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September 23, 2021

8 Essential Screenwriting Exercises To Hone Your Craft


Like any craft, screenwriting consists of several skills that combine to produce something. And while screenwriters use these skills almost all at once, focusing on one in exercises can help your writing improve vastly.

It's the same concept of a bodybuilder focusing on a specific muscle, rather than doing full-body workouts every day. Hone your craft with these 8 essential screenwriting exercises. You'll see your skills and writing get better over time by exercising those creative writing muscles.

8 Essential Screenwriting Exercises

To help you fine-tune your craft, we've compiled a few writing exercises for you to work through.

Write The Opposite Dialogue

Take a scene you've written, and see what happens if you write the opposite of what the character already says.

Instead, "Yes, I love you." see what happens if they say "No, I don't love you."

People don't often say exactly what they're thinking, and while your characters may not always say the opposite, this exercise can reveal just how much you can let the audience infer by having a character say the opposite.

Combine with these 3 Tips for Writing Good Dialogue, and you’ll have a cracking scene shortly.

Associated Skills: Subtext, Human Behavior

Have The Characters Define The Theme

Write down a word or idea that is central to the theme of your story, then have each character define it in their own words.

For example, if "family" is a central idea, then you might have character A define family as "the most essential thing in the world" and have character B define it as "the people that you're stuck with."

This exercise gets more useful the deeper you go into the definitions of the supporting character, really discovering the nuances of what they bring to the theme outside of the main characters. You can give them some sharp definitions of the theme.

This will help uncover points of view that you may be missing out on.

Not having the characters embody the theme is a mark of an amateur screenwriter. (Avoid the others by checking out The 10 Biggest Mistakes Beginner Screenwriters Make.)

Associated Skills: Theme, Story Unity

Write A Scene From Your Favorite Movie

A common technique that weightlifters utilize is "isolation." They don't work any other muscle except the one they're focusing on.

By writing a scene from a movie that already exists, you're removing a fair amount of the creation and focusing just on putting words to page.

Try to capture the imagery, pace, and feel of the scene you're rewriting. It's ok that your dialogue isn't word for word. If you can find the produced screenplay online, compare it to what you wrote.

Associated Skills: Image Production, Pacing

A list of exercises that screenwriters can do to improve their writing, from a technical and creative level.

Sprint

I'm not talking about "write sprints" where a timer is set and you write as long as the timer goes. I'm talking about literally writing as fast as you can. You can use a timer, but set it for 15 or 20 minutes.

The whole point is to feel like you're almost tripping over yourself.

Don't worry about the actual content. You can edit later. But sprint as fast as you can, with the bare bones of what you need for a scene.

Writing as fast as you can doesn't give your inner critic time to look at what you're writing and say "not good enough" or "could be better." The critic will get their turn on the rewrite.

Associated Skills: Writing Uncritically, Speed

Write A Scene From A Different Perspective

In this exercise, think about how you might write the same scene but tell from a different view.

For example, if you have a scene with two characters in a diner, and your first version starts with Character A in the diner waiting for Character B until Character B walks in, then see what happens if you write the scene starting in the parking lot with Character B who enters the diner.

You'll discover little bits of character moments in the margins, as well as being able to see how perspective can help tilt audience sympathies towards one character or another.

Associated Skills: Openness, Character Perspective

"Give Notes" To A Produced Work

Take a movie or show you love, and think about what would've been better. Whether it's small things you notice in the writing that could be sharper, or larger ideas that you felt were unfulfilled.

Giving notes is a huge part of the screenwriting process.

Not only will this help you define your taste for what is good and what is subpar, but this exercise can really help with Impostor Syndrome.

Even if you haven't worked on anything professionally before, it doesn't mean your ideas aren't sharp. Putting them in writing will prove it to yourself.

I should make it clear, these "notes" are for you. Please do not send your ideas on how a tv show should've ended to the showrunner, and especially do not put your critiques out on social media!

Associated Skills: Notes, Impostor Syndrome

Write A Motivational Speech

Just because your story doesn't have a big halftime locker room speech doesn't mean your characters can't say one.

Pick a context in which a character might give an impassioned speech (doesn't matter if the context doesn't exist in your story) and let your character just go for it.

This can be really great to help find a character's voice and worldview. How might their experience relate to the situation? What sort of tactics might they use to inspire?

You might end up with something that belongs in a sketch show, but that's ok. It'll help you find a distinct worldview.

Associated Skills: Monologue, Character Voice

Use Only Nouns and Verbs

This one's tricky, and not every scene is going to be conducive to this, but writing a scene using only nouns and verbs will help with brevity and economy. It can also reveal whether the scene works in its bones, or if it's a lot of fluff.

Sometimes, this can feel like you're just putting images one after another. A variation of this idea is giving yourself other grammatical limitations like no sentence over 5 words, or one line per action block.

Associated Skills: Economy

Develop Your Own

Figuring out which exercises will help you most improve your writing is a worthwhile exercise yourself. Putting limitations and specific goals in front of you will give your creative juices something to push up against and thrive.

For more ideas, you can check out these articles:

10 Essential Screenwriting Exercises

The Most Effective Screenwriting Exercises To Boost Creativity

8 Essential Screenwriting Exercises To Hone Your Craft
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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