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

  • 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.


  • 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.”

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

Safety Not Guaranteed

Based on an ad that appeared in the mid-1990s in a survivalist magazine, Safety Not Guaranteed is the story of Kenneth, an eccentric supermarket clerk who claims he can time travel, and Darius, a magazine intern who thinks Kenneth might be her scoop.

The movie claims to be a “hilarious, smart, and unexpectedly heartfelt journey,” which actually might be true since it is produced by the same people who produced Little Miss Sunshine, one of my favorite movies.

Plus, Aubrey Plaza! She is awesome!

Vintage? Retro? Plaza in The Jeannie Tate Show!



Sri Kumaré is an enlightened guru from the East who has come to America to spread his teachings. After three months in Phoenix, Kumaré has found a group of devoted students who embrace him as a true spiritual teacher. But beneath his long beard, deep penetrating eyes, and his endless smile, Kumaré has a secret he is about to unveil to his disciples: he is not real. Kumaré is really Vikram Gandhi, an American filmmaker from New Jersey who wanted to see if he could transform himself into a guru and build a following of real people. Now, he is conflicted — can he unveil the truth to these disciples with whom he has spent so much time, and who now look to him for guidance?

From NY Times interview:

I was meeting tons of different spiritual leaders and teachers, and I’d be saying: “This person is just making something up. Why does everyone else think this is legitimate?” What I saw made me think: “What if I pretended to be one of these people? Wouldn’t that show something about the nature of why people are grasping onto things, especially if I’m going to be saying that what I’m teaching is not real and it’s kind of nonsense?”

I would say I am a skeptical person, and not religious at all, so I can see why Gandhi would want to prove that people are gullible and religion is about blind faith. On the other hand, I would never be able to keep up a ruse this complicated for that amount of time.  Sometimes when I am trying to prank people, I just can’t control my face and I burst out laughing. Furthermore, I would feel soooo uncomfortable with people talking about their personal lives and their beliefs and struggles.  From the interviews I’ve seen, Gandhi definitely did not expect people to accept him so readily and I think he was surprised that people attributed changes in their lives to him.  The documentary follows Gandhi from the development of his “cult” to the unveiling of his true identity.  My impression is that this goes well, rather than turning into a huge disaster, but I guess will have to wait and see.

Here are some interviews from SXSW; they do give away a fair amount of the story:

Sleepwalk With Me

As a huge fan of This American Life, I’ve heard comic Mike Birbiglia detail crazy and embarrassing stories as a guest star.  I also have his book, Sleepwalk With Me: and Other Painfully True Stories (which began as an off-Broadway show). He remembers in excruciating detail those childhood events that most of us would like to forget.  His delivery pairs fantastic timing with hilarious perspective.

Birbiglia’s storytelling on TAL has paid off.  Sleepwalk With Me is now a film that went to the Sundance Film Festival.

From Entertainment Weekly:

Sleepwalk With Me was produced by Ira Glass and based on writer-director-star Mike Birbiglia’s harrowing tale of life as a not-so-good, but-getting-better comedian. The film has been a bright spot in a Sundance lineup already brimming with comedies.

Apparently in the film, Birbiglia goes by “Matt Pandamiglio,” an equally unusual name. Here’s a preview:

Ira Glass on producing the movie.  So funny.  An honest portrayal of hard work that goes into a film.

Veep Premieres in April on HBO

OMG.  SO excited.  Not only do I love Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but I love the director of this new series, Armando Iannucci.

From HuffPo:

In “Veep,” Louis-Dreyfus plays former Senator Selina Meyer, the new vice president of the United States. Her character quickly learns the job isn’t exactly what she thought it would be.

The show also stars Sufe Bradshaw (“Overnight”), Anna Chlumsky (“My Girl”), Tony Hale (“Arrested Development”), Reid Scott (“My Boys”), Tim Simons (“Days Together”) and Matt Walsh (“Outsourced”).

Iannucci was the co-writer and director of In the Loop, one of my favorite films and a great piece of political satire, and he wrote and directed The Thick of It, a fantastic tv show satirizing British politics.

In the Loop:


The Thick of It:

Iannucci is a genius.

Tree of Life Visualizes the Cosmos Without CGI


I’m working my way through the Golden Globes winning/potentially Oscar nominated films of 2011 (I still need to see Moneyball, The Artist, My Week With Marilyn, A Separation, and a few more).  I saw Tree of Life yesterday and it was pretty good.  A little long, a lot left unsaid.  I guess Sean Penn put it best:

“The screenplay is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read but I couldn’t find that same emotion on screen. […] A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact.”

There is a whole segment of the movie that is set in space.  The images are particularly stunning and they draw you with their complexity.

Amazingly CGI was not used at all, except for the dinosaurs (wait, what? oh yeah, there are dinosaurs. but i thought it was about family dynamics and the struggle between nature and grace. sure, that’s in there, but also dinosaurs too.)

Visual effects genius Douglas Trumbul, who worked on the film, said:

“We worked with chemicals, paint, fluorescent dyes, smoke, liquids, CO2, flares, spin dishes, fluid dynamics, lighting and high speed photography to see how effective they might be.”

Effective they were.

Also, one song kind of struck my fancy (the song in the above video). I looove melodramatic music.

The Tree of Life Soundtrack – Lacrimosa

Laughing Squid

Laughing Squid is the best.  It is my go-to for art and innovation.

From their ABOUT section:

Laughing Squid features interesting art, culture & technology from around the web. It is also an independently owned and operated cloud-based web hosting company. Laughing Squid was founded in 1995 by primary tentacle Scott Beale, who is the editor and head curator, joined by several awesome guest bloggers.

I have bookmarked a ton of their posts and, when I started this blog, I worried that I would just end up recreating Laughing Squid, so I avoided re-posting their posts.

But, I think that I was just being silly. I promise these are worth your time 🙂

First, a bookstore comes to life?!?!?  Great music too!

Second, Irish Hand Dancing ftw?!?!? Great music too too!

Do you recognize them?  They were in a McDonald’s ad not too long ago.

The music for this video is super catchy.