On stage, in order to discourage audience members from yelling out stupid things like, “Boobs!” or “Farting,” improvisers often ask them for a one-word suggestion “from the height of your intelligence.” And the intelligence doesn’t end there! When improvising on stage, good improvisational actors shy away from going for the easy laugh, playing their characters earnestly, and behaving as they would in real life…or at least in a way that makes rational, intelligent sense within the context of their created environment. “Playing from the height of your intelligence,” is an oft-repeated commandment that works, even when the aim is to create silly comedy.
Writing from the height of your intelligence is an equally practical and powerful strategy for creating screenplays that keep viewers engaged. When you speak “up” to viewers, making the assumption that they can not only keep up, but are in fact probably two steps ahead of you, writing from the height of your intelligence serves to keep them surprised and make them feel respected. It’s also a useful trick for cutting the fat off of your script when you need to trim down page length, and keep the action moving. Here are some quick tips on how to apply this philosophy to your screenwriting:
Skip the Explanation
Viewers (and readers) don’t need a constant verbal explanation as to why characters are about to do what they’re going to do. Let the audience fill in the blanks whenever they can, and skip ahead to the action. We are far more interested in the doing — and then the consequences — of a character’s action than the discussion of what they’re about to do. If your character’s immediate decision involves serious conflict with someone else, sure, let us see the blow-out fight leading to their decision. But more often than not, keep the pace moving by leaping ahead to the action…and let viewers come to their own conclusions.
Speaking of choices, be brave enough to allow your characters to make the smartest decisions they can. If your story depends on your protagonist being dumb, we are going to feel bored really quickly. (And get really annoyed.) If the obstacles you’ve set up are hard enough to overcome — and therefore, interesting to us — the thrill will come from watching your hero use all of her smarts, and do her absolute best to succeed…and still have a hard time.
Bad Decisions, Intelligently Made
That being said, it can be fascinating — in both dramas and comedies — to witness a character come to a bad decision, whether it’s a matter of morality and ethics, love, or a strategy we know isn’t going to help her defeat the evil sorcerer. But there’s no fun in watching a character arrive at a bad decision simply by being stupid. How often have you turned off a movie because a character randomly decides it’s a good idea to check out the spooky unlit basement alone? Or finally has a chance to kiss his dream girl, but decides to run after the pizza delivery guy for some free pepperoni instead? (I have no idea what movie I’m writing in my head right now.) What makes these moments of bad decision making compelling lies in in watching the hero arrive at his terrible choice in an intelligent way. Try this as an exercise: think of the worst thing your character could do…then logically, passionately make an argument for it, using the height of your intelligence.
What About “Dumb” Characters?
Who is the dumbest person you know? In real life, even people we consider “dumb as a brick” — that dingbat in charge of the office supply cabinet, or Dabney, the dude we knew at summer camp who used to think the girls liked it when he threw milk at them in the dining hall — still has a basic, normally functioning human brain. Dumb people, in general — unless there is something really, medically wrong with them — still operate using a logic system. Even Forrest Gump. Even the Dumb and Dumber guys. Seeing how they arrive at their dumb decisions — peeking under the hood and finding out how they, at the sincere height of their intelligence, arrive at their decisions — is where the fascination lies.
Your audience isn’t passive. No audience is. Even a crowd of people interested purely in escapist popcorn entertainment is engaged on some level. Don’t think of yourself taking them by the hand and leading them along a dark corridor. Instead, imagine them actively meandering along a path you have designed for them. They’re not just being led along. They’re poking around every nook and cranny as they go, anticipating what’s to come up ahead, around every corner. Even the most tuckered-out couch potato isn’t simply wandering behind as you tell the story. More often than not, some part of his brain is two, if not three, steps ahead of you.
The greater the level of intelligence you exhibit — through your characters, and as a storyteller — the greater the tension will be, and the more your audience will be drawn in, enrapt, and enthralled. Write from the height of your intelligence, and your screenplay will soar.
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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