I have applied to a lot of schools, and written a plethora of personal statements and new prose/new scripts based on a prompt within the application. It’s common for colleges to have their applicants write a few pages and/or submit some decently polished work for consideration. I’ve encountered more prompts in film school applications than “regular school” applications, but I have taken more fiction writing classes that made the use of prompts than screenwriting classes.
Here are a few I have encountered over the course of my creative writing endeavors:
The “Two People in an Awkward Situation” Scenario
On an application for one of the Big Five Film Schools, I was asked to write a short script about two strangers who get stuck in an elevator on New Year’s Eve. As an exercise, its purpose is to help practice your dialogue and character development skills.
There’s something quirky about me and prompts; I tend to lean more towards the absurd. Maybe it’s all the Steve Martin movies and plays I’ve watched, but what I got out of that prompt was a very awkward situation between a 30-year-old son of an overbearing Jewish mother and a relationship therapist disguised as a homeless woman who makes loud sex noises in the elevator. While this did not help me get into said film school, it did spawn an idea for a full-length romantic comedy. I have a first draft of scene breakdowns, but it’s been on the back burner since 2010.
For an extra challenge, take the same scene and write it both as a comedy and as a drama.
(Side note: If you happen to hear of ANYWHERE that is showing “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” go see it. Better yet, tell me where it is. Even more-better, tell me where they are having auditions. I’d like to reprise my role as Germaine.)
The “Write a Script about Nothing” Scenario
I was introduced to this exercise the summer before my senior year of high school at CSSSA. Our instructor had us write a short script in which nothing happens. I wrote a scene about a husband and wife dying and going to hell, and being judged by Satan in a sterile, corporate boardroom. He let them pull their punishments out of a bucket covered in blinking eyeballs. (I know, I broke the rules of the prompt.)
The purpose was to show us how important it was to inject conflict into every scene to keep the story moving. Readers and audiences need a point to what they are watching, and that point needs to happen in a timely manner or else we risk losing said audience. What ended up happening during this exercise, however, was that the harder we tried to make nothing happen, the more we made something happen. So, my comedy story about the daily happenings of Satan and his dominion already had a purpose. It jumped right into the action and gave a reason for WHY the story was happening. The best example I can give of a story that goes nowhere is the joke about the dying man and his wish for a room filled with green ping-pong balls, or pink balls, or golf balls, or whatever. There are many variations.
Spoiler: He dies.
The “Adapt this Story” Scenario
I had one class on adapting fiction for the screen. Honestly, I do not remember much about it and I wish the MA program I attended could have included an entire section on this, but I had fun, nevertheless. We were given an old fantastical fable of sorts to adapt, with a partner. The interesting part about this work of fiction was that it was obscure, and many parts were ambiguous in meaning. In short, we had no idea what to do with it.
My writing partner and I concocted a short script that resembled Dr. Seuss and Willy Wonka taking LSD, then teleporting to the magical land of Charlie the Unicorn. Initially, we learned there were no rules in adaptation and we completely took the piss out of the exercise.
But, there are guidelines. Really.
The “Creating Subtext in Dialogue” Scenario
This is one of my favorites and the hardest — for me — to execute well. During a screenwriting workshop, we were asked to create a scene between two people who reveal something about their relationship without it directly said. In this case, it was a widow talking to her next door neighbor about her husband’s recent death. They had had an affair for a while and are discussing their future. Oh, we had 10-15 minutes to come up with something, which we then read aloud to the class. I think my characters ended up taking about their front lawns to describe their feelings toward one another — and flowers, there were flowers. Dead flowers.
This exercise works better with prose; writers can to go into greater detail and give more visual subtext than in script format. Also, using this exercise in prose format first would make an interesting start to the adaptation scenario.
Success = lvl up +100xp.
Take a scenario and try it out. These exercises can work for prose as well as script format, even play format. Get your writing friends to try them out, or your writing group. They really work your brain if you add a time limit.