Teenagers go to movies more than any age group in the world. Accordingly, it’s not surprising that a lot of them want to write movies of their own,
tapping the vast resources of screenwriting/filmmaking books on today’s market as well as taking advantage of the affordable lineup of software programs, cameras, and post-production editing tools. In addition to classroom instruction, the next generation of moviemakers can supplement their education with online classes (such as the 6-week modules I teach), weekend workshops, film festivals and websites that not only allow them to pitch their ideas and enter contests but also interact with kindred spirits in webinars and chat rooms.
The “how” question of teaching screenwriting to teens and tweens is based on two factors: (1) the class size and (2) the duration of instruction. While an entire semester obviously affords you with the luxury of encouraging your students to create multiple projects and explore multiple genres, you’re still faced with the challenge of keeping them actively engaged and, to the extent possible, giving them one-on-one attention to hone their respective skill sets in storytelling, character development, dialogue, pacing and cinematic structure. Every homework or in-class assignment must build on the concepts previously imparted, steadily increasing in complexity.
But what if you only have one week to teach the basics?
Such was the timeframe I was given several summers ago at Lyndon Institute in Vermont. On the plus side, I had seven exceptionally smart students. On the down side, they ranged in age from 13 to 19 and had never met one another prior to the start of class. Given the diversity of maturity levels and attention spans, how I could possibly introduce any esprit de corps?
The answer was simpler than I thought. They all loved movies and they all had opinions. The first question I asked was for them to name their three favorite films as well as three movies they hated. And yes, they all opened their mouths at exactly the same time…and loudly. I, therefore, imposed the first rule of order; specifically, that they show each other respect by listening so that everyone would have a chance to express a view without interruption. (Interestingly, I only had to remind them of this rule once; thereafter, they comported themselves more courteously than a lot of adults in a group situation.)
Once their list of movies was on the blackboard, discussion was invited on (1) what elements made the good movies so watchable and (2) what could have been done to improve the bad ones. The ability to critically analyze a story’s strengths and weaknesses is a powerful tool students can subsequently use in evaluating their own work. Students were then instructed to choose any movie off the list and – after 10 minutes of introspection and note-taking – explain to the rest of the class whether the movie could/could not be adapted effectively to a different medium.
It was this ongoing combination of open discussion/debate and individual analysis of storytelling concepts such as reward, revenge and escape that set the stage for the improvisational acting games, group brainstorming, and in-class screenwriting exercises that followed. Rather than force them to hammer out a script as a group, I focused on short, individual assignments such as writing a 30-second commercial (and casting their classmates to act it out), composing a one-paragraph synopsis of the movie they wanted to write, filling out a character biography for their movie’s hero or villain, choosing any subject for a documentary and identifying what elements they would incorporate (i.e., re-enactments, music, photographs, interviews), seeing how many formatting errors they could catch in a fake script page, rewriting a favorite movie scene completely in rhyme, and even my version of flash fiction in which I’d dispense fortune cookies and ask that they write a half-page monologue in which the fortune has to be the first or last line.
Whether it’s a traditional classroom, workshop or online class, I’m a firm believer in using lots of fun handout materials and worksheets, screenwriting articles I’ve published, recommended reading lists and links to resource websites, any of which I would be happy to share with School Video News subscribers upon request.
As part of my ongoing commitment to supply great lesson plans for today’s classrooms, I always enjoy getting feedback on how the material is used and what kind of new content you’d like to see in future columns. I’m also happy to answer any questions related to specific problems your students may be struggling with. Just drop me a note at or through my website at http://www.authorhamlett.com.
Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author, professional script consultant, and ghostwriter. Her credits to date include 26 books, 144 plays for young actors, and 5 optioned feature films.