“Modern Love” Collaborative Screenplay Writing— Inspired by NYTimes & Amazon

The Inspiration

When Season 2 of Amazon Prime’s Modern Love came out the summer before last school year, I knew I had to show my students the opening episode: “Strangers on a (Dublin) Train.” If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth your time. It’s an adorable Covid-era love story of a train ride meet-cute with just the right mix of humor, suspense, and romance. The episode stars the charming Lucy Boynton opposite Kit Harington (of Game of Thrones). Plus, I teach a course called Modern Fiction & Nonfiction, so it fit in perfectly as a supplemental text.

The TV series is based on a New York Times column in which everyday folks submit “tiny love stories” that chronicle their love stories in roughly 100 words.

via (Courtesy of Amazon Studios)

Students responded so favorably to the episode that I decided to show a few more. My initial plan to show one episode grew into a full creative writing unit that I’ve refined over the last two years and describe below.

I’ve been consistently pleased with the quality of students’ writing and engagement throughout this unit, which begins with our viewing of select Modern Love episodes, and culminates in theatrical read-alouds of students’ original Modern Love-style screenplays.

Which Episodes to Show as Mentor Texts

Here’s the list of episodes I include in the unit. The series is rated TV-MA, so they should all be previewed and approved in advance. The episodes below have all worked well in my high school classroom with upperclassmen. They’re arranged in the order I prefer to show them.

Season 2, Episode 3“Strangers on a (Dublin) Train”
Season 1, Episode 1“When Your Doorman Is Your Main Man”
Season 1, Episode 7“Hers Was a World of One”
Season 2, Episode 1“On a Serpentine Road, With the Top Down”

Before we watch these episodes, I front-load my creative writing unit more explicitly by informing students that they would be writing their own Modern Love episode, so they view these episodes as mentor texts with a writer’s eye for techniques they might incorporate in their own screenplay.

Tiny Love Stories

After viewing the episodes, students begin their creative writing process by drafting their own tiny love stories. Their stories should be around 100 words and fictional in nature. Since the word limit is tight, they must communicate the plot, characters, and theme without room for extraneous detail. We look at some examples from The New York Times Learning Network, which recently held a 100-word memoir contest for students. I ask students to write 2 or 3 unique stories to help them flex their creative writing muscles, and then they select their favorite story to share with a small group (of 3-5 students) in a read-aloud. The group then selects their favorite story among their group to develop collaboratively into a full-length screenplay.

Love Isn’t Just Romantic

When I first introduced the task (for students to write their own tiny love stories), some express concern that they didn’t want to write about love, or weren’t entirely comfortable. I emphasize to students that love is not limited to romantic love. The TV series has episodes about love between a parent and a child, platonic love between friends, and even the love people have for objects of sentimental value. When I suggest the example of love between owners and their pets, many students connect to this subject.

I distribute a viewing guide (graphic organizer) for students to fill in while watching the show that challenges them to identify the argument each episode makes about love. This focus on theme helps students conceptualize love in a broader sense than just romantic love. When it’s time for them to write their own love stories, they’re already familiar with the range of ways that love is explored in the series.

Collaborative Screenplay Writing

Once students select the tiny memoir they wish to develop into a full screenplay, they work together on a collaborative brainstorming document to map out the full story. While they draw inspiration from their group member’s 100-word version, the story inevitably changes as students work together to flesh out the characters, consider the setting, map out the full story arc, and refine the theme. As they work through planning, there’s a lot of productive conversation, laughter, and even some arguing as group members sort out the details.

To divvy up the writing, they fill in a storyboard that covers all major scenes in order, divide the story up evenly, and each take a portion of the story to draft on their own. If there are 4 group members, they each write roughly 25% of the screenplay. While other teachers may prefer more collaborative, real-time co-authoring, this method has worked well for me and allows me to assign individual grades to student writers’ respective sections of the screenplay.

Once the individual sections of the screenplay are complete, the group members come together to read and comment on each other’s segments, and then work as a group to revise them, stitch them together cohesively, and smooth out the transitions. While one might expect to encounter a great deal of choppiness or unevenness in the finished screenplays with several writers combining their work, I’ve found that transitions between segments tend to fall in natural places, and that students are generally able to reconcile major discrepancies across the script.

The Table Read

Rather than requiring students to give fully-staged performances, I opt for a table read format for the final presentations. I line up a row of desks (or position a long table) at the front of the room. The screenplay writers face the audience and read various roles, sometimes doubling up if they have extra characters. One group member reads the narration and/or stage directions. We use nametags and introductions to help the audience differentiate between characters.

Teachers who really enjoy incorporating and teaching acting into their classes might not prefer a table read, but in my own classroom, I’ve found many advantages to this format:

  • Students performers do not have to memorize anything; they can simply read their scripts. I’ve found this alleviates some anxiety students may feel about performing in front of the class.
  • Student performers can focus on public speaking skills such as intonation and volume, adding interest to their read-aloud without having to juggle blocking and memorization.
  • The student writing must stand on its own and bring the story to life. I emphasize that writers should incorporate vivid description of details and action to engage their audience.
  • The audience must engage in active listening to comprehend the story vs. relying more heavily on viewing.
  • The audience is not distracted by acting mishaps, and there’s less of the contagious giggling that can plague staged student performances.
  • Expensive and/or elaborate props, costumes, and scenery are unnecessary.

Even though I don’t require props, costumes, or scenery, I do build in a “fun extras” category in my grading rubric to suggest ways that students can enhance the performance. For example, they can use sound effects or minimalist props or costumes. They can incorporate blocking for added dramatic impact—like the time one student stood up from the table read and got down one one knee for a fictional proposal.

After making it optional the first year, I now require all groups to design a slideshow with background images to serve as scenery throughout their table read. Even if the story only moves between two settings (e.g., a classroom and a bedroom), a slideshow that shifts between simple background images can help the audience pick up on the scene changes. Some groups also incorporate title cards between images (e.g., “Ten years later…”).

Over these two years, I’ve been consistently pleased with students’ engagement as audience members. They seem to genuinely enjoy listening to each others’ original screenplays.

An excerpt of my sample blog-style screenplay review created on Google Docs.

Blog Post-Style Review

The first year, I required students to take some notes during or after each table read to give feedback to the groups. This year, I expanded this feedback work and required each student to select another group’s screenplay to review more formally. Last year, my students wrote reviews on their blogs, but I hadn’t established student blogs this school year, so I took a creative risk, guiding students to write their reviews on a Google doc in the style of a blog post, incorporating color, headings, hyperlinks, and images (without actually posting their review on a blog). Though students didn’t gain the technological experience of publishing on a blog, they did practice digital writing and include many blog-style creative elements in their review.

I designed and shared two sample blog posts as models for students, and many chose to copy my document to use as a template for their blog posts. I created these live in front of the class so I could think aloud through my writing choices (such as my decision to include a “spoiler alert”), and demonstrate some of the technological components (e.g., adding hyperlinks, embedding images with a text wrap) students would need to replicate on their own.

You can find some of the required components in the headings and sentence starters in the sample documents. To incorporate specific details and quotations into their reviews, writers accessed and re-read the group’s screenplays.

If you are interested in incorporating any of these instructional techniques in your own classroom—collaborative creative writing, table readings of original scripts, or blog-post style reviews—comment below and let me know your plans. I’d be happy to connect and talk more about these assignments!

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