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October 7, 2021

18 Screenwriting Prompts and Exercises

Getting stuck while writing is almost a rite of passage. Nobody’s exempt. Between the high-pressure work environment, the high stakes of putting together a quality screenplay, and the need to make every line count, it’s easy to feel lost for words. Our guide to page one is a perfect place to start, but what if you need help further down the line?

That’s why we’ve put together this ultimate list of screenwriting prompts and exercises that will kick-start your creativity no matter where it stalled.

Concept Prompts

It’s not unusual to have fully-formed characters, a fleshed-out world, and even snippets of dialogue in mind long before you settle on the story itself. If you’re rearing to go but can’t quite nail down what the overall concept of your story is about, these are the prompts for you.

1. What If…?

A favorite among speculative writers, the question “what if” is often considered the root of all stories. What if one day the sun didn’t rise? What if our shadows could talk? What if your neighbor vanished? What if your car caught fire?

Your task: Make a blank list of one hundred entries, either in a spreadsheet or on paper. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and ask yourself, “What if?”. Then open your eyes and start very quickly listing the questions that come into your mind, no matter how silly or cliched or unusable you think they are. Don’t worry about turning them into plots, don’t even think about it! Just keep listing.

When you’re done, take a break, then come back to your list and highlight the items that seem most interesting to you as a writer either for your current project, or future ones.

2. Trade Across Time

A great way to focus your mind on what themes and moods appeal to you most is to consider mixing two different time periods. No, not literally—unless “cowboys vs dinosaurs” is what you’re going for, in which case, go for it!—but in the sense of taking a core issue from one time period and transposing it into another.

Say you’re fascinated by the French revolution and the imbalance of power between classes. How can you show that same dynamic and those same themes in modern-day Chicago? Or say you’re a fan of gangsters from the roaring twenties. What’ll be their equivalent in the future on a Martian colony? Maybe you want to bring a little Spaghetti Western into the interactions between your suburban neighbors or turn the fling between two high-school teachers into a mirror of a Victorian tragic romance. The possibilities are endless.

Your task: Come up with ten core issues, themes, or moods that interest you from different time periods, and ten modern settings. Then, mix and match until you find a winning combination!

3. Reacting to Your Character

One of the most often overlooked sources of inspiration when coming up with your core concepts is your character. Many writers and editors say that the character is the plot, and for good reason. They’re the viewer’s window into the events you’re presenting, and without them as a filter, nothing (should) make sense.

Your task: Write a list of your character’s main attributes, desires, goals, and the emotional state they’re in.

For each item on the list, try to come up with one or two situations that would most challenge that specific trait.

Is your character curious, prone to impulsive gestures and experimentation? Write down three things that would make them regret their curiosity, or need to rein it in. Are they dissatisfied with their life? Write down three things that could take their situation from bad to worse. Are they chronically lazy?

Find three events that would propel them off the couch.

4. Story Mix-N-Match

Novelists often use this trick to describe the concept of their stories, especially when pitching them to agents or publishers. However, it’s also a great starting point for coming up with the concept in the first place! The trick is to find two scripts, stories, novels, music videos, or anything else that makes your creative energy rise.

Your task: Think about what would happen if you mashed together two of your favorite stories. What if Harry Potter met The Love Boat? What if Jurassic Park met Pride and Prejudice? Create a list of your favorite stories and mix them around until you find a match that feels right.

5. A Different Dimension

What would happen if your modern story was set in the 1920s? Or, 79 AD? It can be a great idea to test how strong your overall concept is even despite a different setting and time.

Your task: If you feel stuck, try throwing your characters and plot into a different dimension and see how they fend for themselves.

Bonus: Tropes Galore

If you’re looking for concept inspiration, there’s almost no better place to look then TVTropes. You may think that tropes are tired and overused, but in reality, the staggering number of variations and combinations should keep you in fresh ideas for a long time. Maybe you too can reinvent a classic trope, someday.

Dialogue Prompts

Sometimes, the worst place to get stuck is in the middle of a conversation. You know what’s going on, you know where it needs to go, but the topic keeps looping around and around, introducing your plot points in dialogue feels forced, and it just doesn’t come together.

If you’ve already tried our guide to writing dialogue for the screen, then try these prompts, next!

1. Say the Wrong Thing

One of my personal favorites: if you’re not sure what your character should say next, have them blurt out the exact wrong thing for the situation and then have to deal with the fallout. It’s almost impossible not to carry the conversation forward and escalate the conflict once that happens!

Your task: Consider who your character is talking to. What would be the absolute worst thing to say to them? Write a quick list of five options that would either summarily end the conversation or get your character into deep, deep trouble.

2. Change the Subject

Another great way to get dialogue from point A to point B is to change the subject altogether. Often misused, this technique isn’t a carte blanche to start meandering into a side-story about Jim’s childhood pet rat. Instead, it should be an opportunity to add a small diversion into the dialogue that will ultimately prove a point or serve as a micro-metaphor for the larger picture.

Your task: Wherever you are in the dialogue that’s giving you trouble, stop. The next character now takes a break and begins their line with the phrase, “Did I ever tell you about that…?” Continue with a small, interesting interlude that will mirror your larger dialogue beat.

3. No

Dialogue often stalls because of a lack of conflict. The easiest way to bring that conflict roaring right-back is using one very simple word: No.

Your task: Whatever your character is trying to obtain in this specific dialogue beat, the answer is a hard and definitive “no.” How do they deal with it? Do they turn to bargain, violence, bribery? Ask to speak to someone else? Cut the talk altogether and reach their goal in another way? Great! You’ve got conflict.

4. Failure To Communicate

Sometimes, characters can get bogged down in too much dialogue. One ends up over-explaining to another, or they go around in circles, and ultimately never reach that satisfying, brisk clip you’re looking for. So what happens if you interfere in a way that makes them fail to communicate altogether?

Your task: Failure to communicate can come in many different ways. What would happen if your character were incapacitated, even just by a serious sore throat? What if the environment doesn’t allow for communication because of noise, or a need to stay silent? What if they needed information from someone they shared no spoken languages with? Finding new and creative ways to sustain a non-verbal dialogue might just be the jump-start you need.

Plot Prompts

Is your plot feeling a little lackluster, or meandering without enough purpose? Here are some prompts and exercises that can bring it back to vitality throughout one scene or less.

1. Really Bad Day

An old trick borrowed from Horror and Thriller writers, whenever you’re not sure how to start or continue your plot, ask yourself this: In what way is this already the worst day of this character’s life before the inciting incident even happens?

It works great for a powerful start but applies equally to any pivotal moment in your plot. This trick can apply to high stakes like a demonic possession landing right after Joe gets evicted, or softer tones like bringing home rotten tomatoes with the groceries right before a marital argument.

Your task: Write a simple two-sentence outline of your next inciting incident or plot twist, then come up with five ways in which the trouble can start long before then.

2. Shock Therapy

A change is as good as a rest, the old saying goes. That’s because change can refresh our perspective and give us renewed energy and drive. The same goes for plots! If it’s starting to feel a little sluggish and you’re not sure where it goes next, a radical change might be your best bet.

Your task: No matter what your last scene was, the next one begins with the words “I can’t believe this.” Use it as an opportunity to throw a shocking twist at your characters and force them to adjust, adapt, and make decisions.

3. Higher Ground

Some screenwriters have no problem maintaining drive and intensity, which can sometimes result in crowded, relentless stories. If that feels like something you might be guilty of, then you need to let your character get to higher ground and breathe for a beat.

Your task: Your characters need room to breathe and think. Where would they go to gain perspective, or an overview of the situation, literally or figuratively? Take them there, and give them space to think things through and make decisions. You may end up cutting some of that work, but it will help them (and you) figure out what’s next.

4. Go Back To The Beginning

Whenever you’re stuck for your next plot point, it’s always a good idea to circle back to the beginning of your story and look at all the things you set up in the early parts that you may not have capitalized on yet.

Your task: Read the start of your story again. What hidden themes did you sprinkle in there, knowingly or otherwise? What secrets have you left unresolved? What minor things did your characters pick up on that you never developed? Pick one of them and resolve or develop it to anchor your next plot point.

Character Prompts

In every group of writers, there’s someone who lives for the characters, and someone who loathes that they need to exist for the plot to function. This guide to creating fascinating character arcs is a great first step, but if you frequently find yourself struggling to figure out who should be delivering your precisely cutting lines of dialogue, here are some prompts that might help.

1. Worst Possible Person

Nothing makes a plot chug along more swiftly than a troublesome character who can barely get a grip of the situation. Whether you intend for them to ultimately succeed or fail at their task, making them the worst possible candidate for it will set you up for a satisfying arc.

Your task: Consider what your plot demands from your characters. Do they need to pull off a bank robbery? Discover a new comet? Launder money? Make a list of the top five people who would be the worst suited for those situations, either because of their beliefs or capabilities, or goals.

2. Shower Victim

In life, we are rarely either perfectly adept or perfectly inept. Most people go through a multitude of situations by a combination of luck and grit. Often, the inciting incident catches you off guard, when you’re in the shower with soap in your eyes and nothing but a towel on you.

Your task: Place a character in the most unsuspecting and vulnerable position you can think of. In the shower, asleep in a tent, watching smutty movies on their laptop at night. Then, begin the plot there, catching them off guard.

3. The Perfect Candidate, But

There’s nothing we love watching more than a character who has a secret. Almost the polar opposite of “Worst Possible Person”, this exercise will have you creating the perfect one, with a twist.

Your task: Figure out the ideal character for the challenges that lay ahead. Need someone who can run guns between countries? Then the perfect candidate would be unassuming, forgettable, clever, quick to adapt, and charming. Once you’ve established that, it’s time for the fun part: list ten things they could be hiding that would completely mess with the perfect plan.

Compulsive gambler? Afraid of figures of authority? A secret wife in every town? Exert your imagination, then pick your favorite trait to work with.

4. The Eccentric

As a writer, you’ll often find yourself needing to experiment. Throw everything against the wall to see what sticks, so to speak. That can be true for when you’re creating a character, too! Keeping in mind that you will always have time to edit down, later, there’s no reason not to try starting with the most complex, eccentric, weird character you can.

Your task: Create a character that’s out-there in every way imaginable. Speech patterns, clothing, ideology; turn the volume up on everything to the max. Let them interact with your other characters and the setting for a little bit, then see which traits actually bring something to the story, and which you can dial back down.

Bonus Prompts

If you’re still stuck for ideas, here are some extra quick prompts to get things rolling:

- There’s an empty street at night. A lone figure walks down it.

- Someone says, “We need a new plan.”

- Someone walks into a liminal space.

- A character needs to do the one thing they never wanted to do.

- An addict just woke up with no memory of what they’d done the night before.

- A dance class ends horribly

- A character on their way to a family holiday meal gets lost.

- Someone isn’t who they seem to be.

- A scientist sits on the beach, anxious and clearly waiting for something.

- A mining project unearths something.

- A deep-sea diver goes missing.

- A helicopter hovers over a snowed-in hotel.

- Someone says, “I need help right now.”

- An aerial shot of a mountainous region reveals a hidden underground mansion.

- Two tourists arrive at their B&B, but one of them leaves.

- To people in a pitch-black room are talking with no visual cues at all.

- Someone says, “Do you think he’s lying to us?”

- A parent waits for the school bus, but their children never get off.

Happy writing!

18 Screenwriting Prompts and Exercises
Alex Woodroe

Alex is a screenwriter and editor. She specializes in dark speculative fiction, compelling characters, and snappy dialogue, and loves nothing more than showing others the editorial tricks she’s picked up along the way.

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