7 Exercises to Reboot Your Writing Process
December 16, 2020
This year has done a number on any normal sense of time or structure, so if you’re running on fumes, stuck on a project, or at a loss for what writing project to even work on, you are far from alone.
In any case, whether you’re looking to take a break or gearing up to tackle a new project, it can often help to flex one’s writer muscles on stand-alone exercises that prime you mentally, emotionally and creatively for your next project, when you’re ready.
With that in mind, here are seven writing exercises to reboot your writing process in a week.
DAY ONE: Balancing act
When it comes to classes, books and taking in inspiration, writers can err to both extremes: some take classes nonstop, read multiple writing books at once, and have replaced all their music with screenwriting podcasts, while others focus only on writing scripts without ever taking in a class, reading a book, or listening to a panel or podcast.
There are pros, but even more cons, to both extremes. So to reset your intake balance, for the next seven days, I suggest picking ONE of the following to start:
- Pick a book on writing, like "The Hollywood Standard" by Christopher Riley or "Into The Woods" by John Yorke. Break the book into seven chunks and read one chunk a day for the next week. *A quick book/life hack — a lot of libraries will allow you to check out e-books for free on your phone through the Overdrive app or the Libby app.
- Pick one podcast and find seven archived episodes that interest you. Listen to one a day for the next week.
DAY TWO: Loglines
Set your Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora Station or Live-Band-You-Keep-On-Call to shuffle. When the next song comes up, check the title, lyrics and tone and create a TV series or feature logline inspired by it. Repeat for five songs.
DAY THREE: Perfecting the pitch
Scroll through IMDB's upcoming movies list featuring their movie posters. Pick three to five titles that you either don’t recognize, or at least don’t know the full premise of, and without looking up the actual movie page, create your own logline and pitch for a movie or TV series with that title.
You can also check out the IMDB or Wikipedia page of your favorite actors and scroll through the titles of shows and films they’ve been in, and repeat this exercise for any unfamiliar titles you find there.
DAY FOUR: Characterization
Make a list of your favorite fictional characters from books, TV shows, or films. Write an intro line for each character as you might find them first introduced in a screenplay. You can also write a longer intro, closer to something you may use if you were pitching the show, as well.
WILL & GRACE / KAREN - A millionaire, hornier and drunker than a sailor on leave, Karen Delaney St. Croix Popeil Finster-Walker works for Grace for fun, and pops pills like it’s her job.
CHEERS / WOODY - A human muppet with the innocence and simplemindedness of a puppy. It’s said a naive person may have been been born yesterday, in which case, Woody would have been born just this morning.
DAY FIVE: Scene work
For the 10 characters you picked for the Day Four exercise, write a line of dialogue, short scene, or idea pitch for each of them, commenting on, related to, or while they're in the middle of having their lunch. Adapt the line of dialogue so that it matches the tone, phrasing and vocabulary of the character you’re writing for.
— WILL & GRACE —
KAREN: (ordering off a menu) I’ll take a number three, a seventeen, and what’s the special of the day?
PULL BACK TO REVEAL: Karen’s not at a restaurant, but at a pharmacy.
— CHEERS —
WOODY - Pitch: Woody takes his lunch break at Cheers. He pulls out a brown bag lunch, but before he eats, he puts a dollar in an envelope and sets it aside. Carla asks what it’s for. He says when he was a kid he promised the local bully a dollar every week if he stopped picking on him. Carla comments that the bully probably only meant that to apply to while they were in school, but Woody holds fast to keeping his word. Carla then offers to take the envelope to the post office for Woody, who gratefully accepts. Once he’s out of sight, she opens the letter and pockets the dollar.
DAY SIX: Thematics
This one requires a personal deep dive, but see if you can pinpoint three to five moments from your past that changed your perspective of yourself, others, or the world in general. What philosophical or thematic questions were you processing at the time? What current existential or philosophical questions are you processing now?
Since the beginning of every story we write sets up an implicit or explicit thematic question, digging in to the questions you’re personally working through can give added energy and vulnerability to your stories. Are you wondering if you can balance a career and a family? Are you aggressively independent and looking for your place in a community and society at large? Are you worried about becoming your parents or trying to prove yourself to them?
Once you’ve dug into your own questions, cue up a pilot episode of a series or movie you’ve never seen before and as the first act or first 15 minutes wrap up, ask yourself what question this story is asking that you subconsciously have an expectation of being answered by the time it’s completed. And once the pilot or movie is over, double check the themes and answers presented at the end.
The deeper your understanding of your own worldview and internal questions, the more clearly you’ll be able to add rich layers of theme to the next project you tackle.
DAY SEVEN: Finding the moments that resonate
Make a list of your favorite movie and TV series moments. It doesn’t have to be from one of your favorite shows or films. The goal is to zero in on the essence of what you love the most in the stories you watch. Once you have your list, note what themes and tones stand out, or are held in common among them.
For example, my favorite movie and TV moments include: When the kids in Willy Wonka enter the candy garden for the first time; Wonder, discovery... The end of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and every episode of Leverage — or any time a con artist story reveals how what you thought was the worst thing that could happen is actually exactly what the protagonist had planned all along; Eucatastrophe, puzzles. And just about every episode of Showtime’s Kidding: Hope and healing after grief.
It’s likely that the next project you work on will be more enjoyable if it shares a tone and theme with one of these moments you resonate with.
I hope these exercises can breathe new life into your writing process. But don’t be afraid to Marie Kondo this advice, and focus only on the exercises that spark joy in you and your work. Happy writing!
Written by: Liz ThompsonLiz Thompson is a screenwriter and freelance development consultant. She has one show currently in development, is featured on The BitchList 2020, and won the 2019 Tracking Board Launch Pad Julian Silver mentorship. In between outlining and pitching she runs The Writer’s ARC group on Facebook, and can be found on Twitter at @howtoliz.