Writing Tip of the Week: A Cinematic Writing Assignment

What’s your favorite movie?  What makes that particular film stand out from the rest of the millions that exist?  What is it about that story, its characters, or its themes that left an impression on you?

Time to do a little homework.

I know, I know.  Homework.  Booooooring!  I get it.  But, this is creative homework.  This is your chance to do a deep dive into your favorite film and get to the heart of why it affects you and why you enjoy it.  In turn, this exercise will help you as a writer by giving insight into how they create a compelling story, how they utilize storytelling structure, and how they create compelling characters.

What You Need

  • Grab a notepad or legal pad and a pen or pencil.
  • A copy of your favorite movie.
  • Your Analytical Cap.
  • Good Pause Button skills (you’ll be using this a lot).

Think of yourself as a story archaeologist.  Your mission is to unearth the storytelling secrets hidden beneath the surface of the film you chose.  

Viewing #1

I know it’s your favorite, but as you go through this first time, write down your favorite moments and note at what time or on what page number they occur.  Was it a plot point that intrigued you?  A clever line of dialogue?  A character moment?  Write it down and write down why you reacted the way you did to that element.

Do this for the whole movie, then read back through what you observed.

Viewing #2

This round is all about the story.  In one or two sentences, write down what happens in each scene that moves the story forward.  What’s the main conflict in each scene?  You can number the scenes or write a general location of where the scene takes place.

If scenes are revolving around a sub-plot, see how that smaller story is resolved or if it dovetails into the main story.

By the end, you should be able to go back through your notes and see the primary story arc evolve throughout the film.  Does each scene feed into the next?  Do you notice a pattern as to when the story has significant changes?  

All screenplays have a basic story structure.  There are dozens of ways to break down that structure, but for the purposes of this exercise, I’ll refer you to The Syd Field Paradigm below:

If the screenwriter did their job correctly, these elements should be crystal clear and easy to identify as you review your notes.  Highlight or underline what you feel these moments are.

Viewing #3

This final round is all about character.  Your job is to watch how the main character changes over the course of the story.  What traits do they have at the start of the story?  Do they become a better person or a worse person by the end?  

This is another scene-by-scene breakdown.  Write down in a couple sentences what the main character is doing, how they’re acting, what you feel their motivation or conflict is in the scene.  As you go through, you should be able to see their discernable character arc as they navigate their way through the ups and downs of the plot.  How does the story impact who they are as a character?  How do they impact the events of the story?  

Read back through and see if you can clearly identify when the writer began to make changes in the character and how those changes altered the main character by the end of the story.

So, What Did We Learn?

So, now you’ve watched your favorite film three more times and have done some digging into its inner workings.  By breaking the movie into its basic components, you have a clearer picture of how this screenwriter crafted a compelling story with an interesting main character.  You can see where the story beats are, where the direction of the story changes, and how those elements either impact the main character’s arc or how their arc impacts the story.

Keep this exercise in mind when you finish a draft of your screenplay, play, or novel.  If you were to sit down and do this exercise with your work, could you summarize what’s happening in each scene in a sentence or two?  Would those sentences be enough to show the main story’s arc throughout the narrative?  Does your main character evolve over the course of the story?  What happens to cause the change from start to finish?

Consider doing this exercise with your own work to help you strengthen your story and main character in your different drafts.

Extra Credit

Now, if you enjoyed that exercise, why not try it with a movie you strongly dislike?  I know it can be hard to stomach a film you can’t stand, but take the emotion out and look at it from an analytical perspective. 

The first time through, write down all the elements you dislike and why.  If anything does work for you, write it down.

The second and third viewings should be done similar to the ones stated above.  You may find that the story arc and/or main character arc are weak and lacking in a lot of ways.

How would you, as this film’s screenwriter, fix these weaknesses?  When you read back through, brainstorm what you would have done to make the story and character elements stronger and more effective.

You can learn a lot from both good and bad films by breaking their stories down into their component parts.  I highly recommend reading screenplays for films as well.  Screenplays give you the nuts and bolts of story and character without the distraction and spectacle so you can analyze things even more in-depth.  I recommend checking out the link below to find screenplays to break down and analyze.

Happy writing and analyzing. I’ll see you next week!

When You’re Writing, Don’t Be Afraid to Act It Out

To the casual observer, writing can appear to be a low-energy, even passive activity.  But we as writers know that this is not the case. While our fingers may be the only thing moving externally, our minds are alive and active with ideas, thoughts, dialogue, and description that help bring our story to life on paper.  

But sometimes, even in that state of inner active creativity, we can get a little stuck.  Maybe a sequence isn’t coming together as effectively on the page as you want, or there’s an element missing from the dialogue or action.  

When this happens, get out of that chair and work through the scene.  As a writer, you are the creator, director, actor, and stunt coordinator of everything in your story.  It is your job to do whatever you can to get the story right.  And if you have to workshop it in your living room like a play, that’s 100% acceptable.

Here are some ways to do it.

Get On Your Feet and Move

As Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) demonstrates in this clip from I Love Lucy, working through the emotion, the conflict, and the drama of a scene as you write can help you create more realistic dialogue and scenes. 

Reading your dialogue aloud can also be a great benefit to ensure that the characters speak like human beings and not as literary characters on a page (unless that’s the style you are aiming for).  

If you have someone to assist you, you can improvise a scene you’re having issues with and work out what problems you may be having.  Often as writers, we internalize too often.  Getting your story’s words and situations into an external space can help you see them from a better perspective and make more substantial story choices.

Make a Model

Perhaps your story has a big fight sequence or chase that involves several characters and would be complicated to stage at home.  Legos, action figures, water bottles, or even cups can be used to create a mock version of your characters (I suggest labeling the characters so they don’t get mixed up while your working).  You can use boxes or other objects to create the setting, then position your characters accordingly during the sequence.  

In doing so, you can now visually see how things would work, where the character would be positioned throughout the sequence, and how best to end the sequence given your parameters.

Seeing clear visuals can also help you see any problems, so you fix them before writing out the entire sequence.  

Hollywood does this all the time with big sequences using animatics.  While their aim is to save money on costly reshoots, your aim is to save time on headache-inducing rewrites.

Use Name Cards and Drawings

Another method can be used for even bigger sequences like a giant battle or even a murder mystery with a dinner party.  In this exercise, you write the names of all the characters on separate index cards, then use poster board or another large piece of paper to map out what the room or battlefield will look like.  Then you can move the “characters” around and see where they are in relation to other characters and locations.  

In doing so, you can see if there is logic in who is conversing with who, helping who, and fighting who depending on where they are in the diagram.

This exercise was done by the writers of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End for the final battle involving three pirate ships, three crews of pirates, and the main cast.  As they were writing, they used the diagrams to see where characters started when the sequence began and how to effectively move them from ship to ship throughout the battle.

As you can see from the movement of characters in the clip below, this would have been very useful in the writer’s room!

With all three, I recommend filming and talking through each exercise so you don’t forget any details that may change or pop into your head while you’re working.  Once it’s done, and on the page, you can delete the footage, and no one has to know what great lengths you went through to make that big sequence work.

Happy Acting, and Happy Writing!

Story Exercise: My Story

Below is the draft of the story I wrote for this exercise. It’s a little longer than 500 words – I got carried away – but it was fun to write. Please feel free to include yours in ther comments and share them with others!

I put the items, location, and animal I chose in BOLD.

            This was it.  Leila stood looking out at the night sky, a blanket of stars before her, emptiness below her in the darkness.  She didn’t want to do it; but she knew she had no other choice.  An icy wind whipped through her body and she felt her fingers and toes grow numb.  There was only one way out of this situation.  For too long she had waited.  Agonized. Suffered.  

            And now it came down to this.

            Her phone buzzed to life in her pocket, which startled her.  She fumbled with her numbed fingers to grasp the phone in her jacket pocket.  She saw the name on the screen, closed her eyes, then answered.

            “Hello,” she said as her teeth chattered.

            “Are you coming down the slope soon?” the voice on the other end began.  “We’d like to go get food sometime tonight.”

            “Okay, okay,” Leila said with frustration.  She looked down the snowy hillside of the ski slope.  She was alone and the ski lift had come to a halt.  It was just her.  

            At the edge of a double-black diamond ski slope!

            Why did I think I could do this? she thought to herself.  To impress your sister, duh!

            Her sister who was not impatiently waiting for her with the rest of the group at the bottom of the run.  Her sister who was now calling her to get her to come down.  

            “On my way,” Leila said as she disconnected and put the phone back in her pocket.  “Hope they have good food in the hospital cafeteria,” she said to herself.  “Because this isn’t gonna end well!” 

            She heard a growl.  Was it her stomach?  No, she would have felt that, too.  She looked to her right.  Nothing there.  She heard the growl again.  To her left. She swallowed and looked to her left. A coyotecrept toward her.  It’s mouth in a snarl.

            Leila did her best to stay calm, and reached into a pocket on her ski pants and pulled out a half-eaten candy bar.  “I know chocolate is bad for dogs,” she said, “but I think you can handle this.”  She tossed the candy bar in the coyote’s direction. It looked at the sugary bribe, then back at her.

            “Darn!” she said, then looked down the slope.  “And down we go,” she said in a low voice, hoping the animal eyeing her would stay put.

Leila leaned forward quickly, her skissliding inch-by-inch toward the edge.  She gripped the poles tight, took a deep breath, and felt her body descend.  

The powder churning up around her skis was a comforting sight; she had been terrified it was ice all the way down.  

            Leila felt herself picking up speed.  She wavered a bit, but maintained her balance…at least for the moment.

            Then the ice came.  Her once seemingly sensible speed went from manageable to uncontrollable. The wind whipped through her hair and around her goggles.  Her blue beanie was ripped from her head as she careened faster and faster down the slope.

            With all her might she attempted to form a wedge with the front of her skis to slow herself down, but she hit a bump in the icy terrain that sent her sprawling off balance.  She felt herself launch into the air, her body like a wayward missile with no clear target.

            And she landed on her side, but continued to slide downward.  Pain radiated from her side and the arm she landed on, but she was grateful her phone was in the opposite pocket.  However, she had her sister’s “lucky charm” in her other pocket…of the side she landed on. She shifted as she slid and pulled the lucky charm out to look at it: a small Funko Pop! of Wonder Woman.  

            She chucked it up the slope only to see the coyote making its own slip-sliding way down toward her.  

            Leila’s legs were heavy from her ski boots; her skis were on two separate solo runs down the hill, and from her viewpoint it looked like they would arrive at the bottom before she did!

            Not wanting to wait around for her new friend, Leila shifted head-first down the slope and “swam” the rest of the way down the mountain.

            As she arrived at the bottom of the hill – still on her side – her sister stood over her.  “You couldn’t have done thattwo hours ago?”  her sister said.

            “If I knew it would be that easy,” Leila replied, “I would have!”

            “Where’s my lucky charm?” her sister asked.

            “On the mountain,” Leila said as she awkwardly stood. “But I think the coyote up there will try and get it first.”

            Her sister considered the news.  “I’m good,” Leila’s sister said.  “Dinner?”

            “Yes!” Leila said.

I look forward to reading yours! Have a great weekend!

Short Story Exercise…

I did the following writing exercise in one of my creative writing classes and I thought I would share it with all of you:

  • Write down three random objects
  • Write down an animal
  • Write down a location

Using those items, animal, and location, create a short story (~500 words) that incorporates all the things you have listed.  It can be in any genre you want, any POV you want, and time period you want, the key is to utilize the items you have written down in a creative and fun way.

I will post mine by Friday. 

Feel free to post yours in the comments on this post or on my story when it’s up later this week!

Happy Writing!