10 useful screenwriting prompts
By BBC Maestro
Sometimes as a screenwriter, you’re brimming full of fantastic ideas for short films and epic masterpieces. Other times, you need a little help to come up with a new idea.
To help in those moments when inspiration is absent, we’ve put together a list of handy screenwriting prompts to kickstart your creativity. Grab your notebook and read on to get your creative juices flowing.
“Inspiration doesn’t fall into your lap as a fully formed idea for a brilliant TV series. You have to go out and find it. Get a notebook, write down the things that interest you. Look for characters, events, and stories. Watch TV, read books, follow the news, listen to friends’ anecdotes, people watch.”
Writing prompt: Go for a walk and take a note (mentally or physically writing things down) of what you see around you. Choose the most interesting character, scene or piece of dialogue, and use it to write the opening scene of a screenplay.
Do you find that your mind is wandering? Are you picking up your phone more than usual, tidying the kitchen, cleaning the bathroom and staring into space? You’re procrastinating, and you may as well turn it into creative procrastination. This is something writer and director Edgar Wright does. As he explains in his BBC Maestro course:
“If I ever catch myself procrastinating, I try to find a way to be ‘creatively’ procrastinating. Perhaps by watching movies or reading books and articles that are tangentially related to the project I’m working on. Anything that might help me stay on track even if I’ve hit some writer’s block for the day.”
Writing prompt: Go to the streaming service of your choice and pick a film you’ve never seen before, or head to your local library and choose a book at random. Once you’ve watched the film or read the book (or at least part of it), take one of the characters on a new journey.
Just write – without a plot
Sometimes you don’t need a big idea to get writing. If you start writing something without knowing where it’s going, it could lead you in unexpected directions. This is something Watchmen author Alan Moore touches on his in BBC Maestro course, Storytelling:
“As an author, you can deliberately misdirect yourself. A female crime writer, Patricia Highsmith I believe, used to write about the murder and the reactions before she knew who had committed the murder. About two-thirds through writing the book, it would hit her who must have been the murderer and she would then go back and make a few minor changes to strengthen that. The value of this technique is that if she didn’t know who the murderer was during the early chapters, there was no way she could even unconsciously telegraph that to the reader.”
Writing prompt: Try writing something without plotting it out. Misdirect yourself by having no idea where you are going and see what happens.
Write an action scene
Sometimes writing in a different genre can kickstart your imagination. So, if you’re not usually an action fan, try writing an action scene for a screenplay. Or if you dabble in action a lot, try turning your hand to romantic comedy instead, using the prompt below.
Writing prompt: ‘A man discovers…’ or ‘A woman discovers…’ With your chosen genre in mind, write a scene that shows us what they discover – or the events that unfold after discovering it.
Develop your analytical eye
Next time you’re reading a book, take note of how it makes you feel. This is something Alan Moore discusses:
“Read with an analytical eye. If you’re suddenly frightened, touched, or amused while reading, look back over the preceding pages or paragraphs and see how the writer has achieved that. This is one of the joys of being a writer that reads. Your own responses can teach you a lot about universal human responses. Then you can back-engineer them to find out how the writer got that response.”
Writing prompt: Choose a book from your bookcase and choose a chapter at random. Go back over it and see how the writer has managed to make you feel a certain way, then write something with the aim of eliciting that same emotion in your reader.
Create big characters
Every film or TV series needs characters the viewer can relate to. Whether they’re a goodie or a baddie, they need to be fully fleshed out, otherwise, they won’t be believable, and people will be less invested in what they do or don’t do.
When Jed Mercurio is writing scripts, he uses the Einsteinian theory of space-time. That means he “thinks of the setting as space-time and the characters as matter… You must understand it’s not about the separation of character and action. It’s characters in action. Characters determine action, action determines effect on characters. It’s all interlinked.”
He goes on to explain: “big characters, such as Sherlock, the Fonz (in Happy Days) or Captain Kirk, bend space to a high degree, like a black hole and create an enormous gravity well that other characters struggle to escape. And as these large characters move, they bend space around them even more, pulling everybody in. So, if you have these enormous characters, that is the effect their actions will have on your setting and your story.”
Writing prompt: Very quickly come up with three larger-than-life characters. What are they called? What do they do? Try to exaggerate aspects of their personality. You could even draw them as a cartoon. Now set them in the real world. Where do they work? How does their personality affect their world? The more they’re out of kilter, the greater the dramatic impact.
Write about a serial killer
Serial killers are the worst of our society. You might avoid writing about them but, as Alan Moore explains:
“At some point during your writing career, you will probably be called upon to create characters that are not only beyond your experience but potentially beyond human experience altogether. At the shallow end, this might include insane or psychopathic characters but there are also supernatural figures, aliens, inanimate objects or severed heads on spikes.”
So, it’s worth getting to grips with how to write about evil before that time comes. But, as Alan goes on to note, even evil characters have good and bad aspects to their personality:
“Even extreme characters should have integrity, so listen to them and have them act in a way that is right for them, no matter how horribly the narrative will call for you to treat them.”
To create a nuanced character, you need to be able to write about all aspects of their existence. You may want to also take a look at our guide on creating a sympathetic villain too.
Writing prompt: Describe a serial killer. Write down their bad personality traits. Then write down their good traits.
Write something set in your local area
Character is important in any screenplay, but so is the setting. Alan Moore highlights this in his BBC Maestro course:
“Place is incredibly important. Understanding place will greatly help your story and help you understand the psychology of your characters. The world in which a character spends their life has its effects upon them.”
Writing prompt: Do some research into your local area – is there any local slang, mythology or significant historical events that come from there? How about songs or inspiring individual stories? Pick one of these and write a scene inspired by it.
Sometimes, details that might seem made-up on screen actually come from real-life events. When Edgar Wright was writing Hot Fuzz, he interviewed police to get a better insight into what their roles involved:
“We interviewed police in London, went on a mini tour of rural police stations in Somerset, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire, and interviewed many police officers in the areas where the film was going to take place. The interview transcriptions were an absolute goldmine of amazing details, turns of phrase and sometimes specific stories.”
He goes on to explain that some of the silliest stuff in Hot Fuzz comes from these interviews:
“For example, swans escaping and police officers having to catch them. That sounds like something that would be made up, but no, it’s very real. Even tiny things like the idea that a police officer is punished by having to buy cake and ice cream for the rest of the office came from these interviews.”
Writing prompt: Choose someone to interview, whether it’s a colleague, family member, or a random person in a café. Ask them about their job, their life, and try to unearth some of their stories. Take one of their real-life experiences and use it as the basis for a short film.
Some films are heavy on the action, with little in the way of dialogue – even from the main characters. Other films feature lots of talking and are more interested in the characters than the plot of the story. This is the difference between character-driven vs plot-driven writing.
Most writers will have a preference for one over the other, but it’s a good idea to practice both – and one often overlooked aspect of character-driven writing is dialogue. It can be difficult to get the balance right between saying enough and not saying enough, and between exposition and authentic dialogue.
As Jed Mercurio says:
“One of the first lessons passed on to me was: Show, don’t tell. You should always question the value of something being delivered in dialogue. Can the actor perform it in a non-verbal way? Instead of letting a character relate an anecdote about an event, consider showing the event. Would it be better to be in that moment? Dramatising an anecdote has much more impact than a character telling the story. Do not tell the audience something that they already know. Characters shouldn’t relate information to one another that the audience has already seen. Either keep the dialogue and don’t dramatise the scene or show the scene and don’t include the dialogue.”
Writing prompt: Imagine a conversation in which a couple are splitting up. Write a scene in which they say exactly what they are feeling, exactly what they think of each other and exactly what they plan to do. Now write it again, removing as much overt intention as possible. Have the characters lie and dissemble and avoid telling the truth at all costs. Which is better?
These ten screenwriting prompts should keep you going for a while. But if you’re still looking for more ideas and inspiration, take a look at the courses from our maestri featured in this article, Edgar Wright, Jed Mercurio and Alan Moore.