Five Scriptwriting Prompts from the Captain's Table

This December we hosted a scriptwriting retreat at Sparrow House. This was the first of what we envision will be a series of artists' getaways at the house, and the goal of this retreat was for playwrights and screenwriters to get together and share work as well as bash out some scenes.

And bash we did, writing from prompts in short bursts.

I'm sure some variation of these prompts I've poached from mentors over the years, to whom I'm of course indebted. These prompts are original in the sense I constructed them specifically for this workshop. They're design for scriptwriting, but you could apply them to anything that involves characters and a scene.

I hope you find them useful. The response from the workshop participants suggests they are. In any case, the group we gathered wrote quite a few scenes and pages in a short span of time.

Personally every time I write from a prompt I wonder why I don't do it daily. There's no end to options for new prompts, for example: And there's always the classic Oblique Strategies:

As writers we can do a lot worse than force ourselves into a set of rules or guidelines for a given scene, and even if a given scene doesn't make the final cut, this can be a great way to learn about, and develop, character through action. 

If you've never done this before, it's quite simple: queue up a prompt, start a timer, and write until you run out of ideas or time.

- Kevin Kautzman

Prompt 1a. Your Protagonist’s Dream (45 minutes)

  • Define your hero’s super-objective. What is it they are seeking, and how do they intend to get it?

  • We are going to write a dream reflection of this super-objective.

  • Anchor the dream in one of your protagonist’s most urgent desires, abstracted into something concrete. Your character may desire to reconnect with an ex, for example - this can be signified by an orange, a table, something.

  • The dream must feature an effect of weather.

  • In the course of the dream, the protagonist interrupts the dream with the awareness they are dreaming, and yet continues to dream.

  • The dreams concludes when the character takes an action related to the symbolic object.

Prompt 1b: A “Real” Scene Follows a Dream (45 minutes)

  • Write a scene that mirrors the dream scene, in which the character is in conflict with another character in the real world. Ensure this conflict remains unresolved. The dream object should reappear in this scene, in an active way ideally.

  • At the culmination of the scene, something dreamlike or unusual should occur. Does the character mishear something someone else says? Is the dream life creeping into the “real”?

Prompt 2: The Hot Bottle (45 Minutes)

  • In this scene, your protagonist is unable to leave a place for some reason. They are waiting for something. There is torrential rain and they don’t have an umbrella. Someone is sick and they’re at their bedside. But for whatever reason, the character cannot leave, and another character must be present.

  • Midway through the scene, a third character enters the scene, which totally changes the dynamic. They must be physically in the space.

  • The scene concludes when the hero manages to leave by doing something drastic.

Prompt 3: Isn't It Ironic (45 Minutes)

  • Your character does something they should not do, in pursuit of their superobjective, and is seen in the act of so doing. The audience is aware the character is being watched, the character is not.

  • What the character does is morally dubious.

  • It is later revealed to the character that they have been seen taking this action. How does this play out?

Prompt 4: The Big Picture (No Rush)

For your project, rewrite or write the following if you have not:

  1. Your project's theme briefly stated.

  2. A logline.

  3. A prose synopsis.

  4. A core visual metaphor.

  5. The answer to the “passover” question. Why this story now, in terms of a real world audience. Who is this for and why is it necessary?

  6. A clear “save the cat” heroic/kind protagonist moment in the first 15-20 pages of your script. What is it? If you don't have one, why not?

  7. As much of a prose treatment as you can accomplish in the time given.

Prompt 5: No Small Roles (45 Minutes)

  • Center a scene on a secondary character.

  • This should be surprising - your secondary character has as full of a life as your protagonist. Give them the same soulfulness as your protagonist.

  • Midway through the scene, your protagonist enters and wants something from the secondary character.

Happy writing.