The Letter Exercise

Hello. I am Tucker and I am a Maltese. The poodle known as Gigi is taking a nap, so I have snuck on the computer. This week our novelist got rechargeable pet clippers in the mail and gave me a haircut. My haircut took two days. I had to stand on a chair while my novelist shaved off most of my hair and then she got out the scissors and cut off more. I do not feel as warm now, because I do not have most of my hair. My novelist says she is going to do the same thing to the poodle known as Gigi and to keep it a secret. She told me in order to pull it off she might have to give the poodle the funny pills she has for Fourth of July fireworks. Anyway, here is our novelist.

When I was taking screenwriting classes at the university, we had a project where we brought in a scene from a film and played it for the class. It could be any scene from any part of any movie. What I started to notice was a lot of students put their film in and played their movie but did not seem to know where their scene began and where it ended. Some of these celluloid moments would go on with no end in sight. We would see the student’s favorite section of a film but not necessarily a scene.

When I think of a story, I think of it as a war. And every scene is a battle. Sometimes the protagonist wins the battle and sometimes the antagonist wins the battle. How the war ends which is often shown in the final scene supports the author’s premise. The origin of the word actor comes from the 14th century and it means an accuser who pleads a case or a plaintiff at law. In other words, the origin of the word actor essentially means a lawyer. The problem with the movies the students brought into class was they did not start with someone entering the scene with an argument, putting that argument in conflict with another character and have that battle finish with a resolve thus ending the scene.

One of the best acting exercises I learned was called The Letter Exercise and it shows how a scene begins changes course and ends. Here is how it works. An actor is given an assignment to come up with a scenario, write a letter to their character and seal it in an envelope. When the student comes into class to perform their scene they place their envelope somewhere on stage. The actor could use whatever costume, props or even minimal scenery they wanted in order create the setting where the scene takes place.

When they perform the exercise, the actor walks into the scene with a plan and motivation. As they are the only the actor in the scene there is little if any dialogue. The actor goes about carrying out their plan until about halfway through their scene. That is when they  find the envelope. They then open the envelope and read the letter. Whatever the letter says changes the actor’s motivation. The actor is then forced to pursue a different motivation due to the new information the letter provides. In order to carry out their new motivation, their character must exit the stage. It does not matter if the actor chooses the letter to be good news or bad as long as it alters their characters motivation.

Here is how I did my scene. I chose the setting to be a hotel room where my character was having a tryst. I brought in a bag carrying various items you might see in an adult toy store: handcuffs, lotion, feathers, a riding crop, provocative lingerie, etc. I used what set pieces the school had on hand to create a bed and nightstands. When my character walks in her motivation is to gleefully lay out the items and prepare for her boyfriend to arrive. When she finds the letter sitting somewhat hidden on the nightstand and opens it, she finds out it is from her boyfriend. He arrived ahead of her and left it for her. In the letter he has written he can no longer carry on their affair because…he has found out he is her brother. My character’s motivation to prepare a room to have sex with her boyfriend is sharply changed. There is no longer a reason for her to stay in the room. She must now leave with the motivation to either find her boyfriend/brother and discuss the situation and their future or leave to grieve over the loss of their love affair.

The letter exercise provides an arc. The character has a motivation when they enter the room, the motivation is altered by the information in the letter from an antagonist we never see, and the scene ends with the character being forced to leave.

While you are waiting for my next post you can check out my novel Chicane available at Amazon.

Tomorrow’s Free Friday ScreenwritingU class is Selling Scripts During a Pandemic. You can sign up for it here.


Proof is a 1991 Australian movie starring Hugo Weaving, Geneviève Picot and a young Russell Crowe. Weaving plays Martin (which means warlike) a man who has been blind since youth. In his youth his mother gave him a camera to take pictures of things even though he cannot see them. His mother died young and left him some money and he has employed for the past three years an attractive housekeeper named Celia (which means heavenly). Martin despises Celia who does everything in her power to torture him. She moves the furniture around so he will trip. She throws his keys into the dishwater in the sink. She sits on a bench at the park where he walks his dog, waits for the dog to come over so she can grab it by the collar while Martin wanders around looking for his pet. Celia is a photographer in her own right and takes a compromising picture of Martin and threatens to circulate it if he does not go out on a date with her for her thirtieth birthday. Then one night as Martin is leaving a restaurant, he accidentally injures an alley cat who hangs around the restaurant. This is brought to his attention by Andy (which means masculine). He and Andy take the cat to a vet and strike up a friendship. Martin decides to trust Andy to look at the photos he takes and describe them to him, a turn of events which Celia does not take kindly to.

The Conversation from 1974 written, directed and produced by Francis Ford Coppola is the story of a highly skilled but introverted and socially inept surveillance expert named Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) who on his birthday is hired to tape a conversation between a young couple in Union Square in San Francisco (Frederic Forrest and Cindy Williams). Take note of the irony of the famous mime Robert Shields performing in the opening shot. Harry is obsessed with privacy having several locks on his apartment door…which does not prevent him from getting a birthday gift from his landlady. Harry immediately calls her to ask that he have the only key to the apartment and changes his mail to be delivered to a post office box with a dial and no keys. Harry’s one pleasure in life is playing the saxophone but only by himself. When Harry begins looking over the photos his crew took and the audio tape he made of the couple’s conversation, he begins to realize something is amiss. What did Harry tape actually? What is the conversation he is listening to? As Harry tries to put the pieces together, the audience must decide if anyone, even an expert, can trust what they record.

The Manchurian Candidate from 1962. If I were to make a list of my ten favorite films of all time this one would be on it. Major Bennett Marco is going nuts. He has a reoccurring nightmare where while he was a captain in the Korean War his Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw killed two of his men. But that just cannot be true. Because Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest warmest most wonderful human being he’s ever known in his life…right? Unable to stop the dream from haunting him Marco tries to hunt down  Raymond and investigate if his dream is just a nightmare or if something more sinister is afoot. Beautifully shot in black and white and skillfully directed by John Frankenheimer this wildly original film penned by Richard Condon (who wrote the novel) and George Axelrod sports one of the best adapted screenplays of all time. An absolute must see classic. Look for Angela Lansbury in her brilliant Oscar nominated performance as Raymond Shaw’s ambitious mother.

Aardman puts out great kids’ content and this one is a true delight. Based on the award-winning Wallace and Gromit shorts Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were Rabbit finds Wallace and his whip smart dog Gromit running a pest control service as the prestigious annual biggest vegetable competition nears. The two fast friends believe in treating the bunnies they catch humanely and provide them a place to live where they cannot harm the locals’ gardens. But alas Wallace must try out his newest invention the Mind Manipulation-O-Matic which theoretically brainwashes the rabbits into no longer wanting to eat vegetables. Things go horrifically wrong and before you know it there is a giant cottontail on the loose demolishing gardens.





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