You might think by virtue of the fact that I write a column called Improvising Screenplays, I don’t believe in outlining. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s often said that screenplays are structure… and to an enormous extent, that’s true. There’s a reason virtually any movie you see — whether it’s the artiest of indies or a summer popcorn flick featuring a team of underwater superheroes fighting a giant fish from outer space — corresponds to the same three act structure. Simply put, it works. Whether or not you think it’s the best alien fish movie you’ve ever seen, chances are that if the inciting incident happens 10 minutes in, and we clearly hit the Act Two mid-point at the 60 minute mark (wait… this fish is only the first soldier in a sub-aquatic alien invasion??!!), the pacing is going to feel oh, so very right.
But say you’ve got all your ducks, or index cards, in a row — I personally use ducks — and have outlined your script to within an inch of its life. You know the exact order of scenes, the way each one will lead logically into the next, and how you’re going to get from the middle of Act Two to that ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ moment and into Act Three. Then you sit down, well armed with your painstakingly assembled, step-by-step narrative roadmap, and…
… it’s dead on the page.
You know you’re a good writer. (After all, your cousin Stacy calls things as she sees them, and she wouldn’t have said so on your Facebook page if it wasn’t true, just because it was your birthday. Twelve year olds say what they think.) You know that if someone asked you to write a compelling, two or three page scene in a vacuum, you could knock it out of the park, make it sing, and leap right off of your computer screen.
But now, faced with a clear-cut assignment you’ve worked out in advance — this is the scene where your protagonist is called into his ex-wife’s office and fired — you just don’t have that same urgency. The words are flat; you don’t know how to make these pre-established actions interesting. It feels like you’re moving two-dimensional paper dolls around on a beige cardboard background. There’s no zip. There’s no fire. You’ve lost that lovin’ feeling.
I’ve been there… and not just as a writer sitting at the computer, but living within scenes themselves, as an improviser acting moments out on stage. (You’ve read the first article in this column, right? If not, you can find it here). Plot — the aspect of your script that you’ve outlined — is what holds the story together from a Big Picture standpoint, in terms of pacing and heightening. But it’s not what makes a scene interesting on a gut level, from moment to moment.
That’s where character comes in. More specifically, Point of View.
There are many aspects involved in creating a great character. But the one that will help drive through your script like a runaway locomotive, or a bull in a china shop (in a good way), is Point of View.
Great characters have strong, specific points of view: very particular, emotionally loaded ways of seeing the world. Think about the characters you love. Mike Meyers as Austin Powers. Jeff Bridges’ “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski. Harry or Sally from (well, you guess the movie.) Han Solo. They’re all fully loaded with presumable, often predictable, highly reactive opinions. Place them anywhere, in any situation, and you can probably imagine just about how they’ll react. Woody Allen at a professional wrestling convention. Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry at a Sweet Sixteen party. Holly Hunter’s character from Broadcast News on the set of TMZ.
It’s the same on the stage, living out an improvised scene from within and discovering what makes the moment easy and natural to play, and what makes the audience respond with obvious interest. It’s a palpable feeling when a crowd is genuinely invested in what’s happening in front of them on the stage. Going far beyond whether or not they’re laughing (if the scene is comedic), when row after row of people are drawn in, you can feel it like a wave of energy. No one shifts in their seats. There’s nary a cough. It’s as though the crowd of theatergoers are literally breathing together, watching you and your scene partners.
So how does an improvisational actor, making a scene up on the spot, make that happen? Lots of ways. As I discussed in my last column, it could involve honing in on something your character wants from his scene partner.
Another method is to nail down a specific point of view.
How does your character — we’re talking about the protagonist of your script now — see and emotionally react to the world? Think of John McClane, Bruce Willis’s character in Die Hard. “F-in’ California,” he mutters to himself more than once, in response to others’ often laid-back behavior… something he’s not used to from the gritty streets of New York. It’s almost his mantra… and it says everything about him.
Think of the way he says it. The way he shrugs his head back and forth wearily, in good natured but judgmental wonderment. “F-in’ California.” You can stick that character anywhere, in any situation, and you would know how to write it, simply because you can assume his emotional and philosophical reaction to whatever’s going on, beat by beat. When John McClane walks into the lobby of Nakatomi Corp, his bare action — as outlined — is to ask what floor his wife is on. The scene is interesting because of his reaction to the fancy computerized screen he types her name into. (Not to mention that she’s using her maiden name.) What makes the scene come alive, and be of interest, stems from his point of view about the world. It’s what perks us up about any successful scene…not just as viewers, but as writers in the moment of creating them. Arming your character with a strong point of view helps to keep you, as a writer, present.
Another great example — this one from TV — is Temperance Brennan and Seeley Booth on the forensics-driven procedural mystery Bones. Both of those characters have strong, clear, predictable points of view. Temperance — or as I like to think of her, the Alpha Deschanel (not that I have a crush on her or anything) — analyzes the world from a coldly clinical, anthropological perspective, bereft of any typical knowledge of “popular culture”… yet with a subtle yet palpably beating heart underneath. (Swoon…Emily D., if you’re reading this, my Twitter handle’s listed below this article. I’m very happily married, but we could totally be coffee buddies!)
Where was I? Oh, right.
Not only does Temperance have a strong point of view, so does David Boreanaz’s Agent Booth. He’s down to earth, matter of fact, and much more attuned to interpersonal social dynamics. The delight in every scene lies in these two partners, both with clear-cut POVs, emotionally and philosophically reacting to their surroundings, the people they’re interviewing, and then, as a consequence, each other. (Same thing with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black: Smith is amazed and playful; Jones has seen it all, and just wants to get the job done.)
Now just think how much more fun — and easy — it would be to make your way through the plot points of your outline if you were working with these kinds of characters, ones whose points of view are established from Page One. Set your characters up with a focused point of view, and they will lead you, as a writer, through your story, enabling you to make specific, delightful discoveries along the way.
Does your protagonist have a clear enough point of view?
What is your character’s mantra?
Here’s a dorky acting exercise.
I mean, here’s a practical technique you might try putting to use in the privacy of your own home. (Seriously, wait till you have the house to yourself.)
Start moving around… physically moving around. Maybe try leading with a specific part of your body. The elbow, for instance. Or the knees. I’m not kidding; try it. (They say people tend to lead with either their head, their chest, or their, um, groin.) Notice how your confidence, and your sense of the “character” you’re physically inhabiting as you move around changes as you shift your weight.
Now try making a sound to go along with your movement. Not a real word: just gibberish. (I know: this feels totally stupid, right? I promise we’ll get there in a second.) At some random point — you can have one of the roommates you just noticed hiding around the corner of the doorway, laughing at you, give you the signal — follow your natural momentum and let that sound and movement evolve into a real word. You can even have someone call out a word if that helps, or you can blindly open a book and use the first word or phrase that you see. I’ll play along:
Now — using the voice that came out of that physical balance you’re not accustomed to — express some opinion. Doesn’t have to be your own opinion. But argue it from the height of your intelligence.
Don’t edit yourself: First Thought, Best Thought. Let the silliness of your physicality unlock your subconscious.
“Bunny rabbits.” (Don’t hesitate or think…just start talking.) “They just keep reproducing, don’t they? With no thought of how it might affect the rest of the family. Do bunnies even think about how much food they have to go around? Or whether the garden needs more bunnies? Or how it might make the bunnies they already have feel? Bunnies are selfish! We should put all the bunnies in prison!!!!”
Okay, that’s very silly. But consider how much information you’ve just generated for a character. Forget the fact that it’s a bunny. Maybe this is someone who grew up with a lot of siblings, and didn’t feel their parents provided them with enough attention. Maybe your character was raised in a foster home. How has this affected her point of view of the world? Are people good? Or are they selfish? Does your character have a chip on her shoulder? How does she feel when she sees a family walking down the street? What ideas does she have about society, and the choices others should make? What is her ultimate goal in your story… and how emotionally loaded is it? Think of how she might bump up against the tiniest of details you find yourself including as you translate your outline into living, breathing script form.
Listen: you don’t have to embarrass yourself acting out Sound and Movement exercises in your living room if you don’t want to. Just try playing the word game in your head, spouting out “first thought, best thought” diatribes in your character’s voice, off of the words you yourself have written down in your outline, or from a random book on your nightstand. (I see 50 Shades of Grey there… that’ll be our little secret.) The assumptions and leaps you find yourself making don’t ever need to make it into your screenplay… but they can inform your understanding of how your protagonist reacts to every little detail you include in your story.
Remember: the most powerful way to surprise your readers is by pulling off the magic trick of surprising yourself. Arm your characters with a unique point of view and you’ll energize your writing, moment by moment, all the way through to the end.
Call me, Emily! Mocha lattes!
(Dammit, I just realized: I’m in New York. Emily Deschanel is in California.
Have any questions about improv, and how it relates to writing for the screen? Feel free to post comments below or send questions via Twitter. They’ll be considered for a future installment!
- More Improvising Screenplays by Brett Wean
- Monday Morning Editor Picks: Organize Writing Projects
- Balls of Steel: Debate and Tips for Outlining a Script
- 5 Tips to Make Your Dialogue Writing Pop
- Balls of Steel: What Can a Writer Learn from Actor Interviews?
Tools to Help: