2 Practical Exercises Every Aspiring Screenwriter Should Do Every Week
You’ve probably heard the old adage that in order to improve as a screenwriter you should write every day. Well, while that’s true, it also implies that it’s all you need to do. In fact, there’s also a number of practical exercises that can dramatically improve your screenwriting if done every week.
In this blog post I’d like to go through some of them, and have selected my top two favorite practical exercises that every aspiring writer should do every week if they’re serious about becoming a screenwriter. So let’s get to it!
1. Break Down Three Characters A Week
This is a great exercise to do each week concerning breaking down and getting under the skin of movie characters. Here’s what to do:
After watching a movie, list the three main characters in the triangle of conflict — the protagonist, antagonist and stakes character. In this triangle, the protagonist is usually in direct opposition with the antagonist over the stakes character in some way. It might not always be the main conflict, but it’s part of the triangle and that’s what we’re interested in noting.
So, if you’d just seen Whiplash, you’d list Andrew as the protagonist, Fletcher as the antagonist, and Nicole as the stakes character. If you’d watched Collateral, you’d list Max as the protagonist, Vincent as the antagonist, and Annie as the stakes character. And for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy as the protagonist, the Nazis/Belloq as the antagonists, and Marion as the stakes character.
Usually, the three aspects of the triangle of conflict are personified, but not always. Not every movie has an actual physical antagonist or stakes character, and in these cases just list whatever the force of antagonism is, or what’s at stake.
Once you have your list of characters, write down underneath what each one wants. As you probably know, the protagonist usually has a definite conscious desire (want) and so put this down. Andrew wants to become a jazz drumming legend. Max wants to escape from Vincent. Indy wants the Ark, etc. Then do the same for the antagonist and stakes character (if applicable).
Then, write underneath this why they want it. This will give you a solid breakdown of the basics of character and get you thinking about your own characters in the right way. Who is the protagonist, antagonist, and stakes character? What does each character want? And why? Break down three characters a week in this way and you’ll begin to notice patterns in character development and how they can be applied to your own scripts
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2. Read One Screenplay A Week
The first thing you need to do is get together a list of fifty professional screenplays to read. Download all of them online, sticking to produced scripts from professional writers rather than spec scripts from amateur writers. Save the fifty screenplays in a folder on your computer, choose a designated “reading time”, say, Sunday mornings, and read one a week.
Yes, it can be a bit of a drag at first if you’re not used to it, but a number of things are going to happen as the weeks pass and you read more and more scripts:
- You’re going to learn how to write evocative and professional standard description. Reading scripts every week will really help hone your writing style. Your lines will become shorter, you’ll learn to say a lot with fewer words, and how to evoke memorable images in the reader’s mind.
- Your dialogue will improve tremendously. Again, you’ll start writing less dialogue and saying more with fewer words (or no words at all) as you see how it’s done over and over in professional scripts.
- Your scene work will go up a notch. Reading professional screenplays will teach you how to make scenes interesting rather than just delivering exactly what the reader expects every time. Novice writers tend to write the obvious way anyone scene could play out, but by reading how professional writers surprise the audience, challenge our expectations and move us emotionally, you’ll absorb this into your writing too.
Stick to the plan and each week drag a different script into a “DONE” folder on your computer once you’ve read it. It can be quite satisfying to see the progress you make and also at the end of the fifty scripts to see how much more of a command of screenwriting you have by the end.
Make these two practical exercises as essential to your screenwriting schedule as actually writing, and I can guarantee you’ll see an upturn in your abilities.
Alex Bloom is the founder of Script Reader Pro, a screenplay consultancy made up of working Hollywood writers, speakers, and consultants that offers actionable script coverage and a hands-on screenwriting course.
He decided to set up his own script consultancy after becoming disillusioned with the often vague and misleading feedback he received on his own screenplays — like “Let the story breathe” and “Your protagonist needs to be more likable” — and has made cutting “the fluff” from feedback Script Reader Pro’s daily ethos.
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