Thursday, March 3, 2011

A College Semester is like a Hollywood Screenplay


In a way, the structure of a college course is analogous to a Hollywood screenplay. The movie making process is a collaborative one among the director, actors, producers, and editors. However, the process is begun in a vacuum, when writer puts pen to paper. A compelling screenplay focuses on the:
- most important and chaotic moment in the protagonist’s life
- character flaws of the protagonist
- protagonist’s dramatic need to achieve some goal or perform some task
- unbearable barriers or insurmountable obstacles placed in front of our hero
- resolution of the character’s conflict and achievement
- character’s growth as s/he learns from this trying experience

I’m the first to agree that it’s a stretch to say that a college class is the most important and chaotic moment of anyone’s life. But the structure of a class has interesting parallels to the formula for writing a good commercial screenplay.

Similarity between a Screenplay and a College Course
1. Structure. A commercial screenplay has a very defined beginning, middle, and end. Screenwriters usually aim to write a 120 page script (one page of dialogue is equivalent to one minute of screen time, or a two hour movie). Likewise, a college course has a fixed number of weeks each semester.

2. Scenes. Unlike a novel, which has the luxury of providing the reader with rich detailed narrative and exposition, the screenplay’s action must be constant. For example, Thomas Harris’s terrific novel, Silence of the Lambs is 350 pages in length. In contrast, Ted Tally’s
adaptation of the novel to a screenplay needed to cut out many scenes and most of the novel’s detailed description, in order to write a condensed manageable product suitable for the screen. Thus, every scene of a screenplay must have some purpose which drives the story forward, as our hero is forced to confront challenges. Similarly, each class session better have a purpose, providing key information which builds on prior concepts, thus preparing students for a test.

Plot Points.
A screenplay has well defined and well placed plot points. A plot point is a dramatic event in the script which sends the protagonist in a new direction. Similarly, a college course has such plot points, which is set out below.

Syd Field, an acclaimed screenwriting teacher, discusses in his book, Screenplay, where a screenwriter’s plot points should be built into a script. In his book entitled Four Screenplays, Mr. Field analyzes the structure of a handful of screenplays, including Silence of the Lambs.
Below is a simplified version of his screenplay structure model and the placement of plot points. I then use this model to make my analogy of how a college course resembles the structure of a screenplay.

In the movie, Silence of the Lambs, Clarice (Jody Foster), a freshly minted FBI agent is sent off for an assignment which might be way above her head: to speak with the dangerously brilliant psychologist, Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) from his prison cell, seeking clues about a new serial killer, Buffalo Bill. Dr. Lecter, an expert at mind games, is in prison for killing one of his own patients.

Field’s Model & Silence of the Lambs

Act I - The Set Up leading up to Plot Point 1, an event at the end of the act which spins the story in a new direction with conflict
Act II - The Confrontation and The Mid-Point
Act III - Plot Point 2 begins just before the last act, leading to The Resolution
(from Four Screenplays, Introduction xviii)

Plot Point 1: Clarice is trying to find information about Buffalo Bill, a serial killer who likes to cut the skin off the victims’ bodies. Dr. Hannibal Lecter, an expert at profiling such killers, gives her a cryptic false lead, which she tracks down to a storage facility. Instead of finding a clue to where Buffalo Bill is, Clarice instead finds the severed head of one of Lecter’s former patients. She “passes” Lecter’s first test. “School’s out Clarice.”

Mid-Point: Lecter is transferred to a less secure holding facility in Memphis, thus facilitating his escape.

Plot Point 2: Clarice figures out who the serial killer is from one of Dr. Lecter’s clues: “We covet what we see every day.” Discovering that Buffalo Bill must have known the first victim, Clarice sets out to the home of that victim, which then leads her to Buffalo Bill’s home.

Resolution: Clarice finds and confronts Buffalo Bill. Clarice has learned about her character and conviction, and passed her test of courage.
(from Four Screenplays, 155-236)

The Structure of a College Course

Plot Point 1: Exam 1. Up until this point, the students and professor go through a feeling out process. Exam 1 is the student’s first test, the same as Clarice’s first test in the movie. The results of Exam 1 send students in a new direction, and signal that there will be many challenges ahead in the long semester.

Mid-Point: Term Paper or Extra Credit Paper. This is the Mid-Point of my college course. Students may be struggling with confidence after Exam 1. The paper is a test of their attention to detail. If students follow instructions and proofread thoroughly, they can succeed on the project. However, students will face far greater obstacles after this point.

Plot Point 2: Exam 2. This test is worth more towards the final course grade than the other tests, and covers more material than Exam 1. Once students receive this grade, they can determine what grade to shoot for on Exam 3 to achieve their desired course grade. They now have a course of action to resolve the conflict: achieve a good course grade. (and maybe never see that professor again?)

Resolution: Course grade received. Hopefully, students have learned something about the course material and themselves after Exam 3, in this months-long struggle.

And hopefully the structure offered in this article gave you something new to consider when writing a course syllabus. (or inspired you to get an agent)

Four Screenplays by Syd Field on Amazon
Additional Resource: Essentials of Screenwriting by Richard Walter



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