Characters, Dialogue and TV Pilots, Oh My: The Art of Screenwriting at Clemson
Clemson’s Screenwriting Workshop: the elusive, yet insanely cool course that you’ve always wanted to take, but never knew enough about. Screenwriting classes are always full as soon as they are released for students; however, no one ever discusses what goes on behind closed doors. To learn more about what a typical day is like in a screenwriting class and the work that the students engage in, the Pearce Center sat down with Clemson lecturer Dr. Julia Koets, who’s currently teaching creative writing workshops in screenwriting and creative nonfiction, to do a dive deep into the world of characters, dialogue, and tv pilots.
Where are you from?
I’m from Summerville, South Carolina. I did my MFA in Creative Writing at the University of South Carolina and my PhD in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Cincinnati. In between the MFA and the PhD, I was an AmeriCorps Promise Fellow in the Literacy Through the Arts Program at Cal Poly Pomona and then worked as a teacher’s aide at an elementary school in San Francisco, where I started an after-school creative writing program. I started teaching at Clemson in January 2018.
I saw under your Clemson page that you’re known for your poetry. Is that correct?
Yes! Poetry and creative nonfiction. I have a nonfiction book coming out this November from Red Hen Press titled The Rib Joint: A Memoirs of Essays, where I weave research with the personal.
Could you give me a short summary of the class and what you typically study?
The way that I approach teaching the class is that we study–meaning both watching and writing–film. We watch a lot of tv pilots for different shows, analyzing story and form, and, after pitching their own ideas to the class, my students write their own tv pilot. We also read the screenplays for the shows, including Breaking Bad, Jane the Virgin, The Killing, The Good Place, Big Little Lies and more.
We spend about half of the semester talking about structure and how to format a screenplay: how we’re introduced to the characters by what we see and hear, scene headings to mark a change of location or time, setting, where the story is taking place, and action and scene descriptions, etc.
There’s always some sort of conflict and tension in the story that we have to be able to see, things like that. We’re studying how these different elements work in the screenplay form. It’s so different from anything we’re used to– like a novel.
Why do you think these classes are getting such great attention from so wide a demographic?
Students know a lot about tv and movies, and many students want to try writing their own screenplay. Some even come into the workshop with an idea they’ve had for several years. The class always fills up really quickly, always right after it opens up; I get students in the screenplay workshop from a variety of different disciplines–business, architecture, engineering, communications, English–which is great and always leads to interesting workshop discussions!
What happens in the classroom on a typical day?
Currently, the students are creating their own screenplay, mapping out the arc of their story, and then visualizing what it will look like, scene by scene. In a typical day, we workshop drafts of two students’ screenplays. We analyze their piece as a class and give feedback on the writing, scenes, character development, conflict, etc.
We’re constantly engaging in the various stages of original script writing in order to study, learn, and practice it. There is a heavy emphasis on both reading (which includes watching) and writing; we cannot learn how to write without reading actual screenplays closely.
Does this primarily focus on cinema screenplay, plays or video games?
Movie and television screenplays. We don’t focus on video games in the screenwriting course, but I know that some students are really interested in video game development, in building a world and telling a story through a game. Because of the pacing in the introductory workshop, it works well for students to work on writing one pilot episode for a tv show over the course of the semester. We start with discussions of genre, character, and premise and then students pitch ideas for their pilots to the class, and then we map out our ideas with index cards. Movies we watched in the Fall included Moonlight and Get Out, and this semester we’re watching Brokeback Mountain because several students voiced an interest in writing an adaptation of a novel or short story. Brokeback Mountain is based on a short story, and I wanted to show students an example of an adaptation so that they can learn techniques for adapting stories in other genres. Several students in the workshop this semester are writing really interesting adaptations of novels! It’s a really fun class!
The Student’s Perspective: Samantha Miller
What first made you interested in taking a Screenwriting class? Was it what you expected?
I’ve always had an interest in film; I’m probably one of the few English majors who actually sometimes prefers a movie over a book. I really had no idea what to expect coming into the class, but I often enjoy any sort of creative writing and so I figured it would be something I would like. However, I didn’t expect myself to love it as much as I do right now. I look forward go going to class, and I actually enjoy doing my homework–which is something I never thought I would say. I’m extremely excited about the piece I am working on for class, so excited that I even made my mom read my draft. I’d probably make you read it too.
From what you remember, what did a typical day look like in this class?
For the first couple of weeks of class, we read scripts to popular TV shows for homework, then discussed them. I was fascinated with the different writing styles many screenwriters, and I thought it was the coolest thing to see someone’s idea on paper come to life on screen. It made me super excited to create my own screenplay. For the second half of the semester, we started workshopping each others screenplays which turned out to be a lot more fun than it sounds. I was surprised by how many creative ideas my classmates had and I could see almost all of them turning into real television shows.
Screenwriting classes are usually one of the first to fill up when registration opens. Why do you think they are so high in demand? What do you think sparks the interest of such a diverse audience of students?
I mean, who wouldn’t want to create their own television show or movie? The idea of something you dream up in your head coming to life on a screen for other people to see is very appealing. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t want to take a stab at it. And from my experience so far, it’s just as fun as it sounds.
How will you use this class in the future? Was it just for fun? Are you pursuing a career in the film industry?
Originally, this class was just to fill one of my major requirements; in addition, I thought it would be kinda fun. I have always had an interest in the film industry, but not being the writer: I wanted to be in front of the screen. I took theatre classes in high school and fell in love with acting, however, I did not pursue an acting career because it was too risky and I didn’t think I had what it took. Taking a screenwriting class made me realize that there are a lot of other aspects to film and television that I am interested in such as actually creating the story.
I have always been a creative person, and I have always had all sorts of stories in my head that I just make up while daydreaming, but I never thought about actually writing them down and making something out of them. I didn’t think any of my ideas were good enough to become anything more than silly daydreams, but taking a screenwriting class forced me to give one of my ideas a try. It was really awesome to hear what my classmates thought of my story, and see characters that have been in my head come to life. I am now starting to think screenwriting might be something I might actually pursue. It makes me really excited, and I haven’t been this excited for something in a while.
Clemson’s screenwriting classes have a little something for everyone: a creative outlet for the stressed college student, the area of growth for the aspiring movie or show writer, and a new area of interest for the curious freshman English major. Students and professors have noted that it is one of the most highly sought after classes and that it contributes to a new way of approaching the English language while expanding the students’ writing capacity. Screenwriting is the newest way to enact creativity, spark a new appreciation for the art of production media, and is an open door to writing for the masses, courtesy of Clemson University.
Written By: Abby Nommay