Screenwriting Exercises Part 2

Advice from Paul Haggis, screenwriter of Million Dollar Baby and co-screenwriter of Crash.

Need a cure for writer’s block? Try one of these exercises!

If none of these suits your fancy, try Screenwriting Exercises Part 1.

ALLISON BURNETT – Fame (reboot)

  • Subtext! Study scenes to see the difference between what the scene is about on the surface and what it is really about.
  • Here is the scenario: A boy and a girl linger on the stoop.  The boy asks her out, she says “Yes.” He leaves.
  • Perspective 1: Boy has been in love with girl since grade school.  He is certain he will be rejected.
  • Perspective 2: Boy never noticed girl until he heard through the grapevine that she had a crush on him.
  • Perspective 3: Boy and girl have been friends since childhood, but only at school. Boy has just realized his feelings.

LINDA COWGILL – Heads the Screenwriting Dept at LA Film School

  • Conflict between what a character wants and what they need.
  • 1. What does my character want?
  • 2. Why?
  • 3. How do they get it?
  • 4. What do they need?

AMY HOLDEN JAMES – Mystic Pizza, Indecent Proposal, Beethoven

  • Subtext! In real life, people often don’t say what they mean.
  • Write a scene about nothing at all (ex: Hi, How are you, Good, I like your hair, Oh thanks, What have you been up to, Nothing…)
  • Imagine this scene in different contexts
  • Perspective 1: Father and daughter who haven’t seen each other in years, since the father stole the daughter’s savings to support his drug habit
  • Perspective 2: A former soldier and a citizen who lived through their country’s invasion
  • Perspective 3: Husband and wife waiting for their lawyers to arrive to their divorce proceedings

DAVID FREEMAN – Author of Creating Emotion in Games

  • Pick an emotion for a character to experience (ex: sad, anxious, depressed, apathetic)
  • Write a short scene where the character is expressing false emotion (ex: sarcasm, bored, cheerful)
  • The pretense should be good enough that, at the beginning of the scene, the character’s false emotion seems real to the audience.
  • Sprinkle in slip ups that give the audience the feeling that the character’s emotion is false
  • Have someone read the scene
  • Ask them to identify the false and real emotions
  • You’ve done a good job even if they aren’t 100% sure of the real emotion

JUDY KELLEM – Partner in hollywoodscript.com

  • Build subtext in narrative descriptions and stage directions.
  • Wife (anxious) “I love you”
  • She stares across the table, hoping her husband will notice her since she is dressed to the nine’s. He shuffles the mail, opening a letter. Without looking up,
  • Husband (without feeling) “I love you, too.”

CHARLES DEEMER – Author of Practical Screenwriting

  • Use short, simple sentences
  • Don’t be afraid of sentence fragments
  • Write generically: Only use detail that is essential to the story
  • Write vertically!
  • Horizontal writing is bad:
  • They walk down a snow-covered path in silence.  Jack reaches Alice’s gloved hand.  Their breathe is visible in the cool air. A small brown dog bounds up to them, delighting Alice. She kneels to pet him.
  • Vertical writing is good:
  • A snowy path.
  • Jack and Alice stroll hand-in-hand.
  • A dog bounds over to Alice.
  • She kneels to pet him.

BILLY FROLICK – MADAGASCAR

  • Don’t use fragments. Use effective prose.
  • Don’t be redundant (ex: Does a rundown gas station require any more description?)
  • Watch a movie and pick a scene.  Watch it several times.
  • Write the scene.  Rewrite it until you think it reaches a professional level.
  • Compare your version to the published script.

DEVORAH CUTLER-RUBENSTEIN – Author of “What’s the Big Idea?” Writing Shorts

  • A button is the “aha” moment that creates a sense of completion to a scene
  • Bringing it full circle, a callback, a punchline

GLEN MAZZARA – Show runner of Hawthorne, writing Hancock 2

  • Remember to write a hero that a lead actor will want to play
  • Hero must drive action, not be passive
  • Hero can’t be in a scene for two lines saying “Hi,” and “No, thanks.”
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Bill Hader on Fresh Air

Bill Hader On Sketch Comedy, His Love Of Old Films

Terry Gross has the best job in the world. Just in the past couple of weeks she has interviewed Bill Hader, Ira Glass and Mike Birbiglia, and Chris Rock. Jealous! How do I get that gig?

Hader is up for an Emmy, for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series.  He is also about to begin his seventh season on SNL. I’m glad someone is sticking around!

The interview is great and I really liked hearing about his childhood:

We were a big movie family — even more so than television and books. My grandparents lived next door to us when we were growing up — my mom’s parents — and they were the reading house, and our house was the movie house. And pretty much every night we would watch a movie, especially during the summer, and it was our way of relaxing.

I will keep my fingers crossed since Hader is in a tough category.  He’s up against Ed O’Neill, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Ty Burrell, Eric Stonestreet, and Max Greenfield (Schmidt from New Girl).

Off the List 16

Summer is cooling off a little. We have had a few days where I could actually stand to be outside!

What an intense wedding. I kind of want to loop the chorus and just sing it over and over.

Makes me want to roller skate in a poodle skirt.

The background sounds are hypnotic, in a good way.

Fantastic song, so many good lines.  Heard it on Sons of Anarchy, poor Opie!

James Adomian

James Adomain is a NY comic, who performs with UCB, and who was on Last Comic Standing.

This video has his bit about gay villains.  Or villains that aren’t out but are suggested to be gay.

I know I read an article about this but I can’t find it. Anyway, the point is that often times, television and movies make the villain gay or make the gay person the villain. Maybe they are trying to meet a quota? Diversity?

“We need one black, gay, female villain!”

Than the rest of the cast can be straight white men and a few beautiful background girls for them to have sex with.

Off the top of my head:

  • The Simpsons – Mr. Burns
  • Downton Abbey – Thomas
  • The 300 – King Xerxes
  • Glee – Karofsky
  • The Lion King – Scar
  • True Blood – Queen Sophie-Anne
  • Law & Order: Criminal Intent – Nicole Wallace
  • Desperate Housewives – Andrew Van De Kamp
  • Sons of Anarchy – Agent June Stahl

Screenwriting Exercises Part 1

NOW WRITE! Screenwriting

Edited by Sherry Ellis and Laurie Lamson

One of the best ways to improve your writing is to write a lot.  Produce a volume of work and, over time, that way that you write and the way that you wish that you wrote will get closer together. Ira says it better:

NOW WRITE! includes 95 exercises, divided into the following categories:

  1. Choosing Your Story
  2. Get Writing
  3. Structure
  4. Theme
  5. Crafting Scenes
  6. Character Development
  7. Verbal/Nonverbal Communication
  8. Revision
  9. Now What?

Below I noted writing exercises, questions to ask yourself, and things to think about that seemed useful or unusual.

I have another post of more exercises coming up next week.

The book gives a little autobiography of each contributor; I included their most notable accomplishment.

PART 1

MARDIK MARTIN – The Last Waltz, Raging Bull

  • People don’t identify with characters, they identify with conflict
  • Write about conflict that you experience or observe
  • Antagonist is the conflict-giver, key to starting point

HAL ACKERMAN – UCLA Faculty

  • Write about your most cringe worthy memories

ALAN WATT – Author of Diamond Dogs

  • List your fears
  • Being conscious of our fears prevents them from ruling us
  • Connect the root of your fear to your hero
  • Ex: I’m afraid my script will suck = Fear of failure

BRAD RIDDELL – Teaches at USC and Spalding U

  • Separate 15 notes cards in to 3 piles of 5
  • Actors
  • Genre
  • Location
  • Pick one from each pile and develop a treatment

CHRIS SOTH – Firestorm

  • Good movies have dramatic tension
  • A good film has a satisfying resolution
  • Tension = Hope versus Fear

DAVID TROTTER – Author of The Screenwriter’s Bible

  • Make a grid so you have an overview of your characters’ actions/arc
  • Helps with pacing/plot
  • For each scene, list the characters involved and their actions

MICHAEL HAUGE – Author of Writing Screenplays That Sell

  • What is your hero’s wound? Think about how you will reveal this wound to the audience.
  • What is the unconscious belief created by the wounding experience?
  • As a result of that belief, what is my hero’s deepest emotional fear?
  • The hero’s disguise their wound by adopting a protective persona.
  • Think about the hero’s true identity, the one that they shield.  Who are they really or who do they have the potential to become?
  • What actions will the hero take to shed their false persona?
  • The love interest is the one person who can see beyond the hero’s protective identity and love them for who they are.
  • Your lovers are in conflict when the hero/both of them retreats into protective identity; they connect when act as their true selves.

KARL IGLESIAS – Author of The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters

  • Think about the emotions that you want the audience to experience
  • Ex: anticipation, tension, suspense, amusement, fear, worry, relief, empathy, enmity
  • Look at your plot points in term of emotional response.
  • Ex: Princess Leia is captured by Darth Vader – Audience feelings awe, empathy for Leia, enmity for Vader, worry

The 8 Characters of Comedy

The Eight Characters of Comedy: A Guide to SitCom Acting & Writing

By Scott Sedita

If you are looking for a breakdown of the formulas of comedy, I recommend this book.

Remember, A) just because you use the archetypes that Sedita identifies, it doesn’t mean your show/character will be hackneyed and B) just because a character is primarily of these 8 doesn’t mean that they don’t explore other sides of their personality.

Who are the 8 Characters?

  1. The Logical Smart One – responsible, stable
  2. The Lovable Loser – sarcastic, optimistic, needy, impulsive
  3. The Neurotic – awkward, nervous, controlling, worried
  4. The Dumb One – friendly, naïve, gullible, no ulterior motive
  5. The Bitch/Bastard – mean, insensitive, insecure, doesn’t apologize
  6. The Womanizer/Manizer (AKA “Slutty Spice”) – charming, seductive, horny, superficial
  7. The Materialistic One – judgmental, entitled, spoiled
  8. In Their Own Universe (AKA “Spacy Spice”) – odd, eccentric, uses illogical logic

I tried to find these characters in sitcoms that I watched. There is definitely room for interpretation and, for a long-lasting series, like Friends, characters will probably take a turn in each of these archetypes.

Post a list for your favorite show or let me know if you disagree with my lists.

Arrested Development

  1. The Logical Smart One – Michael, George Sr., George Michael (sometimes Maeby)
  2. The Lovable Loser – George Michael, Tobias
  3. The Neurotic – Tobias, George Michael
  4. The Dumb One – Gob, Maeby
  5. The Bitch/Bastard – Lucille
  6. The Womanizer/Manizer – Gob/Lindsay
  7. The Materialistic One – Lindsay
  8. In Their Own Universe – Buster

Friends

  1. The Logical Smart One – Monica (occasionally Chandler, Ross, Monica, Phoebe)
  2. The Lovable Loser – Ross, Chandler (I think all of them have moments here)
  3. The Neurotic – Monica, Chandler, Ross (same here)
  4. The Dumb One – Joey
  5. The Bitch/Bastard – None, they are Friends!
  6. The Womanizer/Manizer – Joey
  7. The Materialistic One – Rachel (this kind of faded away overtime)
  8. In Their Own Universe – Phoebe

Will & Grace

  1. The Logical Smart One – Will
  2. The Lovable Loser – Will, Grace
  3. The Neurotic – Will, Grace
  4. The Dumb One – Jack
  5. The Bitch/Bastard – Jack, Karen
  6. The Womanizer/Manizer – Jack? (I think all of them spend time here)
  7.  The Materialistic One – Jack, Grace
  8.  In Their Own Universe – Jack, Karen

Scrubs

  1. The Logical Smart One – Carla, Turk
  2. The Lovable Loser – JD
  3. The Neurotic – Eliot
  4. The Dumb One – Todd
  5. The Bitch/Bastard – Perry, Kelso,
  6. The Womanizer/Manizer -Todd
  7. The Materialistic One – Eliot
  8. In Their Own Universe (AKA “The Spacy One”) – Janitor

Community

  1. The Logical Smart One – Shirley, Troy
  2. The Lovable Loser – Britta
  3. The Neurotic – Annie
  4. The Dumb One – Pierce
  5. The Bitch/Bastard – Jeff, Pierce
  6. The Womanizer/Manizer – Jeff?
  7. The Materialistic One – Jeff
  8. In Their Own Universe (AKA “The Spacy One”) – Abed, Chang, Dean

Sedita lays out some comedy guidelines. Obligatory Note: All rules are meant to be broken.

Rules of Comedy:

  1. Chose a specific character with specific personality traits
  2. Be committed to the character
  3. Good comedy comes from pain and conflict
  4. Follow the script and punctuation (for delivery, know your lines and make to pause for commas and periods)
  5. Be Louder!
  6. Be Faster!
  7. Be Funnier!
  8. Hold for laughs (if in front of a crowd or live-audience)
  9. Don’t mug for a laugh/ Don’t distract from verbal humor with physical movement
  10. Have fun!

Sedita, who teaches acting classes, promotes a simple and easy-to-remember method of character analysis.

Analyze the Script (WOFAIM):

  • Want – What does the character want?
  • Obstacle – What obstacles are standing in the way?
  • Feeling – What feelings will you explore in the scene?
  • As If – What is your personal substitution? What can you draw from in your own life to relate to your character?
  • Intentions – What will your character do to get what they want? What actions will they take?
  • Moment Before – What was happening before this scene? Physically and emotionally, where is your character coming from?

I’mwriting screenplay, a comedy, with my friend and, since I don’t have experience with writing fiction, I found this to be helpful. The point of Sedita’s book isn’t to put your characters in a box or provide a rote method of acting or writing, but to open your eyes to commonly used character types that allow for conflict (which will lead to funny situations).