Improvising Screenplays: Getting Out of Your Head Exercise #1: Genre Switch!

In Improvising Screenplays, improvisational actor Brett Wean shares how the concepts of improvisation can be applied to the work — and play — of writing your script.Comedy-Tragedy-Masks

As creative artists, we all get “in our heads” sometimes. Part of our job lies in cold, rational analysis of the raw material our imagination spits out, the stuff that makes us want to tell our stories in the first place. How can we accentuate what’s compelling about our story? In what ways can we most effectively define our characters’ personalities? What situations will bring the most important elements of our stories into clearest, starkest relief? How can our outlines best serve to keep up the pace and interest, and bring us to the most satisfying conclusion?

But often as we do this necessary, mathematical, “left-brain” work, our creative juices tense up, the artistic flexibility and looseness we need to actually produce our material freezing in such a way that we’re temporarily unable to work… or even think straight about the project we were initially so inspired by.

On stage as an improviser, I’ve occasionally had the yucky experience of “getting in my head.” Staring at another human being and attempting to make up a scene on the spot — and not immediately locking onto something interesting — can be painful. Thankfully, there are methods I’ve learned to shake it off.

But as writers — even though we’re not surrounded by a theater full of people — it can feel even worse. There’s something very permanent seeming about setting words down on paper… as though now that they’re typed out, they will immediately sink into the page (or computer screen) like lead, hard if not impossible to move around and rearrange after the fact. So your brain locks up…and you stop typing.

It’s time to get out of your head.

Here’s the one rule I’ll offer before getting you started with this exercise: You’re not allowed to crack the whip on yourself, dwelling on the fact that you’re “not getting anything done.” If you’re in your head… if your gears are locked up… then this is a necessary part of the process. If you were taking a road trip and your car broke down, you would have to stop and get it fixed, right? So in point of fact, you are getting something done. If you allow your brain to (productively) relax now, your work will flow much more quickly and easily once you’re ready to jump back in. So this does count as work… no matter how much fun you allow yourself to have. (So you might as well have fun.)

I remember in college when I was acting in a play, right before our opening night, the director had us perform what she called a “clown-through.” (Don’t worry, we didn’t wear noses or anything.) What we did was perform the entire play, but without being wedded to specific lines, and in as SILLY a way as we wanted. It loosened us up, and in addition, brought to the surface the most primal, important elements of what was really going on between our characters. It may have been silly, but it was also profound.

When writing for film, we not only have our specific story to tell, but the choice of what genre we’re working in.

So why not switch it up?

Here’s the exercise:

If you’re writing a serious drama, try envisioning it as a comedy. (Decide what specific type of comedy before you get started.) You can pick and choose specific scenes, or, for your exercise, re-outline it as a whole. You could do it in treatment format, too… whatever most appeals to you. (This is your exercise.)

Are you working on a comedy? Re-think it as a tragedy. What would your modern-day action film feel like as a Western? How about re-formulating your historical period piece as a futuristic science fiction film? What elements would change, and more importantly, what would stay the same? You could write out character sketches, envision what the trailer would look like… whatever seems fun.

Who will get killed first — and how? — if you were writing your character-driven indie film as a horror movie? Perhaps you’d like to stick with the same genre, but figure out what your film would look and feel like if it were made during the 1940s. Or even as a silent picture.

Part of what’s invigorating about this kind of activity is that you know you’re not going to be using what you’re writing… thus allowing your brain to loosen up, and enabling you to get back to the “real” work when you next sit down to your notepad or computer. You may even be surprised to find that some of the things you come up with can be taken, adapted, and utilized in your actual screenplay. If you’ve been having trouble solving a sticky plot dilemma or figuring out an important piece of character motivation, stranger things have happened than to find your solution in this kind of exercise.

One of the greatest epiphanies performing stage improv has brought me is the realization that I can hop up on a bare stage, create situations out of thin air… and that I can come back and do it again and again and never run out of material. It’s like that Doritos commercial: “Crunch all you want, we’ll make more.” Allowing yourself the same freedom on the page, and experimenting with exercises like this, you’ll soon be able to get out of your head more quickly… and get more done, more easily, once you jump back in.

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 to @brettwean. They’ll be considered for a future installment.

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