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Screenwriting as an ELA Exercise

onlinewritingOur November 2015 English Journal offers the article “Lights, Camera, Write: How Scene Writing Can Help Students Write in Multiple Genres.” Author Darren Masserman, a high school ELA teacher, advises that one way to help students develop as writers is to assign them to write scenes for plays or movies.

Many students who avoid reading still enjoy getting stories through cinema and television. This makes screenwriting a natural bridge to connect students with the art of storytelling. Masserman argues, “If writing is presented in such a way that students can make the connection to what they already enjoy in the media, it becomes less of a task for them. They start to see the writing as a fun exercise rather than an assignment they are required to complete.”

Furthermore, the very format of screenwriting can make it more appealing to hard-to-reach students. “The majority of scenes are broken up by character dialogue and stage direction. Aesthetically, this not only makes scenes easier to read for students rather than paragraphs of text, but it can help make writing easier as well,” he observes. “Once presented with the idea of writing shorter, more succinct sentences as one would see in scene writing, rather than longer paragraphs as an essay might have, the task in their minds becomes ‘easier.’ This then translates into them being more willing to participate in and complete the writing task.”

Not only is the exercise engaging, but Masserman says it offers solid educational benefits.

In screenwriting, dialogue and action are visually separated, emphasizing for the reader how each element functions individually, as well as how the two work together. This strengthens students’ understanding of the narrative form. Further, since cinema and television and theater are visual art forms, such writing can help students develop the skill of “show, don’t tell,” emphasizing to students the importance of revealing character through action. For these reasons, Masserman concludes that scene writing can be a great tool for developing students’ understanding of narrative writing.

It can also be useful for argumentative writing. Masserman writes, “A common obstacle of . . . teaching argumentative writing is getting students to consider opposing points of view. Scene writing can help make this process easier by having students create a dialogue between two speakers that have contrasting viewpoints. [This scene writing will] allow students to see things and events of the story from the unique perspective of the characters. Writing dialogue as if they were these characters, especially in a format of exchange, helps them understand the motivations and emotions behind these characters. Students then use what they have discovered from the writing to inform their eventual thesis. This is an outcome that most generic outline formats for argumentative writing cannot produce.”

Referring to a fictional teacher he uses to illustrate his points, Masserman concludes, “If Mr. Owens can continue to ‘fool’ his students into thinking that scene writing is not actual writing, while at the same time teaching his students the fundamentals of what it takes to be an effective writer who thoroughly communicates ideas in an engaging way, he has done his job as a writing instructor.”

Darren Masserman’s entire article is available free on the English Journal website.