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.
There are a few general, arbitrary-sounding, scene types that actors are told to avoid when first learning improv. Specifically, novice improvisers are warned to stay away from: argument scenes, teaching scenes, and negotiations.
I wouldn’t advise you to eschew these types of scenes in your screenwriting. We obviously see all sorts of arguments, teacher/student moments, and negotiations take place in many of the best, most compelling movies and TV shows. But by understanding why improvisers try to avoid them, and how the best theatrical improvisers make them work when they do perform them, you can gain a unique understanding of the specific pitfalls these types of scenes often contain, and learn how to avoid them in your writing.
Why are improvisers warned not to fall into scenes involving teaching, arguments, and negotiations? Because each of these scene types quite often naturally drag the characters into stagnant, back-and-forth moments that keep the action from moving forward. “No!” “Yes.” “No!” Yes.” “No!” While it may be exciting to watch two characters dramatically duke it out via their differing points of view — “drama is conflict” we’re so often told, and that’s true — we have to make sure that we don’t trap our characters into a clinch, like two boxers in a ring, so jumbled together that nothing is actually happening. Scenes need to move forward: two people yelling “No!” “Yes!” “No!” at each other can stop any natural momentum in its tracks.
This can happen just as often in a negotiation as it can in an argument: “My pony is worth this much!” “No it’s not! It can’t even jump! I’ll give you this much for it!” “No! I’ll only accept this much!” More than a couple seconds of this ‘yes-no-yes-no’ back-and-forth can get tedious. It doesn’t reveal anything, and it doesn’t move your story forward. Negotiation scenes that aren’t kept short — or don’t explore character and relationship within the context of the negotiation — can easily become tiresome.
Teaching scenes can often be similarly static. The great mentor/student moments we see in movies like The Karate Kid are terrific because we learn about Daniel and Miyagi as they transpire. But as writers, if we don’t watch it, we can end up creating a boring, inactive scene with a teacher intoning, “Do this…now do this,” as the student character passively follows instructions. That’s about as interesting as reading a set of Ikea instructions…without the Swedish meatballs.
So let’s throw in some meatballs!
I remember one particularly brilliant improv teacher I worked with who began an advanced class by specifically having us do argument scenes. “What?!” We were all shocked. It was like Robin Williams telling us to stand up on our tables and rip up our textbooks, like in Dead Poets Society. For the next three hours he helped us figure out what it was, specifically, that made bad argument scenes stagnant, and what characteristics were necessary to make the good ones riveting.
So what were those characteristics? How can we keep these three stagnant scene types from feeling flat?
Good argument, teaching, and negotiation scenes REVEAL things. Maybe we find out information that you’d secretly love to share in a flashback (but feel that a flashback won’t work for your movie.) So show it here, through dialogue. Why does your character feel the way he does? What personal event triggered the foundation of his beliefs, and what does it say about his relationship with the other person?
Alternatively, have your character CONFESS SOMETHING. This is another great way to keep the action of the scene moving forward, and shore up another reason for the scene to be there. A confession will not only reveal something, it will bring your characters closer together — ironically during a moment of conflict — and heighten the stakes of your entire story.
Finally, let your characters SHOW SOME VULNERABILITY. Have them (perhaps surprisingly) change their minds in a middle of a fight, realize what they thought was valuable really isn’t, or enable the other person to see the cracks in their armor, even if it’s a seemingly perfect teacher who appears to have everything figured out.
Revelations, confessions, and moments of surprising vulnerability are great weapons to have in your arsenal in any scene…but they’re particularly invaluable in ensuring that argument, teaching, and negotiation scenes don’t become obvious, tepid, and one-note.
They truly are the Swedish meatballs you need to take your writing to another level.
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 articles by Brett Wean
- Column D: Should You Take Him Back? (When to Use Flashback)
- Director of The Signal William Eubank Explores the Conflict of Emotion Vs. Logic
Get more advice on writing scenes with Erik Bork’s webinar
What Makes a Great Scene?