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Using Single-Panel Cartoons to Introduce Scriptwriting to Students
Scriptwriting, with its built-in ability to connect the key curricular skill of writing with the variegated wonders of popular media, is a natural area in which teaching librarians can take a leadership role in schools. Want to gain access to both professional scripts and, for comparison purposes, the media products made from them? Librarians can help with that.
The perception, though, is that scriptwriting is overly difficult, technical, or esoteric–not a great format to teach. Yet I’ve taught scriptwriting to students as young as 1st graders by choosing a simple, intuitive medium that’s easy to script and then produce the results of that script: comics.
With kids that young, I’ve taught “beginning-middle-end” narrative structure by having them compose three-panel newspaper-style comic strips. For slightly older elementary students, and for secondary students as well, you can introduce scriptwriting through an even more pared-down version of the medium: the single-panel, or “gag,” cartoon like those found on newspaper editorial pages or in The New Yorker. Have students share what they know about the form, perhaps reviewing what they may have learned about political cartoons in social studies or history classes. If you can provide an example or two, great, but be aware that some students may be able to quickly sketch one from memory on the chalkboard.
Point out that while such humorous gag cartoons almost always contain a caption, called the gag line, they also can feature text (such as labels and signs) in the art itself and sometimes word balloons as well. The key idea here is that it’s the combination of text plus art that constitutes the comics medium, regardless of scale. Okay, so here’s a quick lesson idea that introduces scriptwriting by focusing on the two different textual modes involved in comics–and how a script brings them together to create meaning.
First divide the class into two groups. One group should brainstorm for sentence-starters in the imperative mood that sound formal and “official” (such as “Please utilize all due caution . . . ,” “Refrain from unruly behavior while . . . ,” and so on). The second group should brainstorm for humorous anthropomorphic images and characters—a talking banana or pickle, or a “funny animal” with human traits—and sketch them on the board or a display easel.
Then make the two sets of information available to both groups, and have students spend a few minutes scripting a gag cartoon, using the following simple format and the humor inherent in the contrast of the serious and the absurd. For the caption, students need only complete the sentence-starters. For the art portion of the script, they should describe an image based on the funny visuals already provided, one that sets up the caption’s gag line. Explain that this activity reflects the creative process used in any type of comics boiled down to its simplest elements.
Description of Art:
Have groups share these mini-scripts by reading them aloud. Choose one or more to “produce” by simply drawing the art and lettering the caption beneath it. Then have students reflect on how the process and results might be different if they were free to make up both the visuals and the text. Explain that this is the essence of what scriptwriters do in the field of comics and graphic novels.
And that’s it. Scriptwriting as a combination of creative-writing (and other modes as well) and, always, practical writing. Once young writers grasp this idea they’re ready to move on and try their hand at a range of scripts.
About Peter Gutierrez
A former middle school teacher, Peter Gutierrez has spent the past 20 years developing curriculum as well as working in, and writing about, various branches of pop culture. You can sample way too many of his thoughts about media and media literacy via Twitter: @Peter_Gutierrez
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