Elizabeth Stapula is a creative high school ELA teacher in Virginia. She loves helping her students bring writing to life through screenplays. Read on to see how Elizabeth energizes her creative writing activities for high school students through screenwriting in ELA.
The Joy of Screenwriting IN ela
In the midst of the height of the pandemic, in the beginning of 2021, I found myself, like so many other teachers working from home, frustrated and isolated. I turned to movies and television to aid me in my lockdown cabin fever. First, as a distraction from home, but then I began to think about how grateful I was for this medium of entertainment. Sometimes the only way to awaken the chat on a groggy Monday in Zoom school was to ask what everyone was watching. Suddenly, the chat would erupt with shows and movies and people begging one another not to spoil things they hadn’t seen yet. I pondered how I could take this investment in tv and movies into their reading. But then, something hit me. Why shift their attention when it’s already on art?
As a writer and lover of movies, surprisingly, I hadn’t really ever put the two together, but then something kismet happened. One of my favorite YouTubers, Linda Barsi, who makes YouTube content about writing and mental health, advertised that she was offering a screenwriting course. I knew that it was something that I needed to do. I had a meeting with Linda and then spent the next 8 weeks learning the art of screenwriting, studying movies and television, writing fifteen pages a week, and reading other writers’ work.
As I unlocked the screenwriter in me, I knew that there was an inner screenwriter in many of my students. What if I could harness that engagement in stories into creating their own television shows and movies? I had to put it to the test.
I’m not a seasoned screenwriter, nevertheless, I embarked on an adventure to teach my Creative Writing students the joy of bringing your imagination to life through screenwriting. I encourage you, if you choose to go on this journey, to have grace with yourself. Modeling that will encourage your students to embrace the messy joy of writing what you envision and not what someone expects you to. The journey we went on had many turns. Here are some of the lessons I would do again.
Learn what students like to watch
The first step to screenwriting in ELA is to get students invested. As a class we brainstormed genres we loved and then our favorite shows and movies in each genre. We ended up with a whole Pixar category, a Marvel ranking list, and about a million subgenres I’d never even heard of. We spent half the class talking about what we loved and why we loved it. Jot down what they’re saying as they say it and ask them to elaborate.
After nerding out about the movies and tv shows you all love, it’s time to let them in on the magical secret that those stories came from someone’s mind. Growing up I loved movies and television, but I never really thought about the fact that there was someone who had to come up with the story and write it in the same way that I understood that was true for books. So often we look at the director, the actors, and even the special effects. It is after all a visual medium. It’s easy to lose sight that it all starts with the written word.
Mentor Texts: Notice what writers do in screenplays
Things they might notice:
- Scene headings
- Setting description
- Character names in ALL CAPS when first introduced
- Character descriptions
- Lots of white space
Jump in! try to write a scene in ela!
A fun way to practice the structure of screenwriting in ELA is to write something that already exists! Pick a scene of a movie or a show most students are familiar with and then have them try to use the structure they noticed to recreate the scene in writing.
For instance, we picked the opening scene of Soul, a movie we had seen earlier in the year. We watched it several times, and then students used free screenwriting software online to type up their version of what those pages of the script would look like.
In small groups, have students compare and contrast their scripts and create one master script. If you can find access to the actual script, have students compare and contrast what they came up with and what is in the actual script.
Want vs need in screenwriting in ELA
In a screenplay and in most stories, what a character wants is often in conflict with what the character needs. For instance, in The Little Mermaid, Ariel’s WANT is to be like a human so she can live happily ever after with Prince Eric. Ariel’s NEED, however, is to take a risk to unite the mer-people with the human people and feel a sense of true belonging.
Want: The character’s desires
Need: The lesson the character needs to learn to grow
eNTER LATE/EXIT EARLY
Unlike in a novel, in a screenplay there isn’t a lot of time to spend per page developing characters and getting to know them, so it’s important to cut to the juicy parts. Enter the concept of “enter late, exit early”. In screenwriting, we skip the part where people knock on the door, say hello, how are you, unless of course those moments are important to developing your plot, conflict, or character in a significant way. Most of the time, we can get right to the action or emotion of the scene.
wRITE THE MOVIE YOU WOULD WANT TO WATCH
Now that students have had a chance to look at some scripts and try their hand at the form, I let them loose to try whatever they’re pulled toward. Some may want to write an episode of a show they’ve seen, their own show idea, a new movie, and some might just want to play around with writing one scene. All are great places to begin! I tried to provide structures and resources for any avenue they might go down, and also encourage them to use the internet to help them.
wHAT TO DO WHEN STUDENTS GET STUCK WRITING SCREENPLAYS
- Stop thinking about the format and just write what you see “And then I see… And then I see… And then I see…”
- Write on your phone! The notes app is just as valid as any screenwriting software.
- Watch something that’s the same genre as what you’re trying to write! Maybe notice what they do, or maybe just soak it in.
- Make a playlist
- Make a mood board for your project
- Go for a walk
aPPLY lEARNING sTANDARDS TO SCREENWRITING IN ELA
Teaching screenwriting in Creative Writing seems second nature. It’s a medium of writing students love being exposed to, but I’ve done some thinking about how this could be used in a standard ELA course too. Once you’ve taught the basics of the form and how it functions, it could be used as an option for students to show mastery of a unit. For example:
- Write a scene from a novel as a screenplay where the main character displays their want/need clearly.
- Write a scene from a novel cutting out most of the words that will be replaced by the “enter later/exit early” concept.
- Debate author’s choice by remixing a scene into a screenplay
Free Online Screenwriting Software for students
Thank you for sharing Elizabeth! It’s so refreshing to read about the JOY in writing! If you want to add more drama elements into your ELA classroom, check out my resource here: Act It Out: An engaging reading activity for ANY text, drama, or story