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Short Circuit: Throwdown Lowdown on Screenwriting Exercises

the pen is mightier

Short screenplay job opportunities abound for a writer. If you spend any time on the many screenwriting sites out there InkTip, Mandy, The Screenwriting GoldmineDDPro Job Announcements, etc., you’ll see a constant stream of postings from directors and producers looking for writers-for-hire. That sounds great - but what if you’ve never written on assignment before? Can you commit to a tight deadline and deliver the goods on time? If you’re not sure and really want to find out, then short screenwriting exercises are your answer. They’re a great way to write an assignment under an actual deadline, get feedback on your work and possibly even get representation (keep reading, I’ll get to that below).

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Screenwriting Exercises Throwdown:Writers going head-to-head

Some of my favorite “writing throwdowns” are hosted on the Done Deal Pro forums- one of the few places in the screenwriting world where pros like Craig Mazin (Identity Thief), Jeff Lowell (Hotel for Dogs), Max Adams (Excess Baggage) and many others drop in to offer their take on various topics and sometimes even offer up writing samples. And for anyone who wants to get the full info on The Black List 3.0, its founder, Franklin Leonard, is a frequent contributor to the site’s thread count.

Managers and agents from many well-respected agencies also frequent here. Benderspink recently brought game to the writing exercises when they offered up script reads by a Benderspink manager as top prizes. Benderspink is one of those management teams that always seems to be going the extra mile –not just for screenwriters, either. Over the years, Benderspink manager Daniel Vang and screenwriter Joe Nienalt teamed up to raise almost $45,000 for the American Heart Association by offering reads for donations.

These writing exercises have been run for years by Derek Paterson and Karl, the “Road Warrior.” I decided to go to these guys for a little more background.

How did it all get started?

DEREK: There are old contest threads in the DDPRo (Done Deal Pro) Writing Exercises forum going back to 2003, I think! From time to time, someone would post a question asking how to write a particular scene, and, as you'd expect from writers, replies veered towards providing examples. So, when someone suggested having a fun writing exercise for [insert random topic here] everyone was up for it, and the contests rolled on to became a semi-regular feature. Halloween's always a popular theme, since it invites horror elements. Christmas and Valentine's Day have also been known to draw interest. And from time to time we've had Noir contests, March Madness contests, etc. I don't know exactly how many contests have run in total, I haven't participated in all of them, but I have 40+ short scripts.

How do you go about setting up the “challenges”?

KARL: I get an idea for a title, such as this year’s Back From The Dead, and set up a few graphics, then my role changes. You could say it is then to hype the exercise. And Derek, being the IT whizz, will step in at the end to receive and post the entries. He also sets up the final score cards after votes have been cast. These are a simple 1st, 2nd, 3rd, placing, the readers/voters being the entrants. The key is try and establish a good vibe and everybody gets in on that. The best stage is afterwards for me, this is when we have an informal feedback session and discuss the entries.

Anything you've seen over the years that surprised you?

KARL: We've had all sorts of surprises. Entries, well, we get some pretty far out stuff. That's the idea. I think we could be said to encourage a bit of experimentation. These don't always read like regular scripts, entrants are having a break from those, so we get some left of field ideas, and the eight page limit, that's pretty tough, annoying, it's even been described as genius, as it's very difficult to both set up and end a story within that short frame - that's the idea of course.

How do you feel the exercises help a writer?

KARL: I'd like to think that they unfreeze any scribblers out there who are blocked, and looking to just get wrting or do something different, I'd like to claim that they unlock inner potential, but that's pushing it a bit too far! Actually, I suspect that they are good for writers, because we become isolated by our writing, or 'in our writing,' and it's a chance to sit around the camp fire and have some fun with your fellow scribblers. A few may take issue with my 'fun' definition, and substitute 'torture.'

DEREK: I think the majority of entries, and we're probably talking in the mid to high ninety percent range, have been original shorts written for the contests. Yep, sometimes samples from full-length screenplays are submitted when they've matched the contest theme. I think that's only to be expected, as writers wonder whether an opening sequence would make a good tight short. But it all garners feedback for the authors, which is part of the value-add of these contests.

The next writing exercise is set for Christmas, and the 2014 "throwdowns" are already being planned.

I’ll let Will Plyler, who’s been running the DDPro site for many years, take us home. WILL: I feel there are a number of great discussions that go on every day here and it’s wonderful to see writers helping each other out. I’ve also heard from various writers over the years about how much the site and forums have really helped them. It’s also been nice to see members of our forums & main site sell scripts, get assignments and just generally do well with their writing. That means a lot. And also having working writers and other industry pros helping out on the forums with insider advice and suggestions is terrific to see.

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To sum it up, participation in writing exercises provide you with practice working on a deadline, feedback on your craft, and possible representation. Roland Stroud ("ComicBent"), one of DDPro’s moderators and its resident literary expert, states: "This contest has a long history, with many competitions through the years, and I see it as one of the most positive things on Done Deal Pro."

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