Friday, November 4, 2016

Playwriting and Screenwriting: Exercises and Prompts to Get Started

An empty chair sits on an otherwise empty stage in an empty theater.
Theater by  Hernán Piñera. Used with Creative Commons License.

When playwrights and screenwriters develop new scripts, they must consider all of the elements of drama: plot, character, setting, dialogue, movement, and theme.  

New writers, those who are just learning the craft or writing in the genre for the first time, may need some assistance pulling all of the various elements together to create a cohesive product. In order to assist these learners, faculty can present any number of  exercises and prompts to help student writers learn how to synthesize their creative ideas.

Knock Knock Script Prompt

One quick prompt for getting students started is based on the popular form of the knock-knock joke. This prompt helps students make decisions by providing two built-in characters, a bit of conflict (one character wants to come in), and an inciting incident. What the students must provide is, at minimum, characterization (names, actions, language, and motivations of each character), dialogue based on the characterization, rising action, and a resolution.  In doing this, a clear setting and theme may emerge, or students may be asked to revise their exercises to include those elements that are unclear or missing.

Comic Strip Script

The Comic Strip Script exercise, although difficult to ennunciate, makes for an excellent exercise in writing stage directions.   The comic provides plot, character, setting, dialogue, movement, and theme. What the student must provide is the complete script, sans images, in the appropriate screenwriting or playwriting format.  This requires clearly articulated stage directions to describe the actions, transitional actions, and actions of closure between panels. As an added lesson in Reader-Response Theory, students can compare interpretations of the given comic strip at the end of the exercise to demonstrate how differently people perceive the same work.

Swaperoo Script

This exercise requires some knowledge of famous characters and a bit of  playfulness. The students will swap one character for another.  For example, the students could write a scene from Hamlet that answers the question, "What if Xena were swapped for Hamlet?"  "What if Kermit were swapped for Bob Cratchit?" has already been done, but there are a multitude of additional options: Bugs Bunny for Mary Poppins, Tony Stark for Oedipus, Dexter for Snow White.   It's a great exercise for helping students understand how each of the elements of drama must interact with one another to create a whole.  When a character is swapped, everything changes.

Collecting Dialogue

One very popular exercise is eavesdropping on unsuspecting others in order to steal the dialogue. This is a great way to study the way people speak at a particular time and in a particular place.  What makes this ever more interesting, as I learned in a workshop with playwright Mac Wellman at Naropa University in 2006, is having students write this dialogue as one long paragraph. The paragraph is then passed to another student to bifurcate the lines, and passed to a third student to add stage directions.  With groups of four, the fourth student can add a title, additional character and location descriptions, and format the final script.  By the time the short script makes it back to the original eavesdropper, the words may be unrecognizable, and therefore, eye opening.  

Insight and Theme

Students can base scripts on real life.  One way to help students write about their own lives is to ask them to write narrative essays about a time they learned a valuable life lesson.  Most students are familiar with how to write an essay, so it's a great way to get them thinking about insightful thesis statements.  Those thesis statements and the narrative sequence of events they tell in the body of their essays become the basis of their plays entitled Insight.  To add a step, ask students to incorporate a narrative frame or first person narrator, much like in The Glass Menagerie, who breaks the fourth wall. In this exercise, theme and the idea of "the trustworthy narrator" are emphasized.

Design and Build

Designing a Set Helps Emphasize the Importance of Setting
Many beginning playwrights, especially those within English departments, have never studied theatre as an art form.  To get students thinking specifically about setting, students should design a set for one of their own plays or one of a classmate's plays.  These make for excellent presentations and can be as simple as 2D drawings of theoretical stage spaces, or as complex as 3D models with realistic budget projections for an existing stage. The same assignment can be used to emphasize characterization by asking students to design costumes and make-up, planning for any required backstage changes.  Although these can be fun and enlightening assignments, especially important are the students' arguments for each of their choices. 
When new writers are faced with writer's block or decision paralysis about their scripts, get them moving in the right direction by helping them get started.  These six script starters can help those students learn to synthesize and negotiate the elements of drama: plot, character, setting, dialogue, movement, and theme.

Want to read more about theatre and drama? Try

Origins of the Term "Deus Ex Machina"
The Medieval Morality Play
What's a Dramaturg Do?

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.