Three Magical Writing Exercises For Screenwriters

Most of my articles on this site deal with analysis of story and script. However, lately I have found that people struggle with simply getting down to the act of writing. As an analyst, of course this doesn’t help me. Until you get through this hurdle, there won’t be anything for me to review. So let me try and help you.

While you’re stuck, it may be an idea to just do a few writing exercises. No pressure of having to come up with new material; this is not so much about story. It is all about honing your style skills. These writing exercises will help create the right habits for when the creative juices explode again.

Writing Exercise 1: Reverse Screenwriting

This is one of my absolute favourite writing exercises. It is extremely powerful in that it may help you find your ‘style voice’.

ESB2b

What is it?

In the normal world, scripts are written, then movies are made. For this exercise we reverse it. So you take an existing scene, then write the script for it.

When to do it?

It suits beginning writers but will also help those who have been writing for a while. If you need to improve your style or find your descriptive voice, this is for you.

How to do it?

Pick a scene from a script you own – and love. Initially, keep it short, a minute or two, three at the most. Play the movie scene on your computer screen, in loop. While it plays, write the script for it.

When you’re done, compare your version to the one in the script.

Do this exercise regularly, once or twice a week initially. Your description skills will skyrocket.

Writing Exercise 2: Dialogue Bug

tape conversation writing exercise

This is one of the more involved writing exercises, depending on your approach. It is super useful to the beginning writer – and always a lot of fun.

What is it?

Write one or two minutes from a real-life dialogue in screenwriting format.

How to do it?

Record a conversation between two people who don’t know they are being recorded. Keep taping for at least 15 minutes.

Next, ask their permission to use the dialogue.

Then, transcribe the best two minutes from the conversation. Write minimal description, focusing on the dialogue.

If you can’t find a suitable situation to tape others, record yourself in conversation with someone else. Ideally, this would be a face-to-face chat, but if you have no alternative, tape a Skype call.

In the latter case, tape for as long as it takes you to forget about the recording. The material has to be 100% authentic, and therefore neither of you should realise they are being recorded. Oh, and don’t forget to ask permission from the other party.

When to do it?

This is one of the writing exercises I recommend to everyone early in their writing training. It is an excellent way of learning what real dialogue really looks like in a screenplay. It is also a fun exercise, and a real eye-opener to most.

Now don’t get me wrong. The objective is NOT for you to forever write dialogue the way people actually speak. It is more about discovering that magical quality of real dialogue. Once you get this, you can use the skill when you design your own characters and their language.

Writing Exercise 3: Complete Plagiarism

dangerous-hacker-with-laptop-960This is the mother of all writing exercises.

You will steal from the best. Not just borrow a line here and there. The whole bloody thing. All for the good cause.

I first learned about this exercise from my friend Arvid at the film school on the Swedish island of Gotland. One of the other visiting teachers had recommended it to the students. Coincidentally, the very next day I read that Steven Spielberg recommends this exercise to writers wanting to quickly learn the crux of the craft.

Are you ready? It is a big one!

What is it?

Download your favourite screenplay.

Copy it.

Word. For. Word.

You may do this in Celtx or Final Draft, but there is another way some people claim is even more effective.

Handwrite it. In a lined notebook.

Spend half an hour every day, and it may take you a month or more. But it will teach you a hell of a lot more than just reading the script.

When to do it?

This is definitely one of the writing exercises to do early in your screenwriting training. Or when you’re bored, or uninspired.

If slowly working through your absolute favourite screenplay won’t bring back your zest for writing… what will?

More Writing Exercises

Still not feeling the itch to continue on with your script (or novel)? Then check out these five writing exercises that are seriously left field. Or try any of these 25 writing prompts to get you unstuck.

If you’re struggling with a major case of writer’s block, you may want to re-read this article here on our own old Story Department.

And if you’re really badass, you combine Exercise #1 and #3.

Watch the movie. Write the script.

Enjoy!

-Karel Segers

 

(PS: If you like these tips, please repost on your own blog with a link to the original. Thanks!)

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  1. Hi Karel, thank you so much for posting these great ideas. There’s something I don’t understand.

    Why is it important to get a friend’s permission to script their spoken conversation in a classroom exercise?

    I would think it would be more important to get their permission to record them. What am I missing?

    • You are right. But it doesn’t work if someone knows they’re being recorded. So you’ve got to be a bad friend first, and record without permission.
      Then, if they don’t like it, you just delete the recording.