A producer who’s sold to all the majors, Barri Evins created Big Ideas to give aspiring screenwriters what it takes to break into the business by sharing methods she uses with professional writers. Sign up for Barri's newsletter and follow her on Twitter @BigBigIdeas.
At a time of year when everyone is making (and breaking) resolutions, writers should resolve to do more than the oft-repeated advice of “Write every day.” Not to dismiss that recommendation, but your goal should go beyond “applying one’s ass to the seat.” Exercise your writing skills so you bulk up the muscles you will need for a career in writing.
No matter where you are in developing your craft, there’s always room for strengthening existing muscles and building new ones. It’s the best way to boost your screenwriting strengths and shore up your areas of, shall we say, “less strengthiness.” After all, we all have areas of less strengthiness, which is why my Big Ideas Screenwriting Seminar students complete an Advance Assignment designed to help them identify both their strengths and their areas less strengthiness.They can take this into consideration when choosing what to write next by selecting genres that depend on their strengths to succeed.
As with physical exercise, with repetition, over time writing exercise will build muscle and enable you lift heavier weights with ever more ease.
Writing Exercise: Calisthenics
When you first start working out, remember to always warm up first. Choose light weights, short sessions and easy runs, then take it up a notch as you gain strength.
Let’s apply that to writing by starting with a fundamental career tool: The Logline – that single sentence that sums up your script’s narrative and central conflict.
Crafting loglines is a specific skill, not necessarily one that goes hand-in-hand with screenwriting strengths. They are an art form unto themselves. And they will be essential in moving your career forward. I’ve written here about loglines, summoning all my best advice, but it’s practice that makes perfect.
The Logline Workout:
The Warm Up
Read loglines from successful films, as well as the latest spec sales.
Check the Internet Movie Database for loglines on produced films, and note that it also includes a plot summary and a marketing tagline – a great way to learn to differentiate these tools.
Trade publications and spec sale trackers, such as the Scoggins Report, are a good source for loglines on sales, although they are generally gleaned from available information rather than crafted by a writer, and details of high-concept ideas are often kept “under wraps.” The Black List’s year-end survey of top unproduced scripts is a solid resource for professionally crafted loglines by writers whose work has earned industry attention. Keep reading about new sales and top picks regularly and you also gain a sense of what the industry is looking for.
The Logline Writing Exercise
- Write a logline for a movie you've just seen.
- Write loglines for your three “desert island” favorite films.
- Write a logline for a successful prototype film for the project you are working on, whether it’s similar in tone, story, or theme.
- Develop a logline for a new idea you are considering writing. If you can’t come up with a solid, strong logline, you might not have a film concept. Stop. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. It’s time to rethink before moving forward.
- Before considering sending a query, write one dozen loglines for your project. Forcing yourself to do variations will push you into trying out different approaches, sequencing, and word choices. This writing exercise builds muscle and helps you discover an effective version of your logline that will look polished and professional in the eyes of an industry insider.
Next Level Workout:
- Toss out half of the loglines – the ones that are least effective. Yes, half, as our goal is to separate the wheat from the chaff.
- Put your top choices on a single page, and print 10 copies for fellow writers, friends, and mentors. Ask which, in their opinion best conveys the character, conflict and tone. Is there a consensus? Which version made them most interested in seeing the film? These are clues to your most successful effort.
- Rework and hone the top choice.
This writing exercise version of circuit training can be applied to many skills you want to master, including outlining, querying and pitching.
Read, Watch, Repeat
Never stop reading great scripts and then watching the films.
These days there is a ridiculously rich source of scripts to be had online. I won’t even bother to list them, just Google away. As for watching the films, streaming has made it easy to do from the comfort of your couch. Just make certain you can both read and watch your choices.
Master’s Class Exercise:
- Choose three screenplays by your favorite writer.
- Choose six Oscar-nominated screenplays, from any period in time. Look at the “Best Original Screenplay” category, unless you are working on an adaptation. If so, read the source material and then the screenplay to learn how the masters handle adaptation.
- Select a classic film from each decade from the 1940s on. (Although I must say I am a huge fan of silent films and think that a great deal can be learned from them. It’s worth considering adding a few of these to your viewing curriculum.)
- Include films deemed to have defined or reinvented their genre. Die Hard is considered a definitive action film. Look at top grossing rom coms, thrillers, horror, sci-fi, and at least one other genre you’d like to explore whether it be buddy comedies, family films, or fantasy. These genres are known for their conventions. Box Office Mojo is a great online source for genres and box office grosses.
- Give special focus to any genre you are currently working in or hope to pursue. In that case, add five films in that genre.
- Bonus points: Aim to see at least one film in a theatre each week. Not only is it great to enjoy the movie-going experience, you can study the reaction of the audience and add to your knowledge of the marketplace. Save reading the script until afterwards. Reading it before will spoil the visceral experience of seeing the story unfold for the first time.
Your goal is a well-rounded education. Study not only the fundamentals of craft, but the use of language, symbolism, theme, and the distinctive styles of cinematic storytelling. The more you delve into the masters, the closer you are to developing your own unique voice.
This writing exercise is screenwriting’s Phys Ed. Don’t ditch class.
Who hasn’t had to loosen their belt a notch, or covertly undo a button at some point in the food-centric holiday season? Resolve to lose inches in your script and make your writing lean.
Slim Down Aerobics Writing Exercise:
- Turn your focus to a single scene at a time.
- Read it out loud.
- Word choices matter. Are you using rich adjectives, integral adverbs, and active verbs that accurately convey your meaning? If not, get thee to a Thesaurus. Don’t go esoteric; think expressive.
- Have you entered the scene at the last possible moment? If you’re beginning with “Hi, how are you? Gosh, I haven’t seen you since college,” chit-chat, then no.
- Is your description mired in minutia? Time to cut to the chase.
The alarm clock rings. Bob shuts it off. He enters the bathroom and unscrews the cap on the tube of toothpaste. (Painful, real life example that went on for pages. I can’t make this stuff up.)
- If character intros read like a trip to an enormous smorgasbord, piled high with some of everything, then you aren’t focused on conveying what is essential to know about the character – their defining traits and conflicts.
- Don’t compound the gluttony by including characteristics that could never be conveyed visually or in a performance by an actor on the screen. “Bob, handsome, but with eyes that clearly show he had a difficult childhood…”
- Does the dialogue reflect the characters? We shouldn’t even have to read the character slugs once we’re into the script because they should reflect the unique voice of the characters.
- Examine the end of each scene. Are you cutting to a new scene at the dramatic moment or line of dialogue that puts the perfect button on your scene? Can you cut earlier with no loss to the story?
- Does the scene advance the story? Each scene should move the plot forward, reveal character – or – ideally – both!
- Take a look at a page at a time. While I’m never an ardent advocate for counting, as in words or lines, the page should have a pleasing balance between dialogue and description with white space all around. No page-long monologues or endless, run-on chase scenes. Readers are best able take in information in chunks. Break up description and dialogue into bite sized pieces and create a better reading experience.
- Now that you’ve honed and polished the scene, read it aloud again. Is the language fluid? Does the scene flow smoothly? Convey more information with less?
Caution: Don’t Go On A Starvation Diet:
- Each significant new location should begin with a few succinct words of description to set the scene. Don’t assume that sluglines will do the job. Many readers skip these, believing they will get the info in the description, as well they should.
- Don’t cut to the bone in hopes of creating a “fast read.” Omitting “unnecessary” words, such as the articles “a,” “an,” and “the,” disrupts the natural flow of sentences and makes for a difficult read.
- Significant characters – ones that are named and come into play in more than one scene – deserve a few well-chosen words of description. Cutting adjectives flattens the distinctiveness of your characters and diminishes the flavor of the script.
Never use more words than needed. But don’t use less. A true “fast read” is a “page-turner” not because of a svelte page count, but because the story is so compelling that we can’t wait to turn the page and discover what happens next.
Cardio Writing Exercise
If there’s anything that gets my heart pounding, it’s ideas for movies. My favorite subject, my obsession, the most interesting thing imaginable.
If the ABCs of salesmanship are “Always Be Closing,” for writing it’s “Always Be Creating.” And by that, I mean you should always be coming up with new ideas. Constantly thinking, “Is this an idea for a movie?” Every experience, article, dream, or overheard conversation is fodder for a possible movie idea. This may be the most significant writing exercise there is, with a potentially huge payoff for your career.
This is an idea-driven business. The choice of what to write next is the single most important decision you will ever make as a writer. You are your ideas; your ideas are a reflection of you. It is how you will be perceived in the industry.
Ideas are the single most powerful avenue for breaking into the business.
All my Big Ideas Seminar students are required to “Drop and give me ten.” Ten brand new ideas that they have never written as a screenplay.
The intensity of cardio workouts on a regular basis, at least several times a week, has health benefits and performance benefits. The idea generation writing exercise will get your heart rate up!
Idea Generation Drill:
- If, heaven forbid, you don’t have an Idea File, start one immediately. Whether it be a computer file; memos on your phone; a show box; a notebook; or preferably all of the above, this will be an invaluable tool for your career.
- Set a goal to come up with a specific amount of new ideas per month. Ten is a reasonable start.
- No problem reaching that goal? Then raise the number.
- Challenge yourself to come up with ideas inspired by different sources: True events; newspaper articles; short stories; a poem, a picture; an advertisement, a childhood memory; a couple having a first date at the table next to you in the coffee shop.
- Aim for four different sources each month.
- Set aside a time to go through your Idea File to see what looks promising. Think about what attracted you to the concept in the first place. Can you find a hero, a conflict, and stakes in the concept? It may be a solid idea for a movie.
- While you might elevate some ideas to the “what to write next category” don’t dump the others. Come back to them again and you may find a new take, a different spin, or a change of genre that makes them a winner.
- Never stop adding to your Idea File.
Pushing yourself to develop a regular cardio routine through an Idea File writing exercise may build the most essential muscle for screenwriting success. Being forced to have an idea file early in my career was one of the most impactful experiences for my growth as an executive and as a producer. Here’s how an Idea File changed my life and my career.
Get Thee To The Gym
In the long run, hours put in yield results. Washboard abs aren’t built in a day. Setting writing goals is a valuable writing exercise to add to your routine.
For writers, this is the opposite of a fitbit – at least until they make a sport watch that measures time seated with hands on the keyboard and fingers hitting letters. (Now that's a good idea for a screenwriting tool!) Rather than aiming for 10,000 steps you’re aiming for 10,000 words or 110 pages. That means applying your ass to the chair and not stepping away from the keyboard.
As much as you have on your plate – everyone is hoisting a heavy platter these days – make a schedule, and make that schedule sacred. Routine, whether it’s time, place, duration, or output is hugely effective in exercising your writing on a regular basis.
I do best with appointment exercise. That's why I like group fitness classes. I absolutely have to stop what I'm doing, show up and workout, or get up early and drag myself to a class.
Whether your thing is boxing, spin or yoga, the trick is to find what you enjoy and stick to it. Discovering when, where, and for how long you are most creative and energetic will keep you at your most productive.
Small exercise classes are all the better because the teacher and your classmates get to know you, and your absence is all the more conspicuous. Or get a running buddy or a weight lifting partner. Make a plan and show up. Public humiliation is one of the greatest motivators.
Make yourself accountable not only to yourself but to someone else for a specific amount of pages per day, per week, or per month. If you belong to a writing group, whether in real life or online, this is a great place to make a commitment out loud. They are your writing exercise group fitness class.
A former intern of mine was recently up for his dream job at a rapidly expanding company that makes webisodes. With a huge demand for content, and looking for someone who could deliver, he blew them away with the simple truth, “No problem, I write every single day.” He can’t imagine not getting in an hour or two of writing every morning.
Don't feel like working out today?
Sometimes there’s no muse, no wind at your back, no creative juice, although you can take steps to prime to pump and get into the flow.
No Need To Grow Flabby:
- Research a project to add authenticity.
- Re-read a shelved project with a fresh perspective.
- Read good screenplays.
- Watch films in the genre you’re currently working in.
- Print out what you have and go on a ruthless hunt for typos – even if it means reading backwards.
- Invest in your continuing education through respected sources including podcasts, articles, blogs, and books. You might find the inspiration to head back to the writing desk.
There are a great many benefits to a regular writing exercise workout with steady, demanding goals. You will grow stronger; your voice will be better defined; your sentences will be sculpted. Making writing exercise a part of your daily life will keep your work looking good, keep you feeling good, and help you build a long, healthy career.
- More articles by Barri Evins
- Dream Career Toolkit: Writing Goals - When Your Inner Kid Shouts, NO!
- Writing Exercises: The Valley of Impossibilities