Download the PDF version of this lesson plan.
Strong readers make the "movie" of a book in their minds. This lesson guides children through the fundamentals of format required to write an actual movie screenplay.
- What are the key features of a screenplay?
- How can a screenwriter correctly write a screenplay that can be read by actors, directors, and producers?
After completing the lessons in this unit, students will be able to:
- Define screenwriting terminology, such as "high concept," "dialogue" and "parenthetical."
- Evaluate a story for its storytelling potential.
- Create a movie’s "high concept."
- Correctly format a screenplay.
- Effectively use screenwriting techniques to guide dialogue and action.
This lesson requires a computer and a word processing program. No other preparation or resources are required.
Lesson 1: Prologue
If you like to read and you like to watch movies, you’ve probably thought that you could write a movie yourself. Have you? Be honest! In this lesson, you’ll learn the very basics of screenwriting in a nutshell. There is much more to learn, obviously, but this will get you pointed in the right direction.
Before you go any further, the first thing you need to do is look at a real screenplay to get an idea of what they look like. Here are a few examples:
Did you notice how the formatting didn’t read like a book? Screenplays are written using a specific format. People who write screenplays professionally use specific software, and if you become serious about it, you can invest in that, too. Some commonly used screenwriting software products include:
Screenwriting software can be pretty expensive, but you don’t need it to start writing. All you need is the know-how and a story to tell. Ready?
Lesson 2: Action!
STEP 1: The story – First, you need to choose your story. It can be a long chapter book or a shorter picture book you love. It can be a comic strip you like to read. It can be a story you made up. A good story will have strong characters and make you feel something for what’s going on. What story are you going to use?
STEP 2: The concept – Next, describe your story’s "high concept." This is the term they use in Hollywood to mean what the main idea of your story is. Put it in a "what if" format. For instance, think about the movie Mary Poppins. The "what if" statement would be "What if a nanny with magical powers came to take care of three children and changed their lives forever?" Write your "what if" statement.
STEP 3: The document – Now let’s make a title page. Open a document.
- Find the middle of the page, vertically and horizontally. Type the title in bold type.
- Two lines below the title, type "Written by" centered on the line.
- Two lines underneath that, type your name, also centered.
- In the lower right-hand corner, put your name, address, phone number and email address.
(Example at right.)
STEP 4: The document format – Now you’re ready to start your story. Before you begin, you have to format the page.
This is important to do correctly if you want to be taken seriously. However, there are many standards out there for the "right" way to format a script, usually dependent on who the script will be submitted to. For our purposes here, we’re going to aim high and use the standards used for the Academy Awards.
Here’s what you do:
- Insert a page number in the upper right corner of the header. Make it so that the page number starts on the second page with "2." You don’t put a page number on the first page.
- Use the font Courier in 12-point.
- Set the margins as follows:
- Top and bottom: 1"
- Left margin: 1.5" (you have to leave extra on the left to allow for the hole punching)
- Right margin: 1"
Lesson 3: Writing a scene
Step 5: Setting the scene – Now that you’ve got your document formatted, you’re ready to write. You will write in scenes. Scenes are pieces of the whole movie. Each scene has to establish who is in the scene, where it is, when it is and what is happening. What is happening is very important. There needs to be something happening in each scene. At the end of every scene, you should be able to answer the question "So what?" with a response showing why that scene is important to the overall movie.
Step 6: The scene heading – First you need to give the scene heading. This tells where the action is taking place and what time it is, as well as other information the director and actors need to know to make it come out the way you, the writer, envision it.
Type the scene heading left aligned. Left aligned means that the letters start at the far left of the page, just like in this paragraph. Use all capital letters. First, you have to say if the scene is to be shot inside (interior, abbreviated "INT") or outside (exterior, abbreviated "EXT"). Next, put a hyphen in and give the location. Is the action taking place in a house, at an amusement park, in a library? Here are some examples:
Step 7: Adding action – You’re ready to write the action now. When we’re writing a screenplay, we use what is called the literary present tense. That means that we write as though whatever is happening in the scene is happening right now. We write in the present tense only and always. The first time you mention a character’s name, put that name all in CAPITALS. Also put anything that makes a sound in caps. That lets script readers easily see who’s there and what’s going on. Here’s an example:
Step 8: Adding characters – Now that you’ve brought your character into the scene, you probably will want the character to speak. There are some rules for that. The character has to be introduced. You introduce the character by indenting his or her name 4.2 inches from the left edge of the paper.
Here’s what we’ve got so far:
Step 9: Adding dialogue – Now that she’s been introduced, the character can talk! Talking in a movie is called dialogue. Dialogue uses different margins. It should go from 3 inches from the left edge of the paper to 2.5 inches from the right edge. Example:
You as the writer may have an idea of how something should be said or some action that needs to be taking place at the same time. This is called a "parenthetical" because you put it in parentheses. Parentheticals have their own margin rules. (So many margin rules!) They are indented 3.7 inches from the left and 5.2 inches from the right, for a total width of 1.5 inches. Don’t center them under the character’s name, even though that looks better. Example:
You might want your character to move while he/she is talking. To do that, you put the action in, and then you have to introduce your character all over again. You use this (CONT’D) after the name to show that the dialogue continues through the action. Example:
This shows that while she is getting up and looking out of the window, she is still talking.
Step 10: Voiceovers – Sometimes you may want your character to talk in a different way than straight dialogue. Maybe you want the action to continue while the character isn’t in the scene, but you can still hear his/her voice. This is called "voiceover" and is abbreviated "V.O." Maybe you want the character to be out of range of the camera, but still participating in the scene. This is called "off-screen" and is abbreviated "O.S."
You show this the same way as you did (CONT’D) by putting an abbreviation to the right of the character’s name. Examples:
The "V.O." shows the director and actor that the audience will hear her voice, but on the screen her lips won’t be moving.
Step 11: Keeping the beat – If you want your character to pause between sentences or phrases, type in the word "beat" like you would a regular parenthetical. Example:
Lesson 4: More techniques
Step 12: The montage – You may have a scene that is like a collage of images. In screenwriting, this is called a "montage." To write the order of a montage, you start by typing "MONTAGE" in all caps left aligned. Then you number the scenes in the montage in order. You can use capital letters instead of numbers, too. It doesn’t matter. Example:
Step 13: The intercut – Another technique you might need is called "intercut." Intercutting is when you have two different scenes going on at the same time. Maybe two characters are on the phone with each other, or maybe two totally different action scenes are happening simultaneously. To do this, you establish the scene in both places, then type "INTERCUT" against the left margin. Explain the intercut in all caps, and then type the dialogue or action normally. Example:
Step 14: Do it right! – It is very important that you use perfect spelling and grammar. Have someone else check it for you. Don’t rely on your computer program’s checker; it is not always accurate. Screenwriting is a serious business. If you want to be taken seriously, you can’t have misspelled words and poorly constructed sentences.
Lesson 5: Learning more
Step 15: Practice, Practice, Practice! – To practice, you need to do three things: read, watch, and write.
- Read books on screenwriting; see the Extension section for suggestions.
- Next, you need to watch movies carefully. Can you see the intercuts? When you hear dialogue, think about what parentheticals you would use to make it sound like that. When you see a montage, think about how you would write that out.
- Lastly, you need to write. No matter how good your idea is, it will never have what it takes to make a real movie if it’s not turned into a script. Read, watch, write!
If you finish a screenplay, check out copyright.gov to find out how to copyright it.
- Field, Syd. Screenplay
- Flinn, Denny Martin. How Not to Write a Screenplay: 101 Common Mistakes Most Screenwriters Make
- Hunter, Lew. Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434: The Industry’s Premier Teacher Reveals the Secrets of the Successful Screenplay
- Iglesias, Karl. The 101 Habits Of Highly Successful Screenwriters: Insider’s Secrets from Hollywood’s Top Writers
- Lazarus, Tom. Secrets of Film Writing
- Press, Skip. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Screenwriting
- Straczynski, J. Michael. The Complete Book of Scriptwriting
- Trottier, David. The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script
Lesson PlansBack to lesson plans archiveDecember 31, 2013
Discovering your voice through poetry – Lesson Plan
By Katie Gould, PBS NewsHour Extra Teacher Resource Producer
This lesson plan introduces students to the poetry of Rafael Campo and helps students to find their own voice while gaining confidence writing their own original poetry. This lesson plan has been created in partnership with the Poetry Foundation, the Great Books Foundation and the PBS NewsHour.
English Language Arts
One 90 minute class period
Middle and High School
Pre-Lesson 5 minute activity and homework
- For homework ask students to pick their favorite song, print out the lyrics and bring them to class the next day. The song should be one that gives you “shivers down your spine”.
- This “shivers down the spine” is a common phenomenon and there have been songs and poetry written about it. One example was a song written about it in the 1970s. “Killing Me Softly with His Song” is a song composed by Charles Fox with lyrics by Norman Gimbel. It was a number-one hit in 1973 for Roberta Flack. The song has been remade by numerous artists including the Fugees.
- Play the song and have students follow along with the lyrics (on screen). You may also choose to hand out copies of the lyrics as well.
- In addition to picking a song, students should visit and read “How to Read a Poem” from the Great Books foundation, click here to access it.
Warm up activity
An introduction to poetry through music
Great quote from “Introduction to Poetry” poem by Billy Collins for the board.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
- Pass out “Introduction” worksheet and have students fold page one so they can’t see the definition that is written half way up the page.
- Ask students to answer the following questions and have them write their answers on their “Introduction” worksheet:
- What words come to mind when they think of poetry?
- What is the definition of poetry?
*As an example you can say the word “alliteration” and show them this scene from “V is for Vendetta” as an example of alliteration.
- Then play two or three student examples of poetry produced by Ozena Dixon, Antonio Hunter and Ashley Johnson of The Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush in Philadelphia, Pa.
- After the students have seen the poem(s) ask them:
- Was this poetry?
- How do you know that what you saw was poetry?
- Then give them a chance to add to their definition and words that come to mind when they hear the word “poetry”. Let them unfold page one and check to see if their definition of poetry was close. Ask to see if anyone was, many will not have been close.
- Now give students the short non-fiction article “Poetry is like music to the mind, scientists prove” to read. Ask students if they can identify with the sensation of having “shivers down the spine” when they listen to a piece of music they really connect with? Reinforce what they read and explain to them that a piece of poetry can have the same effect as a song because poetry and music share so many qualities.
- Ask class if they can think of shared characteristics by writing music on one side of the board and poetry on the other side. Write characteristics making a special emphasis on how they often share the same characteristics.
- Explain to students that they are going to look at an example that has poetic qualities to it and pass out the lyrics to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” by Israel “Iz” Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole (this is his version of the song) and give them a little information about his background:
- Iz is a Hawaiian native who was famous for his ukulele playing and was a strong influence on Hawaiian music. He passed away at age 38 in 1997 and his ashes were scattered back into the ocean.
- Play the song letting the students read along and pass out their “Guiding questions” worksheet to them so they can look more deeply into the song. For this song have them use the even questions.
- Ask the students to share answers they arrived at with the person sitting next to them. Tell students that they won’t necessarily be able to answer every question and that is okay.
- Then give the students time to look at their own song and using the “Guiding questions” handout from the Great Books Foundation and explore their song more closely. For this song they should use the odd questions. They should address the questions from the “Introduction” worksheet and use the “Guiding questions” to help.
- Ask students “why do people write songs and poems?” and write answers on the board.
- Then pass out the handout “Guide: How to Read a Poem” from the Great Books Foundation and have students read through it. For the full guide please click here.
- Then read both poems on page two and three of the “Introduction” worksheet asking students just to listen first.
- Ask students which poem they like better and divide class into two groups based on their choices and have them sit in a circle (or in some arrangement so they can see each other.) Then pass out another “Guiding Questions” handout and have students discuss and answer the questions on their own paper. For this poem students may pick any 8 guiding questions.
The poetry of Rafael Campo
- Have students return to their desks and ask them the following questions as a class and also have them write down their own answers on their “Relationships” handout:
- What kind of relationship do you have with your doctor?
- How do you talk to them?
- How do they talk to you?
- Tell students that now they are going to read a poem written by a doctor who is also a poet- Rafael Campo. Pass out “Rafael’s Poems” to students and read them aloud one at a time and giving students the opportunity to reflect and discuss the poems. To guide the class discussion refer back to the questions from the “Guiding Questions” worksheet:
- Who is the speaker?
- What circumstances gave rise to the poem?
- What situation is presented?
- Who or what is the audience?
- What is the tone?
- What form, if any, does the poem take?
- How is form related to content?
- Is sound an important, active element of the poem?
- Does the poem spring from an identifiable historical moment?
- Does the poem speak from a specific culture?
- Does the poem have its own vernacular?
- Does the poem use imagery to achieve a particular effect?
- What kind of figurative language, if any, does the poem use?
- If the poem is a question, what is the answer?
- If the poem is an answer, what is the question?
- What does the title suggest?
- Does the poem use unusual words or use words in an unusual way?
- Now ask students to complete question two on their “Relationships” handout.
Think about a time when you had to hear a difficult message from someone or you had to give someone bad news. How did that conversation go? Was it hard to understand where you or they were coming from? How did you or they make the message they had to deliver clear? Did you or they do anything to make the message “softer” or “easier” to hear? How did you/they do that? Did you appreciate those efforts or do you think the conversation went better because of your efforts?
- Now ask students to use the experience they wrote about to create their own original poem. Their assignment is to write their own poem in the spirit of Rafael Campo’s exploration of the difficulty of certain relationships, like his with his patients or about a girl he used to tease growing up. Students should try to emulate Rafael’s poems but the content should be from their own experience or the one they described in their “Relationships” worksheet.
- Once students have finished their poem have them compare and contrast their poems to the poetry of Rafael Campo and each others. This should be done in pairs or in small groups.
Special thanks to Great Books Foundation for their contribution to this lesson plan by providing resources on “How to Read a Poem” and Guiding Questions.
Arts & CultureEnglish & Language Artspoetry