Category Archives: screenplay: the exercise

Screenplay: The Frenzy – Always Start with an Exercise

Even when I’m in the middle of a screenplay I’m excited about, when I start out writing for the day, I still find myself procrastinating to the page.

I have found that by far the best way to work on a screenplay each day is to start with warm-up exercises. It makes sense, right? It’s like stretching before running.

It’s tough to just start working on the script where you left off. Warm-up exercises not only get your brain cells moving, they can inspire that next scene, help you discover something about your characters that you didn’t know before, and help you to find deeper meaning in your story.

The most exciting thing about warm-up exercises is when they surprise you. When that AHA seems to come out of thin air. It’s magical.

I was introduced to timed writing as far back as junior high school (although I admit I didn’t appreciate it as much back then). I’ve used them for years when teaching poetry. Jack Remick and Bob Ray (of Weekend Novelist fame) are timed writing fanatics. They’ve got some great tips, start lines, and exercises on their website as well.

A really simple timed writing exercise to start your day is this:

Set your timer for 5 minutes. At the top of your page, write The scene that needs to be written is . . . and see where it takes you. Don’t stop and certainly don’t edit, just write and write and write. Don’t try to make it into anything, especially not a scene. Don’t try to control it. Even if it sounds like complete nonsense, just ride it out!


The scene that needs to be written is the one where Tibby witnesses the murder only I’m not sure if the murderer IS her father or her father gets murdered. Which is worse? To watch your father kill someone or be killed. Tibby’s dad is involved in the water controversy, whatever it is it has to be big, unethical, taking of water from the people who can’t afford it like Ben and Bruce and Danny. The densers are being ripped off but why can’t they unite and complain and who would do anything about it and how is Danny’s mother involved? I know that water matters. I know that clean water matters in this. I know there were water wars… ETC

When that 5 minutes is over, go to the MIDDLE of that piece of writing and pull out a sentence. Use THAT sentence to start your next timed writing and this time make it for 7 minutes.

Repeat this again, drawing a line from the middle of your 7 minute writing, and setting your timer for 10 minutes.

After you have completed the 10 minute one, write the next scene of your script.

You’ll be amazed what can happen when you just let yourself go like that with no commitment, no inhibition, nothing to prove. It it not only a great tool to warm up for the day, it’s a great tool when you feel mentally blocked. Just go on your gut.

If you are short on time, try it in 3, 5, and 7 minute increments.

Jack and Bob would sometimes alter the STYLE of the writing. Such as:

-write in short sentences (no complex/compound sentences)
-write in one looooong sentence (no punctuation, every thought connected by “and” or another conjunction)
-use a technique called “chaining.”

Chaining is a great way for your mind to be tricked into going in unexpected directions. Chaining means the the last word of one sentence becomes the first word in the next sentence.

EXAMPLE: Carole didn’t know what to do about her daughter. Daughter who now mocked her because she was weak. Weak for men, weak for love, never standing up for herself. Herself now an empty shell of the passionate artist she once was. Was not long ago when she could wake up feeling strong and confident. . . etc.

Hope your Script Frenzy week is going well!

Danika’s script page count: 10 out of 100 pages.


Filed under behind the scenes, screenplay: the exercise, screenwriting, writing exercises

Screenplay: The Frenzy – Preparing Part 2: The Outline (Sequence and Beat Approach)

Many screenwriters I know hate writing outlines (and loglines and summaries and treatments). I’ve approached each feature I’ve written in a different manner, trying to find the ultimate way of getting the story outlined. By far, the most successful technique I’ve found (the one that made the story flow from my fingers) was the “sequence” approach. I have my own adaptation of this that I call my “Sequence and Beats Sheet.”

I think each writer has to find what works for them. I studied the 3-act, the hero’s journey, Sid Field’s & Michael Hague’s approaches, which you can easily find on line. But I never connected with anything as much as the sequence approach, which is taught in the USC screenwriting program.

The sequence approach was developed by Frank Daniel while head of the graduate screenwriting program at USC. It breaks the story up into 8 10-15 minute “mini movies,” each with their own 3-act structures. The theory is that this approach is more like the early movies in which film reels were only 10-minutes long, so back then writers were forced to divide their stories up into smaller sequences.

For me, this method breaks the story into manageable bites and serves to move the story forward, even for character-driven drama. I find it particularly useful during the middle of the story (that dreaded 2nd Act), which often feels like being lost in a jungle.

This approach is explained by Paul Gulino in his book Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach (he also analyzes 11 films based on this approach)  and Chris Soth (USC grad and “Million Dollar Screenwriter“) uses this “mini movie method” in his very successful screenwriting workshops. (btw – Chris was a participant at PitchMarket 2010 and is a wonderful supportive resource. I highly recommend working with him).

If you are interested in finding out more about the sequence approach, I suggest getting Gulino’s book or doing a google search, as it is discussed on several blogs and forums. The blog A Good Story Well Told gives a great overview of his book.

Gulino names each sequence and what is meant to happen inside it (set up, development, special world, game, grace, intensification, sprint, resolution). If you are new to screenwriting, following these more closely and carefully will get you through that draft.

I have several screenplays under my belt, so I took a much looser approach, focusing mainly on the idea of “status quo” change.

(btw – before I plotted this, I nailed my logline down, which really helped)

1) I numbered some pages from 1 – 8, leaving ample room for the “beats” in each sequence. Beats are basically whole scenes that have their own beginning, middle, end. You can think of beats as the “steps” of the story. (Carry and Bob get married, their limousine crashes on the way to the airport, Bob gets his legs amputated, etc.)

2) I decided what the “status quo” was at the beginning of each sequence, and how the status quo would be changed by the END of that sequence. During this process I also thought about what the goals were for the characters in that sequence.

Here’s a hint – if the status quo never changes from the beginning to the end of your sequence, your story probably isn’t very dynamic and is most definitely missing conflict.

For example, my story was based on the relationship between a mother and son. Events happen to them (both as individuals and together) to create conflict between them. At the beginning of the first sequence, their life together is set up and we understand that they have a pretty good relationship. But, mom actually has a secret she’s been keeping from him his whole life. She’s never told him who his real father is. By the END of the first sequence (about 15 pages later), her son has found out this secret and wants to go meet his father. The son is furious with the mom. New status quo.

At the beginning of the next sequence, they go to see his father, who is in the hospital. The son decides he wants to stay. Mom wants to leave. Mom gives in to son to keep him happy. New status quo.

And so on until the end, by which time their major conflict would be resolved (I wanted a happy ending, what can I say).

3) I reviewed the beginning status quos for each sequence to make sure they significantly changed. I drew an up arrow (good terms) or down arrow (bad terms) to indicate the state of the mom/son relationship at the beginning of each sequence. Up, Down, Double Down, Up, Down, Tripple Down (the worst point for them), Neutral, Up.

Great. Story is dymamic.

4) I added as many beats in each sequence that I could think of that would complete each sequence. In the first sequence they start off camping, drive to Uncle Bears, Reunite with their hippie commune family, Mom finds out son’s father is in hospital, son catches her smoking pot and gets mad, Mom tries to sneak off to hospital, Son catches her and confronts her, she confesses her secret. Okay, so 7 main beats to that sequence. If I can divide them up even smaller, I go for it. If I already have particular scenes I know I want to write, I note them in the proper sequence.

And that’s basically how I outlined the plot for the script. It was MUCH easier than thinking of it in larger sections. The sequence approach lends itself to moving the story forward. And when I wrote the script, it flowed better than any other I had written.

Okay – the FRENZY starts on THURSDAY (egad!). By tomorrow morning, I have to decide which story I’m going to tell and sequence it out. I suggest you do the same! Good luck!


Filed under behind the scenes, screenplay: the exercise, screenwriting, writing exercises

Screenplay: The Frenzy – Preparing for the Challenge

Wow, I noticed it’s been over a YEAR since I posted my last Screenplay: The Exercise entry. Guess I’ve been busy. And I’ve been working on the accidental novel launch, which is in two months. Woo-hoo!

But now it’s time to dust off my DIY Screenplay Kit because

What’s that? you ask. Why Script Frenzy is a writing event in which participants take on the challenge of writing 100 pages of scripted material during the month of April. Feature film, play, TV show, graphic novels all count for the challenge.

People who know me know how much I love a good screenwriting challenge. A feature in 30 days? Piece of cake! (famous last words) I challenge you to finish in 21 days and spend the rest of the time editing.

The hardest thing right now is simply deciding which story to tell.

Exciting, isn’t it?

If you’re on board for the FRENZY, I’ll be posting writing exercises, advice, support, encouragement on my blog as I participate in the event. If you sign up at the frenzy website and become part of your local frenzy scene, there will be meetups happening all month. (Unfortunately I’ll be out of town for Vancouver’s kick-off event on Sunday, March 28 at Blenz at Pacific Centre in downtown Vancouver.)

Having been a screenwriting teacher for several years, I’ve developed (okay, stolen and personalized) several writing exercises as well as created a writing program called “From Start to Finish” – which takes students through a screenplay in 12 weeks. At T.A.N.’s former home over at blogspot, I also hosted several challenges and presented my “Super Scene Writing Formula.”

Since we don’t have 12 weeks, I’ll be taking some of the highlights of that program and reposting them here under my Screenplay: The Exercise series. That will make it happy, since I’ve been neglecting it for so long.


The FIRST thing you need to do is PREPARE to write your screenplay!

Okay, actually, before you do that you need to PICK AN IDEA. Just pick one, pick one, pick one and stick to it the entire month, even when things get crunchy.

If you’re totally stuck, try the PLOT MACHINE on Script Frenzy’s homepage. After a few random pulls I came up with these:

After the Third World War, a group of Star Wars collectors is catapulted into the limelight.

In a post-apocalyptic world, an out of work lion tamer falls head over heels in love with a zombie.

Next, there are many things you can do before you even sit down to do your OUTLINE (which I will discuss in my next post (oh, goodie!) when I share my not-so-secret path towards screenplay outline success).

(CLICK on links for further help/explanation)

1) TALK your story ideas out loud.

2) Work on your LOGLINE.

3) Work on your protagonist’s DILEMMA.

4) Try some PREWRITING exercises.


1) Find a support system, a team of people who’ve got your back. You meet on a regular basis. They can be individuals, a small group, a paid professional.They hold you to your commitments and keep you on purpose.

2) Take a long walk alone. Let your mind wander. Allow all your ideas and stories and characters and images float around in your brain. If you haven’t already, decide on your next project before you get home. Make a mental commitment that when everything else seems more interesting and easier, you will stick with that project. Tell everyone on your team what you’re working on.

3) Buy a notebook and a bunch of your favoutie pens. This notebook is your brainstorming and exercise book for your story. Write the name of your story on the cover. Carry it with you everywhere. Any time you have 5 minutes (on the bus, waiting for a friend, etc), write your ideas down in it (I’ve suggested some start lines below). Do not edit, do not cross out, just write without stopping. DID YOU HEAR THAT?? WRITE, WRITE, WRITE – do not edit.

You can use the startlines below, write character lists (names, ages, descriptions, etc.), or write down what I call “moments.” That’s when a scene hits me and I’m not sure when it goes in the story, but I want to write it down. Scene when Chelle overhears Max getting a girl’s cell phone number and she feels like a bad mom because she can’t afford to get the family a cell phone.


If you find yourself stuck in front of a blank page, here are a few start lines you can try. Remember, write quickly without stopping and without editing. If you run out of things to say, write blah, blah, blah, i can’t think of anything to write about my character Susie because I’ve never known anyone like her… etc.

Also, I use conjunctions to connect ideas and use very little punctuation… keeps things flowing.

This is a story about… (forgiveness, forbidden love, jealousy, revenge…)

Before this story began, my protagonist…

When this story begins, my protagonist…

More than anything, my protagonist wants…

By the end of the story, my protagonist has learned…

What if… (always a good one, just lists when you get stuck on an answer… what if the twins find a kitten? what if Max wants a job? what if her father dies? and then when you strike something that resonates, riff on that for a while… Oh, yeah, Max not only wants a job, he wants to be emancipated and move in with this girlfriend…)

Feel free to mention the project you’ll be working on in the comments. Saying it out loud keeps you more committed to it.

And remember, there are ALL KINDS of writing tips and resources over on the Script Frenzy site.


Filed under behind the scenes, screenplay: the exercise, screenwriting, writing exercises

Screenplay – more prewriting tippage (v)

You might have noticed that I’m a bit of a mutt (poi dog for those of you in Hawaii)… a spiritual mutt, a cultural mutt… I’m also a mutt in terms of my writing process. I’ve taken so many different workshops and read various books, but don’t espouse any one person’s philosophy or method. I collect the tools that work for me and put them in my toolbox.

Every mentor and professional writer has a different method for pre-writing. The only constant is that they all prewrite. So far I’ve shared some pre-writing exercises I use and talked about loglines and dilemmas. Another exercise is simply talking your story out loud.

One of my favourite books on screenwriting is Crafty Screenwriting by Alex Epstein.  Talking the story out loud is one way he prepares. I highly recommend this. It can be a fellow writer, your spouse, your mother… it’s just a really effective exercise. It’s so non-committal, too. Ideas can float around in a non-threatening way. You can wander in the story, your friend can ask questions. You can ask questions yourself.

I had my first meeting with my writing partner and that’s what we did. She talked about a place where she was stuck in her draft, and I started from the beginning and thought the story out loud.

Do it, try it, it’s quite inspiring. You never know what you might think up.


Filed under screenplay: the exercise, screenwriting, writing exercises

Screenplay – the dilemma (iv)

One of the things I was agonizing about early on was that my current story lacked a solid dilemma.  In his book Writing a Great Movie, Jeff Kitchen defines dilemma as “two equally painful choices.”


Say you have to make the choice of losing your girlfriend or being fired from a job that you detest. Not much of a dilemma. They don’t hold equal emotional weight. But what if you had to choose between taking care of your wife as her Alzhiemers grows worse by the day or sending her to a care facility that allows no visiters for the first 30 days… and you’ve never been away from her in your 40 years of marriage?

This happens to be one of the dilemmas in Away From Her. How can the husband not see his wife for 30 days in the twighlight of their years together… but how can he continue to care for her when she can’t even find her way home any more?

A dilemma should make you feel completely stuck until life finally gets to the point where you are forced to make a decision. You can’t sit on the fence forever.

AND, even if you personally think the choice would be easy for you, you have to create your character in such a way that the audience understands how difficult this decision is for him or her.

In my story The Van Goes, mom and son have been living out of a camper van. Originally, she had been forced to live in a camper van out of circumstances and because she was trying to make it as an artist. When it becomes impossible for her 15 year old son to live with her this way, she has to choose: get a real job and apartment or no longer live with her son. It wasn’t compelling enough. Her choice wasn’t enough of a dilemma AND there was no way for us to sympathize with her if she chose to stay in the van.

After I wrote my LOGLINE, I realized that it’s all in the way I present her as a character. I have to create her so that it IS a true dilemma for her. I did this by making living out of the van her CHOICE after her son was born. She’s a hippie, a bit of a renegade, techno-weary, and this is her lifestyle. She knows nothing else, and she wouldn’t fit in…

and neither does her son when he tries to become a normal teenager. But more on that later.

The point is that now, even though I may not agree with her lifestyle choice, I can completely understand how after 15 years of traveling around working odd physical jobs and never owning a cell phone might make it difficult to settle down in one place and fit in to society.


Filed under screenplay: the exercise, writing exercises

Screenplay – laying it down (iii)

The first time I redid my kitchen floors I read the instructions on how to lay linoleum tiles and all the measuring of the room and penciling the lines to fit the tiles into just sounded like too much work to me. I thought, hell, I’ll just lay them out. They’re square; it will be fine. As I glued them down, they started to wander a bit. Eventually I had to cut away pieces to make them fit. It probably added a great deal of time and tedium (not to mention a great deal of frustration).

~ ~ ~

I always recommend that my students do plenty of pre-work before they sit down to write their screenplay. This thinking on the page (and out loud) helps to flesh out the story, the structure, the characters, and a lot more. There are quite a few books on screenwriting, and in every one they’ll tell you the same thing. Knowing what you’re writing about, what the key turning points are, and what the players are all about is tantamount to measuring out that kitchen floor before you lay the tiles.

After I chose which story I was going to write, all I could think of was that I didn’t even have a fully-formed idea. It was just an opening scene that had gotten stuck in my head. I didn’t know about the story. I didn’t know exactly what the conflict was, what the dilemma was, if there was a ticking clock, and what my protagonist’s goal was…. so I started my writing exercises using the start lines I’ve posted in previous posts.

After two weeks,  I still wasn’t feeling it. It wasn’t gelling. I couldn’t SEE the story, which is vital to me.

So I decided to get back to basics.

In Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat, he says not to do anything else until you’ve written the “one-line,” otherwise known as your logline. Screenwriters are notoriously nervous about writing loglines. They’d rather have dental surgery. I mean, how can you reduce your entire story to one measly sentence?

The thing is that the root idea of your story should be simple and basic… and strong so that you can build your story from it. It sharpens your story into a clear point… And you’ll know when you get it right, because a big light will go on in your head. BINGO!

So I sat down to do just that. And in a moment of inspiration, a logline emerged, and I knew exactly what my story was about:

The Van Goes

A freespirited woman must choose between her gypsy lifestyle and the son who has grown too old to live with her in their camper van.

As soon as I wrote this down… the heavens opened and the muses poured golden sunshine upon me… I could SEE my characters. The protagonist (the mother) popped almost fully-formed into my head. I knew this woman, and I knew the relationship she had with her son, and I knew that relationship was about to change.

Take a moment during your pre-exercises this week and write down your logline. You may have to do it several times. For me, the key is in the MUST part… what MUST your character do, what choice MUST she make, and what will be the consequences for doing this thing or making this choice.


Filed under screenplay: the exercise, writing exercises

Screenplay – the s(t)uck (ii)

So, I had a streak of things happen that could be considered sucky. My short film was declined from its 3rd festival, our team didn’t get the NSI drama prize (we were short-listed, but didn’t win), and I got two rejection letters.

Taken one at a time, I could easily shrug them off and move on. However, this was in the space of a week when I was already feeling pretty wobbly about the quit-your-full-time-job-and-become-a-full-time-writer thing.

The producer for our NSI project wrote the director and myself to say “Congratulations!” and I thought, Oh, no, she misread the letter NSI sent to us. She thinks we’ve won.

But no, she was congratulating us on being short-listed out of 200 applicants. Yeah, but isn’t that suckier? To be so close and then not chosen in the end. At least that was my attitude yesterday; today’s a new day. (and the semi-colon is my favourite form of punctuation)

The thing is I have a choice. I can choose to feel sorry for myself, or I can choose to take another step forward. Which one serves my purpose? Sometimes I DO actually choose to be down for a day. The difference is I make it a conscious choice. I say, you know what? I feel like staying in my pajamas all day eating popcorn and being sad. I just experience it, have a good time, and move on. In the end, it connects me with my humanness, which always inspires me, ultimately, to create.

Don’t pile guilt on top of being sad and pitiful, you’ll hurt your brain. Celebrate the mess that you are. I laugh when I cry all the time. (Baby has learned not to freak out when this happens.)

And as my badass friend Lisa says, The alternative is not an option. What, I’m going to go back to my SSJ (soul-sucking job)?

So today, I move forward. One thing is enough. One idea, one lightbulb, one connection…


1) Set your first meeting with one of your “team members”. Decide and commit to your regular basis check-in, whether it’s by phone or in person. I think in person is better. Tell them what you’re working on.

2) Get a timer. I use an old Pillsbury Doughboy Kitchen Timer. It’s sole purpose is to time writing exercises. My students tease me, but I think they secretly covet it. I am a big fan of timed writing.

3) As many days as you can this week, do the following exercise. Commit to those days. Pick something doable for your schedule. Pick 3 days and if you do more you’re a star. I’ve decided to do it every morning for 7 days straight simply because I need to be that hard core with myself right now to get back into the flow.

STEP ONE – Set timer for 5 minutes
Using the start line I want to tell this story because… start your timer and finish the sentence. Keep writing the phrase and finishing each sentence (like a list) until a scene “jump starts” your muse. Then dive in and spontaneously riff from there and avoid punctuation from then on. Keep these sentences long. Keep that pen moving the whole time, if you fumble and stall, write I want to tell this story because… and keep going)


I want to tell this story because I need to do it for myself right now. I want to tell this story because I have so many ideas I need to pick one. I want to tell this story because I think everyone can relate to Chelle how she has given up on herself because we’re always doing that and they don’t stand up for their creative selves. And even though Chelle is staying true to her art she’s not staying true to her own success and we shouldn’t have to give up on anything to be the Truth of who we are…etc.

STEP TWO – Set timer for 7 minutes
When your timer goes off, go the the MIDDLE of that piece of writing and pull out a sentence. Set your timer for SEVEN minutes. Use the line you just pulled from your own writing as your start line. If you get stuck, just write I want to tell this story because… and go from there. You can always go back to listing / short sentences. Remember not to stop or edit. Just keep writing.

You can do more long sentences or, as in the example below, I use the “chaining” method taught to me by the infamous Jack and Bob, in which the last word of a sentence is repeated as the first word in the next sentence. You can try that for fun and see how it goes. Some people really like where it takes their writing.


Poop or get off the pot has become my new motto and it’s got to become Chelle’s. Chelle’s daughter Violet says, “mom, sometimes you just gotta poop or get off the pot.” Pot like the one Chelle attaches to the back of their van so she can plant a sunflower. Sunflowers are her favourite flower and she misses her gardening. Gardening is the only reason she thinks it might be nice to have a home. Home for her seed collection and for the twins’ pet rat… etc.

Step ThreeSet your timer for 10 minutes
Repeat the above process: go to the middle, pick that line, write. THIS TIME set your timer for TEN minutes. It is important that the time grows longer as you go to get deeper into the work. If your writing time is limited, try 3-5-7 minutes instead.

This exercise is very good at getting you unstuck, I’m telling you. I was resisting any kind of writing on The Van Goes and when I did this exercise I had 3 pieces of new information about my story. That’s exciting.

Additional startlines (for Step One) to keep you busy:

This is a story about… (always an effective one)
In this story, my protagonist learns to/that…

My protagonist’s deepest wound is…
My protagonist’s greatest fear is that…
My protagonist’s most treasured possession is…

4) This is also a good time to do any research you might need to do for your character and story. I need to research different types of camper vans, sizes and styles,  and what one can fit inside. I also need to research names for the Van Gogh kids and decide whether I want to name them after artists or if that would be too much.

Have fun with it! I’m not sure how often I’ll post chapters of the screenplay saga, at least once a week.


Filed under screenplay: the exercise, weekend workout, writing exercises