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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