IMPROVISING SCREENPLAYS: The Secret to Finding Your Voice

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. Follow Brett on Twitter @brettwean.

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VoiceIf you’re like most aspiring writers, chances are that “finding your voice” is way up there on your “becoming a writer” To-Do list. (Come on, we all have them, pinned to our refrigerator with a little magnet, right next to the chore wheel.) The problem is, “finding your voice” isn’t really a quantifiable task you can accomplish just by planting your butt in the seat for a few days. Some people never find their voice.

Then again, some people never even realize it’s a requirement.

Developing a consistent — and comfortable — pattern to the kind of stories you tell, as well as how you tell them, is a critical factor necessary to your success as a writer.

So how do you find your voice?

Here’s where I go all Yoda on your ass. The “secret” to finding your voice is…there is no secret. The answer is that it’s different for everybody. That’s the secret.

So there is no secret, but there is. (Okay, I’ll stop talking in riddles.)

I do have a few tips for you to try out in your journey.

When I first began studying and performing improv, first at the Upright Citizens Brigade and then at The People’s Improv Theater (The PIT) in New York City, I was surrounded by people emulating the fast, frantic, and often brilliant performances they were watching on stage. These more experienced performers had expertly figured out through years of practice how to utilize all the slow, methodical techniques we were learning in class — such as making eye contact, figuring out their status in relation to their scene partner, etc. — so as to almost seem invisible. They would rush on the stage and all we would see was a flurry of limbs and instant comedy. They were playing slow…they were just doing it too quickly for us to notice.

Some improvisers naturally play fast. Their brains happen to work in a certain way that they can easily — almost mathematically — calculate where a scene might head, and what the funniest or most interesting choice might be to make without a moment’s hesitation.

Still, other great improvisers play slowly and patiently, putting a higher focus on character and relationships, and delving further into grounded, sometimes more serious moments that often result in deeper, more satisfying laughs. (If you ever get a chance to see the legendary duo TJ & Dave perform, generally in Chicago or New York, grab it, and you’ll see what I mean. Or check out this movie about them.)

I love fast improv done well. I love slow improv even more. And I’m personally better at doing it.

The thing is, I realized this pretty early on. I was in a practice group made up of fellow students who worked with a really terrific coach. The members of the group were all talented, but something wasn’t completely gelling. For a couple of weeks, while our coach was unavailable, another coach stepped in who was more attuned to slow, patient work. Doing the exercises she had us try, I suddenly felt more confident, as though improv wasn’t hard anymore…as though I was actually good at it. The work done by the other members of the group was better, too. We were trying less hard, and getting better results. I could do this forever, I thought to myself. It seemed effortless.

Still, when I brought up the possibility of working more regularly with this other coach, there was pushback. “It feels like being in therapy,” one woman complained. “It’s so serious!” a tall guy who often wore low-scoop V-neck t-shirts added.

“But didn’t you notice the laughs you were getting?” I inquired.

“Yeah, but…” was the general consensus. I lost the battle, and I continued working with the same group. For a long time after that, I worked with other groups, and a succession of genuinely terrific coaches…most of whom focused on fast scene-work.

It wasn’t until years later that I doubled-down on my initial impulse to delve into a slower style of playing that reaped higher rewards for me…and, as I initially suspected, led to my feeling more comfortable on stage. I had found my voice.

What would I do now, if I could handle it differently? I would have continued playing with that first group…while also actively gathering another team of people interested in working with that slower-style coach. I could then have decided if the first one still fit into my schedule and interest level.

So what does this mean for you as a screenwriter (or any kind of artist)? Here are some suggestions from someone who wasted some time in finding his voice, and lived to tell about it:

Follow Your Foot
In improv, there’s a saying: “Follow your foot.” It refers to performers on stage who aren’t in the scene immediately taking place. They stand off to the sides, or on the back wall, waiting to “edit” the scene at just the right moment. Beginning improvisers tend to be hesitant, and overly polite in editing. But you can watch them, from the audience or the coach’s chair, unconsciously moving their foot at just the right moment. It’s very amusing: their foot knows exactly when it’s time to edit!

Your foot is always right. When you have an impulse, deep down in your gut, about what kind of writing or tone appeals to you, don’t waste time…follow that instinct.

Check Out the Whole Salad Bar
Do you really know what kind of movies you want to write? Are you only watching certain kinds of films, and reading certain types of scripts? Widen your options, and your palette. I like to think of every artists’ voice as a mashup, whether they realize it or not, between their own brain, and all of their disparate influences.

Sure, you might know that you want to write action movies. But what eventually reveals itself to be your voice might be action movies with a point of view often found in indie dramas, or the 1960s French New Wave. Don’t limit yourself to a diet solely consisting of Michael Bay films. (Or Truffaut.)

Gravitate Toward People Who “Get” You
Many of us have an unfortunate tendency to listen hardest to those most inclined to point out our weaknesses. It makes sense, because if we’re serious, we know that part of growing as writers means getting straightforward, no-bullshit feedback.

But…it’s only the people smart enough to readily identify and enjoy what’s naturally good and intriguing about your work who can ultimately magnify that element, instead of drowning it out in a cascade of notes that only focus on what’s wrong.

Great teachers joyfully give honest praise while also delivering harsh truths. Either one without the other is pointless. Make sure you don’t pass over your admirers.

Steal from Those You Respect
Every artists steals, especially while they’re still struggling to find their own, consistent point of view. There’s no shame in emulating other, more advanced screenwriters. As the old saying goes from Buckaroo Banzai, “wherever you are, there you are.” No matter how much you “steal” from your heroes, whether it’s the rhythm of their sentences or tricks you notice they use to segue from one scene to another, it’s all ultimately going to be filtered through the way your own mind works. That’s what your voice is. Your influences plus your own unconscious imprint.

It can take some people years to arrive at their own distinct voice: one that works on the page, and provides them with artistic satisfaction. Others are just “in the zone,” and luck into finding it immediately. (We hate those people, but cheer them on. They might be able to help us at some point.)

Finding your voice requires persistence, trial and error…and more than anything, a sense of playfulness. Keep at it, stay relaxed, and you’re sure to find the style that fits you like a glove.

As Yoda would say: inside you the whole time, it was.

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

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One thought on “IMPROVISING SCREENPLAYS: The Secret to Finding Your Voice

  1. dave

    Hey Brett!
    Just want to say I love your articles! Love them! Read them every month. Okay. That’s a lie. I just found your blog today and read all the articles in a caffeine induced frenzy just now. But I love them! When I saw that you were the VERY SAME Brett Wean from my favorite movie Break up at a Wedding I was like…Okay. Actually I’ve never seen it. But I will. Promise. That’s probably a lie too. I probably won’t. Anyways I have a question for you. How do you go about brainstorming your stories? Do you break them into sequences first? Or just go straight to scenes? Smoke illegal substances first? Basically what’s your method of breaking your story? Thanks Mr. Wean!

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