Exercises make you a better screenwriter by reminding you to play.

ME: Can you tell your story to a caveman? If you’re stuck on a story, boil it down to it’s most simple terms so you can see what is primal and universal.
SOMEONE ELSE: Or you could just write a good movie and not worry about a fucking caveman. Shit like this is so stupid, why would you try to put your story into a box?

Good question, someone else.  The answer is that it’s an exercise, and exercises are fun games that develop your story while simultaneously developing your craft and technique.  I’ve lived in LA for a long time, so I take it for granted that creative people know the value of exercises.  Since that’s not always the case…

Back in the 1930’s, a teacher named Viola Spolin developed acting exercises or “games” that unleashed creativity, adapting focused “play” to unlock the individual’s capacity for creative self-expression. By playing a game where you could only talk in questions, or where you had to respond to simple statements with big emotional choices (and logical rationales for those choices) it allowed people to develop skills that would allow them to be creative outside of those artificially limited frameworks. These exercises have caught on and spread – one famous modern example is improv – think WHOSE LINE IS IT ANYWAY. The show has insanely creative people, the games (or exercises) they play allow them to harness their creativity in a way that is immediately apparent to the audience.

In an acting class, you don’t just act, you do neutral scenes, Meisner exercises, improv games, all things aimed at improving your technique. In football, you don’t just scrimmage, you do drills. In boxing, you don’t just box, you skip rope, do speed bag drills, work the focus mits.

Screenwriting is complicated, and it’s impossible to improve every facet at once. It’s easier to isolate the fundamentals: to spend one day focusing on character arc another day on set pieces, another day on dialogue, etc.  Focus on one thing and you’ll subconsciously strengthen and support the rest. By hyperfocusing on one aspect, you get better at internalizing it, so when you write for real it’s subconscious.

Look at the WHOSE LINE GUYS. God, they’re fast on their feet. They got that way through practice and repetition. They learn patterns and are able to populate the variables with specifics faster than an untrained person can, even though the untrained person might be smarter or more creative than them in another field.

Of course, not every specific will work. It took years of training and practice to get so good at knocking improv out of the park at their outrageously high rate of success. It’s the same with screenwriting. I’m faster at pitching than most people, not because I’m particularly clever, but because I’m familiar with the underlying form of the three act structure and the whims and quirks of readers, so when I pitch an idea, it’s more likely to be the kind of idea that “feels right” for a movie.

If I’m stuck on a script, it helps to write something. So if I use an exercise, like “Write a scene from the villain’s point of view that justifies why he’s such a dick in the third act,” it warms me up, gets me writing, and might even yield a revelation about the story that helps me advance.

Many times people grimly approach screenwriting like it’s a math problem. They clutch their copy of STORY, stare at index cards until blood drips from their forehead. Sometimes I’ll say, “Hey, let’s just improv a scene. You be the hero, I’ll be the villain, we’re arguing about who gets the last muffin, GO!” It’s a good sign if people can play along with a prompt like this, if someone angrily stares at me and says “I can’t do that,” it leads me to belief they’re too concrete and rigid in their approach to find serendipitous moments that take stories from so-so to great.

The above examples free you to write a scene about muffins or about the villain’s daily life absent of the heroes. The more you do these exercises, the better you get at writing scenes quickly and easily. Those same skills come in handy when you’re on a deadline. “Okay, I’m writing scene 32. I need the hero to reveal his love to the love interest while they’re fighting in a glue factory…” A good improviser will write a scene, then they’ll have something to revise and fix. A more rigid writer will stare at his index cards, unsure of how to begin.

One of the best exercises I know is to change genres. Another exercises is to break the script up into four quarters, and write down how every character is different in the each quarter.  For instance:

1. Naive, friendly. 2. Fish out of water, suffers for ignorance. 3. Learns how to live in new environment. Gets cocky.
4. In losing everything learns how to blend his original good qualities with new lessons and in doing so winning.

1. A pretty girl who sees hero as a goof.  2. Teaches hero to surf, building his confidence, learns that he’s a good guy. 3. Gets turned off by the hero’s cocky new persona, leaves. 4. Returns to the hero when he’s humble, helps him win the big surf match.

Breaking down every aspect of your story that way gives you a greater understanding of it. Is it a necessary exercise? Nope. Does it help you learn? Will it help you when you’re stuck? Is it easy and simple to do? Yes to all.

In writing, it’s less about knowing what works, than why it works. If you’re writing towards a theme, scenes that aid your theme will be easier to write than scenes that don’t. Unfortunately, it takes years of study to get good at effortlessly handling theme. If you have theories about writing, test them with exercises. For instance, if I tell you u that all TV pilots are implicitly about a family, you can either use this premise as an exercise to steer the direction of your pilot or you can challenge it, compiling a list of pilots that break this rule. The possibilities are endless, but either way, by making an exercises off of an idea, you’ve gotten something out of it.


It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. – Aristotle

Games and exercises allow you to entertain ideas and approaches. They help you learn, they help you turn writing from work into something resembling play. If you already know this, more power to you, go out and play. If you think I’m full of shit, at least try to see where I’m come from. You’ll have more fun.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

4 thoughts on “Exercises make you a better screenwriter by reminding you to play.

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