Will Dunne first brought the workshop experience down to the desk level with The Dramatic Writer’s Companion, offering practical exercises to help playwrights and screenwriters work through the problems that arise in developing their scripts. Now writers looking to further enhance their storytelling process can turn to Character, Scene, and Story: New Tools from the Dramatic Writer’s Companion..

Featuring 42 new workshop-tested exercises, this sequel to the original guide allows writers to dig deeper into their scripts by fleshing out images, exploring characters from an emotional perspective, tapping the power of color and sense memory to trigger ideas, and trying other visceral techniques. With each exercise rooted in real-life issues from Will Dunne’s workshops, readers will find the combined experiences of more than twenty-four hundred workshops in a single guide. The guide also includes a troubleshooting section to help tackle problem scenes.

Writers with scripts already in progress will find they can think deeper about their characters and stories. And those who are just beginning to write will find the guidance they need to discover their best starting point. The guide is filled with hundreds of examples, many of which have been developed as both plays and films.

Character, Scene, and Story offers helpful cross-references to related topics in The Dramatic Writer’s Companion. Together, these guides give writers more than 100 tools to develop more vivid characters and craft stronger scripts.


Character. Scene, and Story offers:

  • More than forty workshop-tested exercises to develop dramatic scripts
  • Cross references throughout the guide to related exercises in The Dramatic Writer’s Companion
  • An underlying focus on character as the root of scene and story
  • A unique, nonlinear format that allows the writer to use exercises in any order and as often as needed to meet individual writing goals
  • A special troubleshooting section to tackle problem scenes
  • A glossary of key terms
  • Examples drawn from well-known plays and films, including both contemporary and classical masterworks


The University of Chicago Press published Character, Scene, and Story in October 2017 (240 pages, 6 X 9 © 2017). Series: Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing. The guide is available in paperback and electronic versions. Click here to order your copy directly from the publisher.


“If you are a playwright not yet on the Pulitzer short list, or a screenwriter not yet invited to the Oscars, the best thing you can do is… get The Dramatic Writer’s Companion and Character, Scene, and Story and sit down to Dunne’s exercises. He describes clearly and succinctly how each element of drama works—each beat, each scene, each facet of character and stagecraft—and then he sets you to work to master it. The work leads wide and deep, from the hidden past to the strategies of scene, from objectives to the supernatural, from levels of desire to the pressures of conflict. Every hour’s attention to one of these mental journeys will lead you to know more, imagine better, and write more nimbly.”
—Janet Burroway
author of Writing Fiction and Imaginative Writing

“In his new handbook for writers, Dunne adheres to the idea that character development is essential to telling a story. . . . Dunne employs his wealth of experience as the current resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists, a Charles MacArthur Fellowship honoree, a former O’Neill Theatre Center dramaturg and an award-winning author of such plays as How I Became an Interesting Person, Love and Drowning, and Hotel Desperado to give writers a blueprint on how to examine their ideas in depth in order to develop their plays and screenplays.”
—July Samelson
“Shelf Life,”

Character, Scene, and Story complements The Dramatic Writer’s Companion by using a similar structure and approach to offer new storytelling tools for dramatic writers – from beginners to professionals working alone or in groups. As with the original guide, exercises can be used in any order any number of times to write or revise a dramatic script. Each exercise has been workshop tested and designed as a series of action steps to help you flesh out your own material – not someone else’s. The exercises thus become part of your writing process rather than something you do in addition to it. Following are summaries of the guide exercises.
  • Character Interview
    Use an interview process to uncover information about your character in a dramatic way—from the character’s perspective and in the character’s voice.
  • Beyond Belief
    Explore your character’s credo: what key beliefs it includes, how these beliefs arose, and what impact they might have on the dramatic journey.
  • The Emotional Character
    Characters tend to be emotional beings. Learn more about your characters by exploring their dominant emotions and how they might translate into dramatic elements.
  • Meet the Parents
    Whether or not your character’s mother and father are in the story, they have probably played a critical role in shaping his or her physical, psychological, and social makeup. Use this exercise to learn more about your character’s parents and how they might influence story events
  • Sensing the Character
    Sense memory is a technique in which actors recall a specific physical detail from a past experience in order to relive the experience emotionally. Writers can use a similar technique to trigger emotional truths about their characters.
  • The Imperfect Character
    If to err is to be human, you can ground your character in humanity by identifying his or her weaknesses, flaws, and limitations and exploring how these imperfections might contribute to story events.
  • Objects of Interest
    What do objects and other physical elements reveal about your character? Explore the physical realm of your story to gain new insights about the character at two key points: the beginning and the end of the dramatic journey.
  • The Invisible Character
    Though the audience never meets them, offstage characters can have a profound effect on story events. This exercise helps you identify the most important offstage characters in your story and why they matter.
  • Side by Side
    Flesh out two characters at a specific time in the story and record your responses side by side so that you can easily compare them in telling categories, such as “most important relationship,” “dominant emotion,” and “burning desire.”
  • Character Fact Sheet
    Develop a fact sheet that highlights critical truths about your character that could affect how your story unfolds.
  • Two Views of One Character
    Find out more about a character by asking two other characters from your story to describe him or her. In the end, your findings may reveal important information about all three characters and their relationships.
  • Nothing but the Truth
    What would your character write in a journal, secret letter, or other private document that he or she would never tell others? Use instinctive writing to explore a character’s innermost thoughts and desires.
  • What Is the Character Doing Now?
    What characters do is often more important than what they say, especially when their actions contradict their words. Use this exercise to explore the doings of a character—before, during, and after the story.
  • The Real World
    Discover new ideas for dramatic action by exploring a scene’s physical life: the setting and what’s in it.
  • What’s New? What’s Still True?
    A dramatic story depicts changes that occur as characters pursue their goals and deal with obstacles. But sometimes what doesn’t change is also important. Use this exercise to explore how new circumstances and unwavering truths can both affect how a scene unfolds.
  • The Past Barges In
    The backstory is everything that happened in the world of the characters before the story begins. The only parts of this backstory that matter, however, are those that influence the characters here and now. Use this exercise to explore how the past can force its way into the present to ignite dramatic action.
  • Levels of Desire
    In drama, desire operates on three levels: story (what the character wants overall), scene (what the character wants at a particular time and place), and beat (what the character wants from moment to moment). Explore these different levels of desire and their impact on the dramatic action of a scene.
  • Mother Conflict
    How might your character be his or her own worst enemy? Who else might pose an obstacle to the character’s success? How might the setting or current situation add to the problem? Explore different types of conflicts that your character might face when pursuing a scenic objective.
  • Why Did the Character Cross the Road?
    Objective is what the character wants. Motivation is why the character wants it. Define a character’s objective for a scene, and explore two levels of motivation to achieve it: the apparent reasons for the character’s actions and the hidden reasons, whether conscious or subconscious.
  • The Strategics of the Scene
    Learn more about characters by exploring how they try to get what they want: what strategies and tactics they choose, how well they execute these actions, how they manage the unexpected, and how they act under rising pressure.
  • The Scenes within the Scene
    Some scenes divide into smaller units of action called “French scenes,” which are each demarcated by the entrance or exit of a character. Flesh out character motivations for arriving in a scene after it starts or leaving before it ends, and explore the results of such comings and goings.
  • The Color of Drama
    Color is a basic component of the physical realm that grounds your characters in the truths of the world they inhabit. Work intuitively to tap the power of color and find new ideas and insights for a scene.
  • The Emotional Onion
    Emotions tend to exist not in isolation but in layers. Explore the conscious and subconscious feelings that might influence the thoughts and actions of your characters as they interact here and now to cause a dramatic event.
  • Why This? Why Now?
    We enter the lives of dramatic characters when they have compelling reasons to act without delay. Develop a scene by focusing on two of its fundamental elements: importance and urgency.
  • Relationship Storyboard
    Map out a scene through the filter of a character relationship and how it both affects and reflects the dramatic action.
  • Classified Information
    What is your character hiding? Find new ideas for a scene by exploring the secrets that may influence the character’s behavior at this time in the story.
  • Phrase Book
    Learn more about your characters by exploring how they talk, what words they choose, and how their language reflects the world they inhabit.
  • Better Left Unsaid
    Approach the development of a scene by focusing on the subtext—what is not said—and how this flow of unuttered thoughts and feelings can influence character behavior.
  • Anatomy of Speech
    Once you have a draft of a scene, you can refine the dialogue by reviewing it from a technical perspective. This editing exercise helps you identify lines that are essential to the scene and lines that need to be clarified, condensed, or cut.
  • Facts of Life
    Whether the world of a story is realistic or nonrealistic, it has certain operating rules that determine how things usually work here, what is possible under certain circumstances, and what is never possible under any circumstances. Use this exercise to flesh out the facts of life for the story you want to tell.
  • In the Beginning
    When should you first bring the audience into the lives of your characters? This exercise helps you explore ideas for one of the most critical times in any dramatic story: the opening scene and its opening moment, or point of attack.
  • Character on a Mission
    A dramatic story is a quest driven by a character’s need to accomplish something that is extremely important but also extremely difficult. Answer more than thirty questions to explore your main character’s quest and how it begins.
  • Decision Points
    Characters often have to make difficult decisions as they pursue their goals. Explore two important decision points in your character’s dramatic journey, how they affect the story, and what each reveals about the decision maker.
  • Living Images
    Visual images on stage or on screen are different from those in a book or on canvas. They include elements, such as action and sound, that make them dynamic. Translate a big moment from your story into a living image that can heighten its emotional impact.
  • What Just Happened?
    A dramatic story is made up of events that each change the lives of the characters in either a good or a bad way. Identify different types of events in your script, and explore in more depth the one you understand least.
  • The Dramatic Continuum
    The past, present, and future of your characters’ lives are intrinsically linked and constantly changing as the dramatic journey unfolds. Flesh out the throughline of your story by focusing on how scenes in sequence connect.
  • An End in Sight
    Once you know how the story ends, you may have a better idea of what needs to happen during the dramatic journey. This exercise helps you evaluate a final scene and what it demands of the characters and events leading up to it.
  • Two Characters in Search of a Story
    Get a clearer big-picture view of your story by studying the dramatic journeys of the two most important characters and how these individual arcs of action compare, contrast, and affect each other.
  • Found in Translation
    While drama is primarily an emotional experience, it is often rich in ideas as well. Identify the most important topics your story addresses, and then use character traits, dramatic action, dialogue, visual imagery, and other elements to translate these concepts into character and story specifics.
  • List It
    Tap the power of free association to develop a series of lists that can help you identify and evaluate the key elements of your story.
  • Different Sides of the Story
    Flesh out the main event of your story by examining it objectively from your perspective as the writer and then by looking at it again subjectively through the eyes of three different characters.
  • Coming Soon to a Theater near You!
    While theatrical posters are designed to sell tickets, they also display what’s important and interesting about a play or film. Gain new insights into your subject matter, theme, and plot by looking at these elements through the eyes of a marketer and exploring ideas for a hypothetical marketing poster.

Some scenes are harder to write than others and may be indicative of problems elsewhere in the script. This section helps you analyze a troublesome scene, identify exercises from this guide to address the issues raised, and find the solutions that best fit your story. Key topics include:

  • Timeframe and Setting
  • How the Past Affects the Present
  • Given Circumstances and Point of Attack
  • Objectives, Conflict, Motivation
  • Strategies
  • French Scenes
  • Exposition
  • Visual Imagery
  • Scenic Event
  • How the Present Affects the Future
  • Shaking Things Up