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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Screenwriting: A tool for teaching

Today we are increasingly exposed – maybe even overexposed to some extent - to screens. Television screens, smartphone screens, and yes, even the big screen. We are now a generation that is predominantly stimulated by images that are streamlined to us.

A generation of teenagers, middle school and high school, are a new breed of young adults that have an enhanced visual literacy, with a very high susceptibility to become illiterate in other media, most notably written work. Real, physical literature has been digitized to a screen, whether it is downloaded to a Kindle or a device similar, or it has gone to the extent that the book itself has been adapted into a movie. It’s easier to watch a story unfold in front of you, than it is to read or write a story from one’s imagination. Kids these days are coerced into finding the easy way out.

For me, there is a simple solution to ease children of all reading and writing backgrounds and skill sets;  teach screenwriting in high schools as an alternative form of creative writing.

Not only will teaching the art of screenwriting be more relatable to students because it involves creating a visual story on paper, it is fundamentally a rigid, structural, and formulaic type of writing; in other words, I believe it is a creative alternative to help entice more children to read and write. Also, I’ve never met a kid who didn’t like the movies. What’s important for them to learn is why they like movies. All things considered, it most likely written exceptionally well. If something can be written that caters to today’s youths short attention span, then it must be written exceptionally well for it come across on the big screen in such relatable fashion.

Screenwriting goes beyond basic creative non-fiction or fiction writing, and it goes beyond analytical or persuasive essay writing. It can be both equally fun and challenging. The best thing of all is that it is doable for students. If students do not like to write because they are uninterested in the topics they have to analyze, or if they see no point in sharing a creative thought, screenwriting can give them an end goal to strive for. They can strive to create an individualized story that can one day, reach the silver screen. That goal becomes lost or even an afterthought in other forms of writing. That goal is probably the most important aspect of all – the ability to dream that one day, a movie can be made from a single idea that you’ve concocted. Everyone has an idea for a movie. Not everyone knows the process in order for that idea to become a movie. The good news is that this particular understanding of how a story is crafted and written for the screen can be both taught and learned.

I have had the pleasure of teaching a high school elective screenwriting class two separate times. What I found intriguing both times is that teaching a class on this topic is engaging for the students. They learn how a movie intrinsically becomes a movie – it all starts with paper and pencil, keyboard and computer screen, and most of all – with the written word that is spawned from an idea.  Screenwriting, just like any other form of writing, is a form of expression and otherwise an outlet for today’s youth. The best films are made from true experiences and if students learn to understand themselves better or even share their experiences with others in an accessible way, it can be very therapeutic and rewarding.

One of my former tutees was a sophomore girl who had trouble focusing in her English class and had issues with a creative writing assignment that dealt with writing a short story. I simply told her that a short story is a step right before writing a screenplay, which is a step right before making a movie. She immediately recalled one of her favorite Lifetime original movies that echoed one of her own real life experiences, and boom – she had discovered the fire of inspiration inside herself to write a short story. Her distraction now became an ability to emulate another story and create her own. And that’s just the start.

It’s my hope that if students at a young age can learn how to write for the movies before they reach the collegiate level, they will have much stronger overall writing skills than can help them succeed in various areas of the job market. Having a background in a regimented writing discipline is paramount in the real world. The teachers of today’s youth, editors of magazines and novels, and even lawyers, all have a strong writing background. Most people who start in these successful professions ultimately wind up as professional screenwriters or script consultants themselves at the end of the day.

What is important to take away from this is that screenwriting can be an effective teaching tool when it comes to molding creative young minds. Linking creative writing, particularly screenwriting, with visual media, notably films, as a teaching tool for students can give them a certain level of appreciation of writing they might have never learned otherwise.

Screenwriting is an art, and it can be easily taught as well as appreciated. Plus, if the younger generation is taught how to write screenplays well at a young age, we might be saved from a future of horrible movies that dilute good writing with bad special effects and action sequences. I can at least dream , can’t I?

-- by Sebastian Gilbert

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