Four Essential Writing Exercises for Screenwriters

Screenwriting is like any other art, craft, or skill, you only get better at it if you actively train your core writing slills. In my opinion, far too many screenwriters believe they will automatically acquire the craft of screenwriting as part of the creative process. Basically, they believe you just write the script for your movie or TV show and learn as you go. The end result of learn-as-you-go thinking is an industry where script readers are able to reject 90% of all scripts before they have read the first paragraph. In the vast majority of cases, these scripts are rejected because the writers don’t demonstrate even basic levels of the core writing skills required to write a script.

As a screenwriter, I take the building of my core skills extremely seriously. This is why, over the years, I have developed a weekly routine of writing exercises which hone the writing skills unique to screenwriting. Today, I am going to share them with you.

Exercise One – Describe Twenty Characters

The ability to accurately and concisely describe people, places and actions is vital to screenwriting. And, it’s a skill that is woefully lacking in many of the scripts I read.

Write a list of ten female names and ten males names. Now write character description for them. The rules are: the character description must not be any longer than twenty-five words. The description must give a clear insight into what kind of person they are without ever describing their hair colour, degree of sexiness, or general build. So, for example:

Genna Monroe (23), The kind science-geek who routinely trolls sci-fic writers for their failure to properly understand string theory. 

Brad Petersen (36), If beige was a person, that person would find Brad tediously dull.

Gillian Scott (19), what entitlement would look like, if you gave it a New York accent and a woolly hat.

Norman Thewlis (47), A pair of battle-scarred, tattooed fists with the angry remnants of an alcoholic attached to them.

There is a great deal more to this exercise than many writers realise. It is, of course, about training screenwriters to invent characters, but on another level, it is about understanding the connection between what someone looks like and how they behave in the world. The key question is, having read the description can I clearly imagine them? Ironically, in this instance, the writer’s job isn’t to help the reader understand what what the writer is imagining. The job is to stimulate the reader’s imagination. Understanding the difference between describing what you see in your head and stimulating the reader’s imagination is the key to good screenwriting.

Exercise Two – Four Moments

Tell an entire story, in one page of script, using precisely four scenes. 

This is one of my favourite writing exercises. Far too many screenwriters waste pages. It’s not unusual for me to be given a script to read where two, three or even four pages go by in which absolutely nothing happens. New writers often see the script as a large canvas. If you have ninety pages, what does it matter if the pace drops for three or four pages? Well, it does matter and good screenwriting is about making every single sentence count. There shouldn’t be any moment of a movie which isn’t important on some level. The four moments exercise teaches writers to see the possibility in each page. It also trains them to write short, effective scenes.

Exercise Three – No Dialogue

Tell an entire story in one page of script, but you are NOT allowed any dialogue.

When a script reader picks up a script which is just page after page of dialogue, they don’t have to read much of it before ditching it. A script dominated by dialogue is a strong indication of poor writing. In my opinion, movie scripts should be about 40% dialogue, with 60% of the writing being dedicated to action. Writing one-page stories without dialogue trains writers to tell their stories visually and to break the habit of writing scene after endless scene of people talking and not doing.

Exercise Four – Protagonist/Antagonist

Take a well-known protagonist and antagonist. Reverse their roles. Write a couple of pages which show this reversal.

What if Darth Vader is the hero of Star Wars and the rebels are mindless terrorists?

What if Batman was just a rich-sadist who likes beating up criminals and The Joker is a decent man forced to do dreadful things in order to stop him?

There’s an old saying, Everyone is the hero of their own story. If you apply that to storytelling then every antagonist believes they are in the right, on some level. The ability to write sympathetically for every character is important, as in the ability to challenge conventional thinking.

If you do one or two of these exercises a week, you should see a rapid increase in the quality of your screenplays. That’s because these exercises develop skills in the areas where most screenplays fail. They teach visual storytelling, concise plotting,  flexible thinking and the craft of stimulating the reader’s imagination in as few words as possible.