10 ESSENTIAL Screenwriting Exercises to Move Your Script Forward

At some point in writing a script, a screenwriter will have trouble finding inspiration. If writer’s block gets you down, the trick is to keep on writing. But sometimes you also need a prompt or a structure to help move your writing forward. This is where screenwriting exercises can prove vital, helping you maintain writing momentum but refreshing your approach.

The goal is to think outside the box. You might be surprised by the things you come up with that could drive your script forward. These screenwriting exercises are also great for a writer looking to challenge their screenwriting skills or to delve deeper into the narrative to explore what their story has to offer.

Most of all, the 10 screenwriting exercises we have put together below will help keep your writing muscles active. In a tricky patch sometimes writing muscles can become inactive and sluggish. There comes a time when you have to wake them up.

10 Screenwriting Exercises for Screenwriters

1. Write the Dramatic Question for Every Scene/Act/Plot Point

This screenwriting exercise will help you determine why a scene/act/plot point is important to the story. The dramatic question and its answer unveils the reason the element is driving the story forward. It also shows us how tension or drama adds to the narrative. Is he going to get out? Is she going to tell them? Will he kiss her?

By being more aware of the dramatic question and the function of a sequence, you will focus on what is really important. Your writing will be stronger as a result and consequently, your scenes will move the story forward at every turn.

If your story element does not add anything to the narrative, think of ways to spice it up and keep your audience hooked. Perhaps you have to consider leaving the sequence out entirely. These can often be hard decisions to make but you have to detach yourself from what you have written as much as possible.

If the scene isn’t vital to moving the story forward overall, then it’s defunct. Deadweight holding your script down. By interrogating the very question each scene is seeking to answer, you’re making each scene prove its worth. It’s a stress test for your scenes. Make them sweat.

2. Write the Scene Without Characters

This screenwriting exercise can be a healthy challenge for your writing skills overall. Writing a scene with no characters does not mean no action or tension. It means that, as the writer of the story, you have to exploit the setting as much as you can. Show the characters’ personality through their belongings, the way these are arranged and what their possible relationships are.

Are your characters young, tidy, rich, chaotic? What can you tell about your character’s interests, hobbies or daily activities? Furthermore, there is a lot be learned about the story from just the description of where it takes place. What does the room look like? What is the atmosphere like?

Look at the scene in Pulp Fiction in which Mia Wallace overdoses as an example.

  • Through description of the interior of the house, the interpreter of the script can have a good sense of what kind of person lives there.
  • The music, the drinks on the table, the heroin powder, blood and puke reveals there must have been a party for two and that something went very wrong.

Moreover, this screenwriting exercise practices your ability to write descriptively. This is very useful for other people interpreting your script, such as the production designer, the cinematographer and the other heads of department. By adding a certain amount of detail in describing the settings of a scene, the production crew can follow your lead better and make the story come to life the way you intended it.

Ultimately, a healthy balance of description and dialogue makes for a healthy script. But seeing how one looks without the other can help clarify the important parts of both individually before they eventually come together.

3. Write the Scene Without Dialogue

This exercise will help you use the action in a scene to the best of your advantage because you are challenged to write the story merely through the characters’ movements.

You can ask yourself how your character would undertake that action, what the action says about their relationship with the other character and if it is easy for the characters to non-verbally communicate.

  • The more carefully you describe the action in a scene, the more guidance you provide for the director and the actors.
  • Try using descriptive action words to describe what is happening. Don’t say the character is sitting on a couch with a bad or lazy posture, rather say they are slouching.
  • There are many different ways of describing how your characters run, laugh, stand or walk.

As a result of using more descriptive words, you describe the non-verbal communication in a practical and condensed way. There is opportunity to create tautness, drama, sexual tension or humour in what is not said.

Using only a single character in a scene is useful as well. It can show how your character behaves when they are by themselves, reveals a lot about their personality, and shows their role in the story. Moreover, it’s a challenge to have a character express how they feel without anyone around them to express it to. How will their reactions, facial expressions and movements reveal their emotions?

4. Write an Opening Scene That is at a Different Point in the Plot 

This screenwriting exercise is great because it helps you understand why you make your screenwriting choices. Writers often tend to follow their instincts, but this exercise will help you question and explain the decision you make for the opening of your story.

Why does your story start at the moment it starts? This screenwriting exercise helps you find out if your story could change for the better by starting after your first important plot point.

By adding a plot point before your initial first plot point, you allow yourself to build more tension. Perhaps you can try to speed up the first act by beginning your script later on in the narrative timeline.

The purpose of this exercise is to try to engage the audience in a different way. You explore different approaches to building the tension that keeps your audience hooked because you change the dynamic of the narrative. Furthermore, it’s another way of questioning the assumptions you’ve made for your story.

Deep into the process, it can be easy to rest on your laurels and get used to the structure and flow of your story. But try and get out of the comfort zone of reading through your script. Challenge yourself to imagine how the structure could be completely different and how that might change or bring out other certain elements of your story.

5. Write From a Different Character’s Perspective

Snow White and the Dwarfs

If you would like to get to know your supporting characters a bit better, try this screenwriting exercise and write from their perspective.

Imagine how different Snow White would be if we saw it from the dwarfs’ or the queen’s perspective. Writing from a different perspective than that of your protagonist can add a whole new layer to the narrative because it is important to the knowledge hierarchy in your story. Some characters know more than others and it is interesting to explore the impact it has on the audience when they know more or less.

Let’s look at Prisoners for example.

  • We experience the story through Hugh Jackman’s character’s perspective, Keller Dover, the father whose daughter has been abducted.
  • Had the story been told through the child’s abductor, the film would be very different and the audience would feel a different sort of discomfort watching the narrative unfold.

By doing this exercise, you find out quickly and creatively how your main character is perceived by the other characters. Furthermore, it clarifies how much their perspective shapes the story and how another perspective might help shine a new light on them. Again, it’s about interrogating your choices – why are we seeing the story from this character’s perspective and not another’s?

6. Write an Extensive Backstory for Each of Your Characters

This screenwriting exercise helps you to get to know your own characters by creating a biography for each of them. Explain and justify their behaviour, actions and reactions by constructing a past for them.

For instance, perhaps something traumatic has happened to them, which could have determined how risk-averse they are. The biography explains your characters’ fears, hopes, dreams and ambitions. It also helps you establish the character arc or development in the story.

For example, Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street, is intrigued by the New York brokers, but at first, merely wants to make honest money.

  • It is not until he sees how easily it can be done if he thinks outside the box, that he gets involved with a less sincere and more cynical business.
  • His background his key in this. If we hadn’t seen Jordan at the beginning of his career we wouldn’t have understood as well the corrupting influence of Wall Street.
  • So the film’s theme is highlighted by understanding more of the character’s backstory.

This exercise can help you investigate different options for your characters and how to use them as an asset to your story. Furthermore, it helps your characters feel like more rounded individuals. If you understand what makes them tick, the motives behind their actions will feel clearer.

Just like in life, knowing someone’s story helps you understand why they do what they do. So get to know your characters and investigate the backstory that brought them to where we meet them.

7. Write the Scene at a Different Time and Place

Test your scene or story with this screenwriting exercise by changing the time it takes place. In some cases, it does not make sense to change the time. But sometimes changing this element can add a lot of tension or an interesting layer to the story.

Look at Midsommar as an example.

  • A lot of horror films are set at night, because of the dark. However, in this story, the horror happens mostly in the day.
  • This adds even more tension and horror because it is right in front of the characters and the audience.
  • Furthermore, it adds a strange and magical quality to the action as it unfolds in never-ending daylight. There’s a surreal feel to everything, which impacts the characters greatly.

You can take it a step further and write a completely different setting as well: a ski piste, the beach or the planet of Tatooine, anything! This might help you get to know your own characters better because you will have to imagine how they would behave in a wide variety of environments.

It can be easy to get used to seeing your characters exist within a certain context. And usually, that context is integral to the story you’re telling. However, imagining your characters in a wide variety of contexts can reveal much about them. After all, we’re often most ourselves when thrust into a new environment.

8. Free Write Two Versions of the Same Scene

If you’re struggling with a particular scene or stuck at a particular point in your narrative, try moving away from your screenplay. Break out of the rigid structure and move to a blank page. Here you can try and write in as loose a way as possible. These are scribblings that you can discard but they might reveal some small nugget of gold, even if the rest is dirt.

By keeping these experiments away from your screenplay, you’re saying to yourself that this is just pure experimentation. It’s not a strict part of your actual script, it’s just an extension that you are using to explore freely and wildly. Dialogue can be extensive, description can be basic. But here you are just putting your characters on the page and seeing what comes out.

Moreover, if you’re struggling to get a scene that you have already written right, then this can be a useful exercise too. Move away from the scene as it is in your screenplay and just try and write it from memory. Then try that again. By writing from memory you are distilling what’s important in the scene. You might stumble upon a new piece of dialogue or a new action that you thought was there but actually wasn’t.

Screenwriting needs to follow a rigid structure and framework. But sometimes having a space where you can experiment outside this is important. You’re still writing the same scene but you are doing so in a way that is untethered and perhaps, therefore, revealing.

9. Write as Many Descriptive Words About Your Characters as You Can

Develop your characters by trying this screenwriting exercise and create an extensive list with descriptions best suited to your character. Your protagonist can be brave, reckless, charming, a dreamer, chaotic, kind. Your antagonist, on the other hand, can be manipulative, evil, determined, intelligent.

By having these lists about your characters, it might show you that there is room for character development. Consider making a list of character traits for each act and see how the characters change over time. The plot points you write can have a significant impact on your characters. So to have the list of character traits for each moment in the story can help you expose the development in the dialogue, for instance.

So you’ve written that your antagonist is determined but are you actually showing this in the body of the screenplay?

This exercise might also show you a character is not as interesting or necessary for your story as you initially thought. If two supporting characters appear to be rather similar, consider consolidating the characters into a single person, for example.

This exercise will help you construct your characters in a systematic manner, which can help you, later on, to write intuitively. It’s another example of doing the work outside the screenplay so that, in turn, the screenplay holds depths within it.

Barton Fink, Productivity Hacks

10. Write the Whole Story in Just Five Scenes or Five Sentences

They say less is more. So try writing only the core of your story. By practicing this screenwriting exercise, you will carve out what is absolutely necessary for your script and what makes your story great. It’s a way of intuitively writing the key beats of your story.

Consolidating and cutting out events or even characters might help you understand your own story and its true meaning better. This in turn can move your story forward and create a meaningful structure overall. Efficiency is key in a screenplay. You can’t let anything go to waste. By condensing your story in as simple a way as possible, you are filtering out the most important parts of it.

Think of it exactly like a filter. Carried by water, what are the core parts that remain when most of that water is removed. If your story was a short film, made up of only five scenes, what would those five scenes be?

Furthermore, doing this exercise will help you convey it to others in a concise manner when you have the chance to do so. This is an essential part of pitching your story, condensing it into a handful of easy sentences that can be easily communicated.

Ultimately, this is what great storytelling is about, communication. And by filtering out the key parts of your story you are figuring out what is most communicable. If you’re struggling with this, it might be a sign that the key elements and building blocks of your story need re-working.

Screenwriting Exercises – In Conclusion

Screenwriting exercises are essential to keeping your story fresh, your script tight and your writing brain active. Whether you’re stuck at a certain point in your script, frozen on a particular scene or struggling generally to get your creative juices flowing, screenwriting exercises can be a vital way in.

However, screenwriting exercises also aren’t a catch-all solution. They won’t automatically free you from writer’s block. They’re merely a lubricant and a way of challenging your imagination. Often when in the depths of writing, your creativity can be stagnant. You can get lost in the details of your story and caught up with just trying to get from A to B.

Screenwriting exercises can be a way of getting back to the source of your creativity. They’re a way of getting back in touch with why you started writing this script in the first place. By doing this you can re-enter your script with a fresh perspective, one which can hopefully help you move forward.

This article was written by Mary Overmars and edited by IS Staff.

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1 thought on “10 ESSENTIAL Screenwriting Exercises to Move Your Script Forward”

  1. I Like the ideas overall, notably “ Write the Whole Story in Just Five Scenes or Five Sentences” – it could become the core of a synopsis and, as you say a pitch, both areas as a newcomer I particularly struggle to be effective in.

    Re – Write the Scene Without Dialogue – “ write the story merely through the characters’ movements” – agreed the overriding principle is show not tell but “The more carefully you describe the action in a scene, the more guidance you provide for the director and the actors” – yet a lot of advice says don’t be prescriptive – surely it’s the outcome that’s crucial not the minutiae of actions? Or are we saying this for the exercise purposes only?

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