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.
Okay. So let’s get down to brass tacks. In past Improvising Screenplays articles, I’ve shared some improv-based techniques you can apply to screenwriting, and I’ve been eager to focus on really practical strategies you can try out, like examining the concept of status, refining your protagonist’s want, and using the improv concept of Game to structure a comedic scene. (Or even a dramatic one.)
But today I want to delve down into the muck, pull aside the scrim of practicality, lay waste to the monsoon of disingenuousness, use a lot of metaphors, and confess the most fundamental reason I find my improv training so helpful in writing.
It’s because my experience getting up on stage without a script has taught me, deep in my bones, that all I have to do is show up.
It’s true. And it has affected my writing deeply…as well as my ability to get it done.
Even when I have writer’s block.
THE BARE STAGE
In the same way that I can look up at a bare stage, not having any lines, costumes, or story, and with an audience waiting to file in — yet feel confident that I have everything I need — I can now sit down in front of a computer screen, and not break into a cold sweat.
I know that if I simply show up and allow myself to be present, art, character, and story will happen.
This was one of my greatest epiphanies.
Let me take you through what a beginning improviser goes through psychologically, and I think you’ll see what I mean.
Ohmygod. Here I am up on stage, in front of my classmates, with one other person, and we’re supposed to create a scene. How am I supposed to do that? On my way to class, I had all these funny ideas. What happened to them? I don’t remember any of them! I know that’s not how this is supposed to work, but still… oh wait! We’re getting a one-word suggestion! I almost missed it! What was that? “Car?” What the hell am I supposed to do with that? The word “car” doesn’t make me think of anything funny. Ohmygod, we’re supposed to start talking now.
Here’s where it gets interesting to watch. The two (terrified) student improvisers typically lose all sense of normal human behavior, becoming frantic, speaking a mile a minute, and desperately yelling out expositional facts at each other, attempting to establish a basic who, what, and where.
Pretty soon, there are so many facts and details thrown out, that they (and everyone watching them) are totally confused and exhausted.
Eventually, though, if they stick with it, they realize they have to do way less work than that. They can relax, and breathe, and be present. They notice a tiny change in the other person’s expression. They make note of their own natural body language. They blurt out the first word that comes to mind. And then somehow, as if by magic, they create compelling scenes that also often happen to be funny, if that’s what they’re going for. They learn techniques to make the most of the things that organically, subconsciously transpire.
And knowing this — having seen it play out for myself and so many others — has released me from any typical writing fears and behaviors that can be so stultifying. Like the idea that I have to be “inspired.” Or the belief that I need to know exactly what I’m doing, or what’s about to happen in a scene, when I sit down to write.
Or anything else commonly associated with “writer’s block.”
I happen to be someone who outlines first, in great detail. Who tries to have a pretty clear idea of what sequence of events is about to take place. Of what I’m going to attempt to have done in the script by the time I shut down my laptop and go meet my friend Pete for cheeseburgers. (This isn’t what I do every time I get up from writing; I only have cheeseburgers with Pete every few weeks or so.)
But I also realize that within the marathon of writing a script, this is not always how it works. That there will be some days when I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen in my story, because I made some amazing discovery the day before that totally works, but has set off a butterfly effect in my second act that I’m not sure how to deal with yet. That some days, even if I know exactly which scene I have to write, for whatever reason, my fingers on the keypad “just aren’t feeling it,” and somehow writing, “INT. OFFICE — DAY” feels incredibly wrong and I can’t figure out why.
THE BLANK PAGE
So does the responsible screenwriter just walk away from his computer for the rest of the day, or does he behave like a freakin’ professional and utilize some techniques that might enable him make some headway?
No. He starts typing. He “walks around” as his character. Maybe in a different setting he knows he probably won’t have time for in his finished script. Maybe a scene from a different time in the character’s life. Just to see what pops out. And sometimes an answer will make itself known. At the very least, the wheels of the subconscious will starts silently moving.
What’s more, the more comfortable you allow yourself to become in just sitting down, being present, not judging yourself, and setting words down, imperfect as they may be at first, the faster, more intuitive, and relaxed an editor you will be of your own work.
One of the biggest, most empowering milestones in a writer’s life is when they learn to become less precious, and start to throw away and delete more easily.
This, from my experience, is the game-changer for those who are serious about their writing.
Amateurs take inordinate amounts of time trying to carefully craft painstakingly perfect little snippets. (Which, by the way, usually don’t turn out to be so perfect.)
Serious writers produce material — just as they would if they were under contract, with writing as their full time job — and, with deadlines looming, waste little time in cutting down what doesn’t work in the revision stage.
This was my second epiphany.
Through the persistence of sitting down and creating, even when I didn’t specifically feel “inspired,” it gradually became easier, and less painful, for me to edit. To throw stuff away when I knew instinctively, after looking at something with clear, fresh eyes, that it wasn’t completely popping.
Producing more work, less judgmentally, enables you to be less precious, and make fast, ruthless, surgical decisions that instantly make your work better.
I could go so far as to apply the word “faith,” not in religious terms, but as it applies to my artistic self. I could explain that on a deep level for me, because of my improv experience and the understanding it instilled that I will always have more material inside me, just as anyone will, the concept of faith connects somehow with simple, “just-show-up” professionalism when I’m creating my best work. And that, in itself, is reassuring…because time and time again, it works.
So I will offer up this simple suggestion. Find a few down-to-earth, practical techniques you can use to put yourself through your paces when you don’t feel inspired…when you’re not sure exactly what’s motivating your character, or how two different necessary scenes are going to connect. And whether it’s improv-based — such as this Getting Out of Your Head strategy, or this Character Wheel exercise — or from one of the many other great columns on this site, make it your business to develop your capacity to just show up.
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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