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.”

Mindy Kaling is my Lady Hero

So, about a month ago there was a “sponsored” post on Jezebel advertising Mindy Kaling’s new book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, and it had an excerpt (on friendship) read by Ms. Kaling herself.  I cannot find this post anymore 😦

But, I found a different passage (on exercise), to post. Thanks trusty Youtube!

Also, Mindy Kaling has been touring the press and offering up some insider Office info and some back story on how she ended up in showbiz.

From Mindy’s NPR interview:

If you want some insight into Kaling’s own hobbies, you may want to follow her voluminous and wildly entertaining Twitter feed, or visit her website, The Concerns of Mindy Kaling, where traces of the Kelly Kapoor persona are prominent.

Can’t wait to get my copy!!!!