Improvising Screenplays: Make the Most of Screenwriting Feedback and Find a Mentor – Using the Power of “Yes-And!”

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yes_logoLet’s be honest. You get that the heart of your writing career lies in the journey itself. That you should live in the moment and immerse yourself in the process of actually writing, rather than concentrating unhealthily on the enigmatic, mysterious quest to make that first sale, get your first manager or agent, or even just find that special Miyagi in your life who sees how special you are and wants to mentor you. You comprehend that ironically, your Zen-like, fully present immersion into the task of creating is actually the best way to enable those goals to happen, anyway. (If not, you need to get your head on straight, Grasshopper.)

You go to Yoga once a week. You meditate a little, kind of, while playing iPhone Scrabble. You take seriously your life as a writer and you are continuously focusing on developing your craft.

But you’d really like to get an agent and sell something.

Okay. I will meet you there.

Chances are that the first step in finding a true mentor — not just a teacher who encourages you during class (though it could start out that way), but someone who makes it a personal goal of theirs to help you get to where you want to be both artistically and professionally — is by becoming a master of receiving feedback.

I have a unique perspective on this based on my experience not only as a student and coach of theatrical improvisation, but in getting and giving notes on writing. And I can tell you that the most basic, fundamental, and powerful concept behind improvising — the idea of “Yes-And” — will not only change your life, but help you in your quest to make the most of the feedback you get, institute those suggested changes so that they make the most impact on your script, and ultimately encourage someone to embrace you as their protégé.

First, let’s explain what “Yes-And” means. Tina Fey talks about it in her book. (P. 84-85 in the hardcover…the pages are specially highlighted in gray!) Stephen Colbert spoke about it in his oft-quoted Commencement address at Knox College. The idea — most simply put — is that if you walk out on stage with someone to do an improvised scene, and they say, “You’re my favorite cousin,” you don’t say, “We’re not cousins!” You say Yes to it. On a basic level, you agree to the reality of the scene. And you don’t just say Yes. You say Yes-And. You add something. “You’re my favorite cousin, too, Lucille… and I can’t believe we’re getting to fly to the moon together!”

Obviously, that would be a pretty awesome scene. (You can have it.)

The point is, you’re building the scene together, simply by Yes-ing, and And-ing.

Now, as you study and start performing improv, you begin to realize that the idea of Yes-And actually runs deeper than the literal meaning. You fully embrace all of your scene partners’ offers. You treat every idea of theirs as GOLD, and wholeheartedly collaborate to make the most of them. You find that it is truly the only way to move scenes forward.

And you find yourself saying Yes more often in life.

It’s weird. Once you start building the muscle of Yes-And through repetition on stage, you begin to notice people Yes-And-ing — and not Yes-And-ing — in real life: making small-talk in the elevator… in a meeting at work… in a conversation with your friends, or with a romantic partner.

You start to recognize how terrifyingly easy it is to unintentionally shut someone down, and how often other people do it, to each other and to you. You hopefully start to realize the times you’ve done it yourself.

And you start to wonder… “Why?”

The words “No” and “But” come so much more easily to us to say in response to others’ thoughts as we rush to counter with our own ideas, that the “scenes” of life — those moments we depend on to get a project approved at work, to make a point with our boyfriend or girlfriend — are often squashed before they even begin. Even when we’re not saying, “No,” our lack of actively “Yes-ing” means that entire ideas are dropped just as quickly as though we had. Conversations last seconds rather than minutes. Entire avenues of possibility are left unexplored.

Now consider that moment in a writing class, or on the phone with a script consultant, in which someone is trying to give you feedback on your writing.

Let’s say it’s a classroom setting. Look around the room and notice: how many people are “Yes-And-ing” the notes they’re getting? How many are “No-Butting” them? Who’s making more progress?

I think everyone’s initial, natural response to feedback is to rear up as though being attacked. We defensively rush to “explain” our intentions, the thought process that led to the choice in our writing that’s seemingly under fire. (Of course, in reality, it’s probably not so much “under fire,” as it is like a dislocated joint a doctor is firmly trying put back in alignment — but it sure feels like it’s “under fire.”)

We want to explain why what we wrote has to be this way, elucidate the intention and effect this person is obviously “not getting”… instead of more positively and productively not only listening, but for a little while, at least, fully embracing the suggestion. Not just hearing it out, but Yes-And-ing it: taking it for a genuine spin around the track, putting the petal to the metal and driving right alongside the note-giver to see what this baby (the feedback) can do if we wholeheartedly push it all the way, with everything our engine can give it.

If you race alongside the note-giver as a true collaborator, building the note together to its natural point and fullest strength, chances are that you will mutually arrive at the same conclusion: either that the note is worth instituting, or that some subtlety has been missed, the note (or your understanding of it) in need of a tweak.

If it’s the latter, I assure you: the distinction that had to be made in order to make that feedback usable would never have been communicated if you had started off by saying, “No,” or, “But.”

It’s only by saying, “Yes,” and “And,” that we can move forward.

Once you start noticing this in others peoples’ conversations, you will be amazed at how literal this is.

Listen again to the people in your class, or writing group, as they’re getting notes. Forget even the word “No” — how often is the less conspicuous (but no less harmful) word “But” coming up? Examine, even more closely, your fellow writers’ body language as their scripts are “under attack.” Check out the No-Butters: are they slouching? Are they physically shielding themselves somehow?

Now shift your attention to how conversation proceeds when someone Yes-Ands a note — even if it’s negative, and even if you think they might disagree with the note-giver. More often than not, when the words “Yes” and “And” are used, the discussion moves ahead more smoothly, the participants able to make steady, helpful progress through the pages…and often, with more positive comments bringing up the rear.

Generally, that initial, difficult note will make more sense now, seen within the context of the whole session. (As opposed to spending that whole time arguing about it.)

Recognize, too — and this is important — that when writers give push-back against notes, the person offering up feedback generally shifts tone and body language as well, shutting down as their ideas are being attacked.

If this person were to become your mentor, wouldn’t you expect them to give you the difficult, challenging notes you need to evolve? If they don’t feel you’re eager to give their suggestions a chance, how eager do you think they’ll be to possibly become your mentor in the first place?

The most important note I have ever heard someone get in an improv class was simply: “Take the note.”

Over the course of time, I’ve watched countless improv students — and writers in sketch and screenwriting classes — succeed and thrive if they make it a habit to “Yes-And” feedback. Conversely, I’ve watched those who don’t fall by the wayside.

Still, the secret to using the concept of “Yes-And” to help find a mentor — and open yourself up to more frequent opportunities in general — goes far beyond not giving pushback when receiving notes…

And we’ll get into all of it, next time, in Part Two!

(This is what’s known in the trade as a “cliff-hanger.” It’s important to know all the obscure industry jargon.)

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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