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).

And Here’s the Kicker

Eventually comedy fandom evolves from mere appreciation into the search for every behind the scenes detail, including what is inside the minds of the writers.

And Here’s the Kicker is a compilation of 21 interviews with comedy writers.  The interviews were conducted and edited by Mike Sacks.

Here is what I learned from my favorite interviewees:

Stephen Merchant: Ricky Gervais and he wrote the dialogue by improvising into a tape recording and then editing it down to be typed; M*A*S*H was shown without a laugh track in England; “…there’s always the danger that we as comedy fans are writing comedy for other comedy fans [as opposed to writing for an audience]; [on the differences between American and British humor] “American humor—they’re not ashamed to use slang and vernacular…Whereas in England, there’s a need to display one’s intelligence”

Larry Wilmore: decided to devote his life to comedy after his family’s roof caved in, “I already had nothing—it’s not like I could achieve that twice;” he does a “writer’s stand-up act” (meaning it isn’t personality-driven, jokes are somewhat disconnected); worked on a canceled pilot for Fox about a white writer who joins the writing staff of a black sitcom (it was canceled because the lead wasn’t attractive enough—the actor? Paul Giamatti); “There should be no racial loyalty so much as comedy loyalty”

Bob Odenkirk: reputation as a perfectionist; considers the Mr. Show sketches “Clumsy Waiter” and “Philouza” to be the worst; “honesty is everything;” was unhappy with SNL’s writing process (if something didn’t go over well at the pitch meeting it was permanently rejected)

Paul Feig: “I’m very much a purist about memories and the truth in stories…I can think of a lot of funnier endings for everything that’s ever happened to me in my life, but that’s not the point;” while working as a script reader he realized that 99.9% of script are terrible; “the cruel side of me likes creating situations where people get buried deeper and deeper [thus raising the stakes for humiliation]

Mitch Hurwitz: earned theology and English degrees from Georgetown; [on being reluctant to encourage people to go into entertainment] “It can make a lot of people very, very unhappy;” “In retrospect, perhaps a majority of people didn’t want to see such a detailed show [Arrested Dev] and didn’t want complexity with their humor;” writers need to have compassion for their characters/stories; there was a hug in almost every episode of Arrested Dev

David Sedaris: if you want to be a good writer, you need to read; rejects exaggerating in his earlier stories (he was ‘trying too hard’ and that embellishing made it hard for audiences to believe him); edits his pieces while reading to an audience; “My main concern is to not be too corny;” he gets out of bed at 10:26 am every morning

Each interview is 10-15 pages, and covers what the writers think of their previous work, how they write, what motivates them, and their advice for aspiring comedy writers.

There’s also advice about getting hired as a sitcom or late-night writer or acquiring a literary or screenplay agent and a list of recommended reading.

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

I got a Kindle almost a year ago.  And, what a shame, I only used it for the wi-fi. UNTIL, I went to Italy and I was like “Oh right, I should finally use this useful tool so that I have entertainment for the airplane and train.”  Weirdly enough, the library limits the number of ebook copies that can be checked out at once, so there was a waiting list for all the popular books and well-known authors.  I poked around a little until I found a book with really good ratings.  It was called “Attachments” by Rainbow Rowell. (Her blog is here.)

“Attachments” is a fantastic book.  It is sweet, poignant, romantic, and insanely hilarious. Like, laugh out loud, look like a crazy person, tell all your friends about it HILARIOUS.

What is it about?

“Attachments” takes place right around Y2K, although it was written recently and  published just this year. Two friends, Jennifer and Beth, work for a newspaper and email each other all day, chatting about life, relationships, and Jason Bateman.  Their conversations are so funny and realistic, I swear, I felt like I was reading email exchanges I’ve had with my friends.

Lincoln, a down-and-out guy who feels like his life is one giant rut, is hired by the newspaper to monitor company emails for red-flags, like gambling or evidence of time wasting.  Jennifer and Beth’s emails pop-up and Lincoln, just like the reader, is captivated. He starts to fall for Beth, but has no idea how to introduce himself: “Hi, we’ve never met, but I’ve been spying on your emails for weeks and I’ve fallen in love with you?” Face palm.

This romantic comedy, about friendship, love, and courage, is one of the best books I’ve ever read and it is a zillion times better than the Stephanie Plum or Shopaholic series (and, guilty, I’ve read all of both of them).

Go read the excerpts on Amazon!  Here is a tiny one:

Jennifer to Beth:  I think I’m pregnant.

Beth to Jennifer:  What?  Why do you think you’re pregnant?

Jennifer to Beth:  I had three drinks last Saturday.

Beth to Jennifer:  I think we need to have a little talk about the birds and the bees. That’s not exactly how it happens.

Jennifer to Beth:  Whenever I have too much to drink, I start to feel pregnant.  I think it’s because I never drink, and it would just figure that the one time I decide to loosen up, I get pregnant.  Three hours of weakness, and now I’m going to spend the rest of my life wrestling with the special needs of a fetal alcoholic.

Beth to Jennifer:  I don’t think they call them that.

Boom. Mic drop. And I only used this excerpt because it was easily available.  I don’t have my copy anymore so I couldn’t mine through it to find the best, most funny parts.

There are also “deleted scenes” on Rowell’s website.  This one, about Beth’s secret love for Data from Star Trek is priceless. This one, about Lincoln getting the job at the newspaper, demonstrates his relationship with his slightly overbearing mother.

I am ordering my copy today, and you should too! Or at least try to get it from your library!