Summer School Spotlight: The Story and the Script

Release Date: 6/14/2012

Summer school classes are a great way to pick up some extra credit hours, and they often focus on topics that might not be offered at any other time. The classes cover in 3 to 6 weeks what would take 16 weeks during the regular semester. This spotlight focuses on RTV/SCM 3893 - The Story and the Script.

Students learn the art and the structure of story-telling

There are scholars in the field of communication studies who argue that the human brain is built for story-telling. When Walter Fisher wrote about the paradigm of "narrative rationality" during the 1980s, he suggested that the scientific name for human beings could actually be Homo narrans rather than Homo sapiens because of the way we use stories to communicate.

During the 2012 summer term, students in one class spent three weeks as Home narrans while they were enrolled in Dr. Greta Marlow's course, The Story and the Script. The focus for the class was to take a story idea and write it as a script for video production. "Susan [Edens] has talked a lot about doing story-telling with the RTV program, and that kind of planted the idea in my head," said Marlow. "Telling stories is also an important part of public relations.  When I decided to do summer school, I wanted to do something for both RTV and SCM." The idea, she said, was to have the students focus on story-telling - exploring the different elements that go into a story, and figuring out how their story could be shown through the video medium. "We talked about script-writing for movies or television programs, although I used a lot of examples from print stories (short stories and books). But the story is the same - the elements of the story would stay the same all the way across," she explained. "Most of what you have to write in the school year is expository so it's kind of fun to do something creative!"

To get the students started, Marlow first asked them to choose a story written by someone else and come up with their own adaptation.

Find a short story or a children's picture book that you would like to adapt into a television program or short film. The story needs to be plot-based (in other words, "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish" by Dr. Seuss probably won't work...).

"The idea of doing that was they wouldn't have to invent a plot or come up with characters…they could piggy-back on what someone else had," Marlow said.

The stories the students picked covered a wide range of topics and each story presented its own challenges. "There's so much in a printed story that is narration or thought, but in a video story that has to somehow be portrayed on screen," Marlow said.  "One student did The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. It's a re-telling of the three little pigs from the wolf's point of view (he blamed it on allergies).  Another did one about a patchwork colored elephant named Elmer. And another student chose The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor, a short story by Sherman Alexie."

Part of their grade on the adaptation, Marlow said, focused on how faithful they stayed to the original story. "But then I also had another chunk that was devoted to [how well] they adapted from one medium to another in an appropriate way," she said. "I think the student who adapted Click, Clack, Moo may have had the biggest challenge of all because in that book, the cows don't really talk or anything - they just have letters that they send to the farmers. That doesn't make a very interesting movie." Marlow said that she talked with the student about different ways the story could be adapted, and the student settled on a rather interesting approach where she depicted the cows as they decided to write the letters, and decided what demands to make. "In some ways, that might be wandering a little bit from the original story," Marlow said, "but it was something that had to happen to make the story work as a movie, and to have dialogue."

Once the students had gotten a feel for how a work by another writer could be adapted, they set to work on their own stories. The first step? Come up with some characters. "You have to have good, fully developed, realistic, believable, well-motivated characters," Marlow told them. "Whether you're writing a sitcom, or a radio drama, or a novel, or a children's book, you've got to have characters."

To help her students develop their story characters, Marlow had them turn in a profile that outlined all the main characters of their story. They then went over these profiles in class and discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the different characters. "One student had written a character that had an invisible disability," Marlow said. "The other students kind of pushed her on that, and said 'What do you mean? What is this disability?' And she said 'I haven't decided yet.'" But at this point Marlow told her, "You have to decide…you have to commit to something. It doesn't matter what you decide it is, but you have to know, in your head, what the disability is that this person is fighting against."

Marlow said it was interesting to read the character profiles that the students had developed. "I've seen stuff before that says there's a lot of autobiography about what people write, especially their first novel," she said. "I can picture each of the students as a character - a major character. I don't know if they're thinking of it that way, but I can kind of see them as a major character in their script."

Once the characters were described, the next step for the students was to develop the plot outline for their stories. "One of the things we talked about in class was the idea that we're looking at a classical approach to [the plot]," Marlow said. "There have been some people who have tried to experiment with plot, but we're taking the traditional idea of rising action, building up to a climax, and a quick resolution of that. "

In the class, Marlow said they talked about plot structure - about how in a classic structure the story should move the main character forward. "He's learning something and growing - following the same general plot pattern outlined by Gustav Freytag," she explained. She said that even in a simple children's book the reader can find this pattern.  Consider, for example, the classic children's book What was I Scared Of, by Dr. Seuss. In the book, the main character finds a pair of pale green pants with nobody inside them. "Even that story, as simple as it was, built - there were crisis points," she said. "And those crisis points became progressively worse, until he was out in the middle of the deep, dark Snide field picking a peck of Snide, and he reached inside a bush and he touched something! And sure enough, it was the pale green pants. He's terrified! But then the pants are just as scared as he is. That's the climax of the story and it falls off from there."  While this children's book tells a funny story, Marlow pointed out that the plot still follows that pattern where the obstacles get progressively worse to the point where the hero is either going to totally win or totally lose.

On the day the students turned in their plot outlines, Marlow asked them if they would like to critique each other's work. "Yes!" they answered. So Marlow said she made copies of their plot outlines and the students then quickly read them over. "Then we all sat around and each person was in the 'hot seat' for a few minutes and the other people asked questions and made comments about the script," she said. "It was really interesting."

Some of the plots were well developed, Marlow said. However, in some of the others, the students observed that the writer hadn't fully developed a central conflict or struggle. Marlow said they talked about how our everyday lives are just sequences of events, but in story life, you have to have the conflict. "So we talked about some different alternatives about how they could set up that conflict, or what that conflict could be," she said.

She said that as they reviewed the plot outlines, they found themselves talking about another important aspect of story-telling - the ending. "One of the students is going to kill off his main character at the end of his story," she said. "But, the character is making a sacrifice. We were talking about how the story doesn't have to have a 'happy ending' where everything turns out great for the hero." Marlow paraphrased a quote by Elizabeth George Speare for her students. "You don't shy away from the pain of life in telling the story, but at the end of the story you need to feel that the character has the strength to stand up to whatever the circumstances are," she said. "There needs to be something kind of hopeful. Even if the main character is dead, there should be something that goes beyond."

Once they had written their plot outline, the students had to pull together their work on characters and plot to turn in some of the scenes they had developed for their script. "They had to write at least five of the major scenes, like maybe the crisis point or the climax or something like that," Marlow said. "It was interesting to see the diversity of the stories that they came up with," she said. "We had the sci-fi epic, action, a whole fantasy world; and then we had what would be kind of a - I don't know if it would be a comedy, but a romantic story; then we had kind of an 'issues story' with the story about the student with the disability. It's just interesting to see how they adapted -they took this idea of 'you tell a story, free rein, whatever you want to tell' and ran with it."

To bring the writing experience full-circle, Marlow said she ended the class with something that every script-writer may need to know how to do. "On the last day of class, they did a pitch of their movie," Marlow said. "To tie [what they've learned] in with strategic communication and marketing, I wanted to have them come up with a way to sell their idea." In the pitch sessions, the students presented a synopsis of the story and described who they saw as the potential audience for their story, as well as what the appeal would be to that audience. "We had the pitch session in one of the conference rooms in Walker Hall," she said, "so it would seem more like an actual pitch meeting."

While Marlow said the three week class didn't give the students enough time to write a complete script, they should now have a better understanding of the basic concepts required to write one. "As I told the students, we didn't have a lot of time to write, so they should think of their scripts as a beginning rather than a finished product," she said. "This gives them a structure instead of just being faced with 'I have to write a story!' They could start thinking of it in terms of 'I have to create a plot outline…' and do something that's different from the usual. If these students have some interest in writing, this class will give them some tools to work with."