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.
I have a confession to make. I haven’t seen Frozen, and I have no idea what that “Let It Go” song is about. If you forced me to sing it right now, it would probably come out something suspiciously like “Let It Be.”
But I do know the value of letting go. And while I am a big believer in outlining your script before starting a first draft, I do think there’s some letting go that has to happen if you want your actual writing to feel fresh, alive, and in the moment.
I don’t know about you, but I love the fantasy of being able to show up to my computer keyboard each day, armed with my outline, and pound out pages as though I’m making widgets. And I do try to approach my work like that, in a sense. My grandfather used to say success was all about application: the application of the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair.
But setting your story down on actual script pages — ones that people will actually want to read — involves remaining present and in the moment while following the detailed plot mechanics you’ve so rationally scripted out. Your task isn’t as simple as moving your characters around a board like paper cutouts, because your characters aren’t robots. (Actually, I suppose it’s possible they are robots, if science fiction is your jam. But if your protagonist is a robot, it’s going to be a robot with a heart and a soul.)
So how do you do it? How do you breathe life and zest and the magical gift of oomph into the actual moments of your script when you, yourself, know exactly what’s about to happen next?
If you think I’m not about to relate this to performing improv, welcome to this column!
Okay, but so anyway.
Sometimes, performing an improv scene, you will walk out on stage, and you will have a clear idea of an initiation, which is the word we use to describe the first words of a scene: the leading idea or premise, or even just a vague set of words or physical movement to get the ball rolling. You’ll stride across the stage to your scene partner, and you’ll open your mouth first, and your scene partner will remain silent, and you’ll say the words you have in mind, and everything will be hunky dory.
Sometimes the opposite will happen. You’ll walk onstage, not immediately inspired with a clear initiation, but your partner will be, and you’ll keep your damn stupid mouth shut, and the other person will say the words they have in mind. And everything will be hunky dory.
But here’s what happens most often.
Both of you will have some half-formed idea of what to say, and both of you will sputter something out at the same time. Two entirely different ideas, now potentially fighting for attention.
There are different ways you can handle this, as an improviser. You can both brilliantly meld your two ideas — let the “accident” be the magic that leads to true originality. (These are often the best scenes.)
You can completely drop your idea, and wholeheartedly support your scene partner’s initiation. This is often a great way to go as well.
Or, you can allow some element of your idea to rest lightly in the back of your mind, ready to be used if it fits organically with the other person’s initiation…but let go of any specific conception you may have had, just moments before, of where you saw the scene heading.
What made you think, walking out on stage, that you were a samurai, and your scene partner was your master? Maybe it was the way he looked at you, at first glance, in a way that made you feel he was in charge. What gave you the impulse to start a scene that took place at summer camp? Maybe it was because the audience suggestion of “pizza” made you remember how much you loved the crappy pizza they served in your old summer camp’s dining hall.
Even though the other actor on stage with you spoke first, and “labeled” your scene as being about something slightly different than what you had in mind, you can still retain some element of what inspired you before either of you spoke. An impulse, an emotion, a status-related assumption, a feeling about how the world works.
As a screenwriter, the relationship you have to the words on the page, as you begin typing them out in actual script form, is not unlike that of an improvisational actor walking out on stage and meeting up with another person…one who wants to work together with you to create a phenomenal scene, but who, to a certain extent, comes bearing his own ideas.
Doesn’t it feel that way, sometimes, as you start typing? You know that the scene involves your hero going into the supermarket to buy a turkey, and meeting the woman of his dreams. (However, she also needs that last turkey. And she’ll arm wrestle him for it.) But something about the way the words are falling on the page, the path winding out in the form of sentences, can sometimes seem to pull you to another part of the supermarket. Lead you in a slightly different direction than the one you had visualized when plotting out your outline.
You don’t want to start writing a completely different story. What would have been the point of outlining it at all in the first place if you were to do that? But if you try to bully your way past the bolts of creative lightning you feel in the present moment, all you will produce are canned, frozen feeling scenes that read as though you’re phoning them in.
To some extent while you’re writing…you have to let it go.
So follow your hero to the frozen food aisle. Maybe you’ll write a character revealing moment you never would have come up with out of thin air, which you can adjust later or replicate elsewhere in your script. Or maybe you’ll discover some detail in the world of your movie that will lead you to the solution of a problem later on in your journey of writing your movie. This is what first drafts are for…and it’s what will make your script feel peppy, alive, and present.
So have your outline at your side… but when you feel the tug of inspiration, let it go. Let it go, let it go, let it go. (Okay, now I’m humming “Let it Snow.” I really should see Frozen, just so I know how that song goes.)
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
- Jeanne’s Tuesday Screenwriting Tips: Outlining a Script
- Balls of Steel: Debate and Tips for Outlining a Script