Learning to Read Like Writers With ‘Anatomy of a Scene’

Learning to Read Like Writers With ‘Anatomy of a Scene’

How do you get students to engage in deep literary analysis — the kind that moves beyond basic comprehension and toward critical thinking? Julie Hodgson, an English teacher at Mansfield Middle School in Storrs, Conn., has an idea. In this post, she tells us how she uses “Anatomy of a Scene,” a New York Times weekly video series in which directors comment on the craft of moviemaking, to help students step inside an author’s mind so they can begin to analyze and evaluate literature like a writer.

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“Get inside the author’s head,” is a direction I frequently give students in my eighth-grade literature course. “Think as if you’re the writer,” I instruct.

The Common Core English Language Arts Standards expect young learners to cite text evidence to support analysis, explore themes and central ideas, and evaluate the specific choices authors make. These important goals require students to be thoughtful and analytical readers who cannot only identify authors’ decisions but evaluate them, as well.

But many adolescents often get so lost in a story that they forget there is an author behind the words — a puppet master who sets the stage, pulls the strings, develops the conflicts and shares a bigger meaning.

I use the New York Times “Anatomy of a Scene” video series to help students get inside the minds of writers. In these short clips, film directors narrate a scene from one of their movies, walking viewers through the decisions they made and the effects they intended them to have. These videos demonstrate to students how to step outside of their personal reader-to-text experiences and examine literature from a wider lens — to see a story, memoir, essay or poem from the perspective of its creator.

Looking at literature from this angle demands that students look at the “why beneath the why,” and explore the fuller intent and meaning that authors and directors hope to convey. Reading becomes a more dynamic process — one that allows adolescents to engage more fully with writers and ideas, and to challenge what they read. As Bailey Messina, an eighth grader in my classroom, stated: “It’s worthwhile, because you can better understand why an author chose to use certain strategies. An author views the book differently from the reader, so putting yourself in an author’s mind-set helps you see it.”

In the following lesson sequence I explain how I use “Anatomy of a Scene” clips in my classroom to deepen students’ literary analysis. They begin by identifying the types of intentional decisions authors and directors make. Then, they watch clips that provide them with the vocabulary they need to analyze these deliberate choices.

Later, students connect a clip to a piece of literature and examine how the author made similar decisions and why. Then, they select their own scenes from published texts and pretend that they are the writers and directors themselves, explaining their choices for character and thematic development, mood, tone and other stylistic elements in their own “Anatomy of a Scene”-style narrations.

Through this lesson, students begin to develop a broader understanding and appreciation for a text beyond its entertainment value. It’s as if they are no longer just passively watching the puppet show, but seeing and evaluating the moves of the puppeteer.


Before introducing the “Anatomy of a Scene” clips, I invite students to “read like a writer.” Two short chapters from texts about reading literature support this work. First, students read the first chapter from Ralph Fletcher’s book “A Writer’s Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You.” This chapter, “Reading Like a Writer,” encourages students to examine text just as a soccer coach might examine the specific moves and tactics of the players with a more specific, critical eye in order to find out the “why” behind the plays. Mr. Fletcher writes: “Writers don’t read like other people. Writers are interested in what’s going to happen, of course, but they are also keenly interested in finding out how the author created the effect.”

In addition, the students read the chapter “Every Trip Is a Quest (Except When It’s Not)” from the book “How to Read Literature Like a Professor: For Kids” by Thomas C. Foster. This selection also invites students to examine authors’ decisions in crafting a text, like the methods of character development, the use of figurative language, the creation of mood and tone, and how an author may rely on archetypes to deliver a story.

Today’s students have grown up in a media-rich world, so I try to tap into what they already know from film and television. I tell them that authors have to make many of the same decisions that movie directors make: How can I show this character’s emotion? How can I get the reader or viewer to feel this suspense? How can I reveal this epiphany? How can I develop an authentic setting, one that will enhance the characters’ conflicts?

Here’s an example: Years ago, I read an interview with Steven Spielberg about the creation of “E.T.” He said that he intentionally and consistently used low camera angles to make the adults seem a little threatening and to help the viewer see the story from a child’s perspective. This small, but significant, strategy affects viewers in a way many students may have not previously recognized.

Jumping off this example, I then lead students in a whole-class brainstorming session to identify some more deliberate decisions authors might make when writing a story. Here are just a few questions I pose to get them thinking:

• From whose point of view is the story told?
• What and how much do we know about the background of the characters?
• Where does the story take place? Is the setting specific or generic?
• How is the story told? Does it begin in the middle? Use flashbacks? Go back to the beginning?
• How does the author use language? Is it rich and figurative? Or sparse and direct?


Enter “Anatomy of a Scene.” For each one-to-three-minute clip, I have students focus on one or two of the “deliberate decisions” the director made and how these help develop the characters, establish the setting, create the mood or move the plot forward.

The beauty of using these videos is that they are adaptable for any lesson. The Times has published over 100 videos from every genre, so there is ample room for creativity and differentiation for your students’ interests and needs. Do they need to focus on character? Try “Lion,” by Garth Davis. Do they need to see how writers and directors create mood and tone? Use “Annihilation,” directed by Alex Garland. Do they love horror films? The column has a whole section dedicated to it.

Here are a few other clips I’ve used:

“Moonlight,” directed by Barry Jenkins, helps students understand character. In this clip, Mr. Jenkins explains his uses of water, camera angle and acting technique to show “a spiritual transference” between two characters. This segment is useful in showing how relationships develop characters, and how the perspective of the storyteller can enhance the readers’ and viewers’ understanding of characters.

Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” helps students see the importance of detail in a setting. Mr. Coogler explains how he includes small details to “contrast [his] pairings of innovators and traditionalists” in developing the setting of Wakanda and the characters.

Lee Daniels’s “The Butler” illustrates the power of focusing on one scene to reveal a broader context. He explains that “the goal in the scene was to show what it was like to be an African American at that time when [this family] really tried to emulate the Cleavers.”

Tom Hooper, the director of “Les Misérables,” explains the use of inner conflict to develop character and theme. As Jean Valjean reckons with his past, Mr. Hooper explains, “this act of grace, this act of forgiveness starts to suggest to him another way of being, of living this life. This is his epiphany where he really makes a discovery of the power of faith.”

“Lady Bird,” directed by Greta Gerwig, shows how small details can develop a more authentic setting. Ms. Gerwig tells viewers that she wanted to create a setting that was both “honest and beautiful” and to use it to show a relationship between mother and daughter.


I follow each viewing of a clip with a focus on a corresponding text. For instance, after watching the “Black Panther” clip, I invite students to examine how Mark Twain uses a similar approach to develop the conflict between Tom and Sid in “Tom Sawyer.” Or, after watching how Mr. Jenkins develops relationships between characters in “Moonlight,” students might look at how Harper Lee uses the same technique in “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the exchange between Scout and Atticus to learn about walking in another person’s shoes. Short stories like “Spaceman From Adnaxas” by Henry Gregor Felsen and “On a Bridge” by Todd Strasser also work great for this activity.

These connections help students concretely and abstractly see the deliberate decisions directors make, note how authors do the same, offer an analysis of the effectiveness, and then, eventually, try out these strategies themselves.

I provide worksheets with graphic organizers to guide students through this task. Here are two examples:

Setting in “A Wrinkle in Time” and “Spaceman From Adnaxas”

Perspective, Sound and Close-ups in “A Quiet Place” and “On a Bridge”

Finally, I invite students to practice their own decision-making as directors. I instruct them to imagine they are to adapt the text for the big screen. Then, with a little luck, to pretend they are invited by The New York Times to narrate a scene from it for “Anatomy of a Scene.” They take to this task with enthusiasm!

Students start by selecting a scene from their text and illustrating it for the movie adaptation. Then, they write and record “voice over” narrations to explain the deliberate decisions that they, as directors, made in the film.

For example, in the clip below, three eighth graders, Marikate Marshall, Bailey Messina and Kira Shepard, explain how they used sound, perspective, flashbacks and pacing in their film adaptation of “Spaceman From Adnaxas.”

First, Kira notes an important character shift: “We wanted the audience to feel his doubt and his longing for home. We did this by zooming in on his face to show his eyes … In an instant, his eyes hardened and his look of longing has been replaced by a look of determination.”

In the same clip, her lesson partner Marikate begins to explore theme: “This scene also gives hints about a bigger theme present, about not just judging someone based on stereotypes, and how not just one being describes a whole race or group.”

In his narration for “Spaceman From Adnaxas,” Alex Card, an eighth grader, describes how he manipulated light and sound to establish an eerie mood. “In this scene, I wanted the spaceship flying in to be ominous, kind of gloomy and scary in a way,” he begins. “That’s exactly why I wanted to shoot this just before the sun set. The tall forest adds to the effect, as the shadows add to the suspense.”

And in his clip, Gabe Aguero explains how he and his group used perspective and close-ups to develop the main character in “On a Bridge.” “We decided to put a lot of focus on the dropping of the cigarette butt and Adam’s expression because the whole scene resembles Adam’s arrogance,” he says in the clip. “We made sure to get a close-up of Adam’s face when he showed no concern with his actions in order to provide a contrast for the audience when the ‘big guys’ show up and Adam’s face has shifted into being scared.”

Bailey summarized her takeaways from the lesson: “I learned that identifying deliberate decisions by an author is easier because as you’re reading a book, you can envision it like a movie — and not just how I want to see it. By deciphering a scene this way, sort of like a director does, I notice more of the smaller decisions, as well as the bigger ones.”

Through this lesson, students show that they, too, can make the same deliberate decisions that published writers and award-winning movie directors make. Once these tools are in the students’ back pockets, they can practice and master them in their own writing.