideas.

Thesequencemodelaboveisverytraditionalandmainstream.Itisworth
balancingthisatsomepointaftertheshowingofTheGodfathersegmentwitha
sequencewhichbreakstherulewhichsaysthatthestorymustmoveforwards
andthecharactersmustchangetheseareconventionsandorthodoxies,not
rules.Irecommendashowingofandseminardiscussionaboutthefamoustraffic
jamsequenceinJeanLucGodard'sWeekEnd(France,1967)aportraitofstasis
andadeliberateholdingupoftheplot,whichispartofthefilm'sagendatobreak
downwhatthedirectorconsiderstobetheorthodoxiesofbourgeoisstorytelling.
Bewarned,studentscangetveryagitatedwhenconfrontedwithchallenging
filmmakinglikethis(manyhaveneverseenan"artfilm"before).Butwecan
considerthisanexampleof"traumaticlearning()wherethelearning
experiencecausestheindividualtoreevaluateotheraspectsofherorhislife"4
thisaspectbeingtheirpreconceptionsaboutwhatafilmisordoes.

TheaboveisanaccountofsomeofthethingsIhavedoneduringthefirstfew
weeksofmysecondyearundergraduatescreenwritingclass.Imaydodifferent
thingsinthefutureoneideathathasinterestedmeisMaras'challenging
suggestionthat"thebulkofhowtobooksare,afterall,primerstoscreenwriting
thatdefinewritingforthescreen,andaccesstoit,inaparticularway.This
particularismworkstodefinetheshapeofwhatqualifies,ordoesnot,as
industrialpractise,aswellaslegitimatescreenwriting;inotherwords,it
regulateswhocanspeakwithauthorityandwhocannot."5Laterstagesinthe
processofteachingscreenwritingtobeginnersusuallyconcentrateontheThree
ActparadigmandsuchnotionsasIncitingIncident,CharacterArcandA
SatisfyingResolution.InvalidatingournewsecondyearScreenwritingmodule,
redesignedtotakeintoaccounttheneedsofCreativeWritingandFilmmaking
students,wehavebuiltintheAimthatthemodulewill"facilitatecritical
engagementwiththeoriesofformandtoenablestudentstoactivelychallenge,in
theirownwritingandcriticalwork,thestructuresandtypologieswhich"How
To"booksthriveon."Ibelievethatweneedtoarmourstudentswithacritical
eyeonIndustryanddevelopmentstandardisationprocesses,otherwiseourcall
thatworkofthehigheststandard,thatwhichisgettingintotheFirstcategoryat
undergraduatelevel,willbehollow.Butsuchvexatiousissuesaswhat
constitutesa"good"filmnarrativeareforlateroninthemodule.Forthefirst
fewweeks,thattheydevelopskillsintellingstoriesthroughmovingpicturesis
enough.

1Maras,StevenScreenwriting:History,TheoryandPractice(London:Wallflower

Press,2009),p.4.
2McKee,Robert,Story:Substance,structure,styleandtheprinciplesof

screenwriting(London:Methuen,1998),p.389
3Brooke,MichaelKissintheTunnel,The(Bamforth)(1899)(BFIScreenOnline),

http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/444255/Accessed09.05.09
4Atherton,JS(2005)LearningasLoss(Notes)[Online]UK:Available:

http://www.doceo.co.uk/original/learnloss_notes.htmAccessed:31.12.2007
5Maras,p.25.