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.
Congratulations! You’ve put aside some time to get some writing done. So what are you doing here, now? Just getting warmed up? But wait, what’s that? This is the fourth article you’ve clicked on? And now your time is almost up for the day? Congratulations, anyway! You’ve just procrastinated!
I’m not mocking you. Some amount of procrastination is an inescapable part of the life of any writer; nay, of the human condition. It’s natural. It’s chemical. It’s…well, now I’m just quoting the lyrics of “I Want Your Sex” by George Michael. But you get my point.
The question…the question…is how you handle your occasional procrastinative impulse. Are you keeping it in check? Are you still managing to get a consistent amount done on your primary project on a weekly basis?
Guess what, dude. On days that you find yourself sincerely unable to fight the tide of procrastination…when something deep in your soul finally relents and admits with a grumble that today’s not the day you’ll be adding words to that scene you meant to work on…you can still be productive.
Here is a handy checklist of alternative things to do when your brain is doing that spinny hourglass computer thing, and you just need to reboot:
1. Skip to a later scene
Are you like me? Do you like to get things done in a step-by-step, organized, linear fashion? Screw that. Sometimes the best work you do is when you feel untethered by what came before. If all you had to do to finish your screenplay was write that one kick-ass scene you’ve had in your head for later on in the script, wouldn’t that be cool? Go write the most awesome version of that scene now.
2. Alternate Universe Scene
Sometimes the best way to get to the heart of a two-character relationship is to let them “play” in a scene the circumstances of which will never take place in your movie. Maybe it’s your two 40-something main characters as younger, college student versions of themselves doing laundry together. How would they interact? What if Batman and the Joker were two competitive workplace colleagues? If you have a handle on the dynamic between your two characters, you’ll be able to write this scene with your eyes closed. It might even inspire something you can use in your script. If you can’t do it readily, this exercise will help you pin down what’s at the heart of their relationship.
3. Do Some Research
Normally there’s a danger of falling down the Internet rabbit hole when you hit the Web to do a little research. What U.S. President came after Washington? Washington state is known for what kind of apples? Apple has a new iPhone coming out? But if the writing side of your brain genuinely needs a break…go for it. You get the whole day. (Hopefully you’ve gotten into the habit of jotting down stuff you want to look up, and saving it for moments like this.)
4. Brainstorm Your Next Project
It’s important not to have too many things going on at once. But it’s nice to have what I call a “B Project” lined up, quietly marinating, so you can hit the ground running when you’re finished what you’re currently working on.
5. Write Up a Prose Backstory
What was your main character’s childhood like? What did he or she do before the events of your screenplay? One way to help unmold the clay of your temporarily dry thought process — yeah, I don’t know about that metaphor, either — is to ditch the screenplay/dialogue format for prose for a little while. Explore your protagonist’s formative moments as a partial short story, just to stretch a different part of your brain for a little while. Chances are, you’ll discover some answers that will inform your script later in the process.
6. Protagonist/Antagonist Switch
Write a scene or two in which the “villain” of the movie — or whomever presents the largest obstacle to your hero’s main goal — is the main character. You’ll be surprised by what a temporary shift in perspective can unlock in your understanding of the story.
7. Minor Character to Main Character
Similarly, try this exercise: what if one of your supporting characters was the hero? You don’t have to start from the beginning. Pick any scene you feel like, and write it from a supporting character’s perspective.
8. Read a Screenplay
Many budding screenwriters haven’t read anywhere near enough scripts. (Especially considering it’s the medium in which they’re writing.) There are plenty of repositories online where you can find an enormous number of scripts, such as Scriptorama.
9. Watch a Comparable Film
Think of a movie that’s similar in some way to the one you’re currently writing. Don’t limit yourself to the same genre, necessarily. Think outside the box to a movie with a similar character journey or story structure. Then, don’t just lie back and watch passively. Actively take notes. Jot down a one-sentence-per-scene outline for future reference. Watch for ways to solve problems in your own script.
Finally, sometimes we all just need a day off. As long as you’re not doing this too often, and still making progress in general, go feed the ducks. And stop beating yourself up. Writing isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. You’ll be back, up and at ‘em, tomorrow.
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
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