Scriptwriting 101 at Hampton University

By Tiffany Sheppard

Screenplay.

All it takes is a writer using his or her imagination to jot down ideas on a piece of paper, right?

Wrong.

To the naked eye, writing a script only involves creating characters and telling about their lives.

To the others, scriptwriting is an art, a craft. It is a process that can takes days, weeks, months, or sometimes years to complete.

At Hampton University, a scriptwriting class is offered every semester inside the School of Liberal Arts. It is taught by Professor Eleanor Earl, a scriptwriter, actress, singer and producer. Earlier this semester, Earl was one of three teachers who were awarded the Edward L. Hamm Sr. Distinguished Teaching Award. Earl loves the artistry of writing scripts and shares her passion with students.

First, Earl instructs them to purchase what she called “the bible of scriptwriting.” the book “Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting” by Syd Field, a screenwriter, producer, teacher, lecturer and author. “Screenplay” breaks down all the aspects and details of the process of writing a screenplay to the length of the written work and how to develop characters.

Field defines a screenplay as “a story told with pictures, in dialogue and description, and placed within the context of dramatic structure.”

There are three parts in a screenplay: the set-up, the confrontation and the resolution. These three parts are also known as the beginning, middle and end, or act I, act II and act III, respectively.

The set-up and resolution are a maximum of 30 pages each, while the confrontation can be 60 pages long.

Each page of a screenplay is worth one minute in the movie.

There are also plot points, which are “any incidents, episodes, or events that hook into the action and spin it around in another direction,” said Field.

Today, the average movie is two hours long and costs millions of dollars to produce.

There are so many genres of screenplays and many different story ideas. “The Dark Knight” is the 2008 action movie about Batman and “Gotham’s finest” battling the Joker and later Harvey “Two-face” Dent.

“Harlem Nights” is a 1989 comedy-drama about a man helping to run a nightclub in the 1930s while being threatened by gangsters.

“The Jungle Book” is a 1967 Disney animated movie based on Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 novel.

None of these movies are exactly alike. However, they took time to write and produce.

In class, students are able to use their imagination and develop their own ideas. The majors of the 15 students range from English to journalism to sports management. Because the class is diverse, the story ideas are endless and are arguably some of the best premises created for the class.  

Malik Smith, a junior broadcast journalism major, created a comedy/drama about a comedian named Sean Ramsay. Ramsay is struggling to make ends meet as he gets fired from his job and is behind in paying for his recently deceased grandmother’s house. He enters into a competition, attempting to win the money and establish a career in comedy.

“I enjoy the class mostly because it forces me to be creative,” Smith said.  He also said that the class has changed the way he views movies.  “Now I focus on small things more,” Smith said.

Nmamah Sinlah, also a junior broadcast journalism major, developed a thriller. The main

character Nia is in a love triangle with two boys. She also has a friend who is her secret female lover and wants Nia all to herself.

Though Sinlah enjoys the class, there have been a few obstacles she’s had to overcome. “The only difficulty [I’ve had] is when I get writer’s block,” she said. “But it helps me be creative. That’s what I like about the class.”

Devan Dunson is a history major who enjoys the scriptwriting class. His story is about a homeless man who gives people insight into how they need to make their lives better.

“It hasn’t been easy, but it hasn’t been hard either,” said Dunson. “Being a history major requires you to write papers based on facts and dates. The scriptwriting class gives me a chance to tap into the right side of my brain and be creative.”

The class has spent the first semester creating premises, developing character descriptions and writing and critiquing each other’s scripts. To end the activities and events in the class, Earl schedules a night in which each student has five to six minutes of their script acted out.

This semester, the scripts will be acted out on Wednesday, Dec. 9 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

The writer is a junior at Hampton University Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications

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