When writing a script, or solving any kind of creative challenge, most of us tend to think in terms of what comes next. In improv too, we put a lot of emphasis on moving the scene forward. We avoid argument scenes in improv for that very reason: they run the risk of getting us caught in a stagnant yes/no stalemate.
Still, the idea of constantly having to move forward puts a lot of pressure on us when we’re not sure how to write a scene, outline a script, or arrive at a creative solution.
Recently, Keegan Michael Key of sketch comedy show Key & Peele shared a novel new way of approaching the act of creativity: backing up.
Key, who like his partner Jordan Peele, began his career as an improviser, suggests that instead of wracking our brains into a forced march forward, we might instead envision the creative moment as beginning in tight close-up. Think of two people on a stage. They stare into each other’s eyes. Maybe one of them coughs. Already, there’s a certain amount of information we can perceive: by the way they’re standing, the way they’re looking at each other, the particular sound of the cough. Is it a nervous cough? Is one person trying to get the other’s attention?
Determine everything you can from that tiny close-up… And then, rather than pressuring yourself to move forward, take a small step backward.
Suddenly, we see things in a slightly larger context. Where are they? Are the two people in an office? A barn? Is anyone else standing behind them? Now that the frame has widened, what other little discoveries can we make? What else do these new details tell us about the situation?
Watch the video in which Key enthusiastically describes this concept. If nothing else, his unbridled energy will put you in the mood to create. He uses as an example a Key & Peele sketch which happens to have been written by Rich Talarico, another well-known improviser. The idea is groundbreaking, pretty brilliant, and instantly takes the pressure off anyone who’s hit a creative wall.
Try using the Backing-Up technique as a creative exercise when looking for an interesting angle to a written scene. Instead of thinking of the scene as you normally would, in terms of what you need to accomplish by scene’s end, give yourself a rest from that. Simply choose a tight close-up from any point in the scene. Describe it. Then… Slowly back up. What do we see next? What’s the most interesting, most seductive detail you can reveal? What does it tell the audience about the context, the stakes of the situation? How does it heighten suspense?
You can also use this Backing-Up technique when outlining a screenplay. Take the most basic idea of your script: what tight close-up image comes to mind that might represent that? Alternatively, forget the central concept of the plot. What simple little moment makes you, personally, excited to see the movie up on the big screen? Start with a close-up from that moment…then slowly back up. What environment are we in? What kind of larger community is it a part of? Start backing up, without worrying about moving forward. What details do you find yourself surprising yourself with? Does it change the way you feel you might structure your story?
The Backing-Up exercise is a powerful technique to employ in any creative project in which you feel stuck, unsure how to move forward. Use it for brainstorming, problem-solving, character development, outlining…anything you can think of.
Then slowly back up, and realize how much you just got done.
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.
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