Before I got into screenwriting, I was in a poetry group (don’t snark; some of us like poetry).
For me, the group’s primary benefit was that it gave me quick and easy access to the writing process. Working from the notion that you’re only a writer if you actually write, each meeting was planned around an exercise that challenged us to come up with new material.
The field of poetry is flooded with exercises to help people create it. When I started crafting screenplays, I went looking for the similar assignments to help build up my skills as a script-writer. My research netted me plenty of literature that told me how and what to write, and how to sell what I’d written. But while I appreciated the expertise in some of the more learned instructional screenwriting books, I wanted something that actively engaged me in direct, participatory daily practice. I wanted to write—regularly, and with purpose.
So I partnered with director/copy-editor Billie Rain, and together we crafted 101 exercises that would give me the infrastructure to write every day, no matter how un-inspired I felt. After compiling the assignments, we launched a website (ScreenwritersToolkit.com) in an effort to share the work we’d done. Feedback rolled in immediately. At one point the exercises were even used in a few university screenwriting classes around Seattle.
After years of testing and refining the exercises, Billie and I decided to publish them into the book Screenwriter’s Toolkit: 101 Writing Exercises. We wanted to give more people an opportunity to dig into our material, practice their craft, and create interesting screenplays.
Whether you’re experiencing writer’s block, searching for prompts to impose some writing discipline in your life, or you’ve knocked out a draft and need to hone your characters, we’ve got an exercise to help you. You can find the full list in our book, but here’s a sample of 18 of our favorite assignments.
Getting Words on the Page
Before you can begin to craft your characters—the places they inhabit, the goals that impel them, and the obstacles that stop them—you have to instill in yourself the discipline to write. The following exercises are geared toward helping the procrastinator in all of us fill the empty page.
1. Establishing Confidence
Establishing confidence in your ability to write is paramount to your success as a writer. Nothing is more crippling to your progress than second-guessing your talent.
1. Write a succinct affirmation about you as a writer. My example: “I am a storyteller. I am humble to my characters’ needs, and powerful in my ability to represent their lives in a truthful, affecting, and profound way.”
2. Post your affirmation somewhere you will always see it, and refer to it times of stasis or crisis.
2. Where I Fail
Our limitations become our characters’ limitations. Our characters will take on the stereotypes, prejudices and opinions we can’t work through in our own lives. One way to break our characters out of these limitations is to get insight into ourselves—and thus into those we’re portraying.
How do I know what other people want? What impedes me from inhabiting other ways of thinking? How can I better understand people who are different from me?
1. List five ways you can gain insight into your own frame of mind.
2. List five ways you can gain insight into the hearts and minds of other people.
3. Choose one method from each list and write a half-page essay on exploring your chosen avenues of introspection and empathy.
3. What I Like
Getting to know what we like and dislike about movies can be both beneficial to developing our ability to write them, and to understanding what drives us to create our own work.
1. Make your “Top 10 Movies of All Time” list.
2. Write a one paragraph review of numbers two through 10 on your list.
3. Write a two-page review of your #1 movie of all time.
4. Include an in-depth review of plot, characters, structure, timing and its ability to fit into or transcend a genre.
5. Include two personal details about yourself that help you connect with this movie.
Creating Compelling Characters
Once you’ve vanquished the demons of inactivity, you’re ready to write. A story without overt action or plot can sometimes be compelling, but a narrative simply can’t function without characters. The exercises below are designed to help you create the characters that will bring your script to life.
1. Revealing the Subconscious Mind
Do you know what’s happening in your character’s subconscious? You need to. Writing authentic characters means creating a deeper understanding of their underlying thoughts and the life moments that have influenced them.
Consider the following situation:
Your character is confronted for lying. In one page, write out your character’s conscious and subconscious thoughts.
2. Depth and Balance
Drama is not always serious, and comedy is not always funny. Authenticity emerges from deep and balanced characters. The more complex your characters are, the richer your story will be.
1. Write a one-page essay about the emotional life of an over-the-top character from a comedy you’ve seen. Be sincere.
2. Create a “10 Things I Do For Fun” list for a character from a moving drama. Avoid sarcasm.
3. Handling Conflict
Few circumstances reveal a character’s true nature better than watching how he or she responds to a difficult situation. Before you’ve even begun writing your script, test your character’s reaction to crises big and small.
Take a character from your screenplay and make a list of 10 problems she might encounter that are unrelated to the story you’re telling. This list should range the gamut of crises, from minor (your character is camping, a rainstorm hits, and she discovers a hole in her tent) to major (your character accidentally hits a homeless man on a dark road). Get into your character’s mind as you solve these problems.
Designing Inhabitable Spaces
Now that you’ve concocted three-dimensional characters to tell your story, you need an authentic environment for them to inhabit. A house is not a home until you know what kind of furniture is in the living room, and how dangerous the neighborhood is. These prompts will help you flesh out the specifics of your film’s physical environment.
1. Re-contextualizing Place
Examining and juxtaposing how others view and use place will give you a better idea of how to use physical environments to strengthen your story.
1. Watch a movie set in a country that was made by someone who hails from a different country.
2. Watch two movies set in the same country made by native, resident moviemakers. (If you’re wondering where to start, try watching Lost in Translation by Sofia Coppola, followed by The Eel and Ballad of Nayurama by Shohei Imamura.)
3. Write a two-page essay on how place is portrayed differently by the foreigner and the native. Is place more essential to one perspective?
2. Environmental Impact
Place affects our emotions, and accordingly, our behavior. A libertine, for example, may feel more at home in a whorehouse than a monastery.
1. Take a character out of a movie (one that you’ve created or one that you like) and place him or her in several different, uncomfortable locations.
2. Keeping in mind the character’s consistent attributes, enumerate what things change and what stay the same.
3. Write a two-page scene for each location, focusing on gesture and behavior before dialogue.
3. Going Outside
The last exercise focused on major environmental changes, but minor alterations can have huge impact, too.
1. Write (or find) a two-page scene that takes place inside during the day.
2. Rewrite this scene three times: once while it’s raining; once while it’s snowing; and once at night.
3. Write a half-page essay on how weather alters the tone of the scene.
Imbuing Your Narrative with Action
So you have your characters, and you know all about the physical places where their lives unfold. Now you need them to do something in the space you’ve invented. Below are a few examples of exercises that will help you think of your story in terms of its action.
1. Show, Don’t Tell
This adage is the first rule of every creative writing course, but it applies to moviemaking more specifically than any other medium. Why? Because film is visual. Characters don’t have to say the words “I love you” for an audience to know it’s true. With that in mind, instead of telling an audience what to think or feel, we can help them experience our characters’ thoughts and emotions through action alone.
Rewrite these five sentences as half-page action scenarios.
• I love you.
• I hate you.
• I’m hungry.
• I’m scared.
• We need to get out of here.
2. Creative Instruction
Beyond just telling a story, your screenplay is a map for actors (and the director if you aren’t helming the film). In order to ensure proper translation of your ideas, you have to make certain that your action elements are concise and instructive.
1. First, find a partner.
2. Partner A’s goal is to instruct Partner B how to put on a shoe (preferably one with laces). To do this, Partner B must take off one shoe. Then he must pretend he’s so ignorant of the concept of a shoe that he doesn’t even know it goes on his foot.
3. Partner A must then explain the process of putting on the shoe. Partner A should do this verbally, without pointing or otherwise physically indicating parts of the shoe. The goal, here, is to use clear, linguistic communication to control a familiar, but complex, action.
4. Write a paragraph on how effective your communication was.
3. Controlling the Pace
A good scene moves viewers through action at a deliberate speed. Mastering this art of pacing gives you the freedom to adapt the physics of your screenplay.
1. Think of an action scenario (i.e. a robbery or a chase sequence).
2. Write the scenario as a three-page scene.
3. Rewrite it as a one-page scene.
4. In a half page, explain how you were able to reduce the length of the scene.
5. In another half page, compare the short and long versions.