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Screenwriting 101: making lists

For The Love Of…Lists

Oftentimes writers can get stuck on a specific aspect of the creative process or find themselves circling a specific theme or story trope over and over again (even some of the best and most famous writers have been guilty of this faux pas). One way to jumpstart your brain into working in another direction is to make lists. It’s a super easy and effective way to hit that reset button and get those creative wheels a-movin’ in an exciting new direction. Ready?


From dog collars to jet engines, dish soap to the galaxy, create a list of things, don’t think about it, just start writing down things i.e. nouns, the building blocks of the worlds you make in godlike hubris. As you make this list of free associations you’ll slowly but surely start to see patterns and commonalities. This can be helpful. If the list is filled with tropes that you want to avoid, then just keep writing things. You’ll loosen up and find what else is there lurking in your mind.


Making lists of real people you actually know can greatly assist you in building realistic, interesting characters. You can make lists as the people come into your head or you can make the lists based off of a common character trait certain the people share. Let’s say you’re attempting to write a vain character, well start listing all of the vain people you know. Their commonalities and differences will present themselves as you do so, enabling you to build a rich character that rings true.


List out characters you enjoy or don’t enjoy: Darth Vader, The Godfather, Dracula, and so on. Include characters from books you’ve read, even biographies of real people. Doing so can help you to build a rubric for 3 dimensional characters that are hardly entirely good or bad. You’ll also begin to see commonalities in your characters which you can reverse engineer into something new.


Write down emotions, whether you love or hate doing so, just get that pen moving. Which emotions do you feel the most? Which emotions do you hate feeling? Which emotions do you want to feel again? Which emotions are you ashamed about, conflicted about? Which emotions make you feel uncomfortable and what are the qualities of that resulting discomfort? When, why, and how do you seek to regain control, maintain your pride, or soothe yourself? Sure, this can be scary terrain but if you want to inject your characters with life blood then you’ve got to be willing to taste what’s percolating beneath your exterior.

Stuff You Like

This one is simpler. Just list out things that you enjoy. List out things that you’re excited about. List out things that you remember fondly from your youth. Movies, TV shows, comics, bands, or artists. You should make a master list of everything you think is cool and then look at pairing them up. Look at mixing and matching different aspects of the list. Now, how do you combine those old things into something you’re excited about right now?

Stuff You Don’t Like

Do the same but with things you don’t like. How do you make a terrible idea good? How do you take the worst movie ever made and spin it into something amazing? What are the key elements of the idea that you don’t like? How would altering those things make it better? You may be surprised at just how far this exercise can take you.

Making lists can help you to codify and solidify the often elusive aspects that are there wanting to be grasped and used in the art you create. When you’re a writer the most difficult part of the job can be to get miles out on your journey to find you’re lost, or worse, that the remainder of the trip (story) lacks forward drive. Bypass the worry, the plotting, and the editor altogether and just start making lists. Like stretching one’s muscles, that sensitive brain of yours just needs to get activated in some new ways, so embrace how easy it is and get to making lists. It will be time well spent.


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