There’s a longstanding rule — guideline, really — that improvisational actors use to help them create scenes together on stage: whenever they feel themselves about to ask a question… they make a statement instead. Why? Because asking a question puts the pressure on their scene partner to provide answers and create information.
Instead, improvisers use the classic improv tenet of “Yes, And” — supporting the other person’s impulses, AND adding to them.
“I’m really glad you came to work with me in the shoe store, Ricky.”
“I am, too, Doug.” [YES.] “And I’m noticing women paying more attention to me now that I work in retail.” [AND.]
The actors build the scene together through Yes-Anding… and they can’t Yes-And while asking questions.
Now, I promise I’m not going to make the argument that you should remove all questions from your dialogue. That would be ludicrous. People ask questions in real life. Plus, there are some classic movie questions we all know and love:
“You talkin’ to me?” (Taxi Driver)
“What’s in the box?” (Seven)
“Shall we play a game?” (Wargames)
And my personal favorite:
“Is it safe?” (Marathon Man)
Questions can stay in your final draft. You want your dialogue to feel natural, after all, and we don’t make statements all the time. But I will suggest an exercise that will help you cut to the meat of your scenes, and turbo-charge the pace of your story.
Think about — and perhaps take a look at — your dialogue. Are your characters asking a lot of questions? “What am I supposed to do now?” “How did things go at the bowling alley?” “Who do I talk to about getting a Fun-Pass?”
Maybe your protagonist is asking his mentor what his next step should be. Maybe your ‘best friend’ character is asking the hero to fill him in on what already happened in a previous moment, or occurred off-screen. Maybe you have a lot of “Hey, how’s it goin’?” small-talk dialogue you could probably leave out.
When you’re revising your script, try turning your character’s questions into statements. For example:
Make assumptions. When improvisers are on stage, and they find themselves about to ask question, they are trained — and this takes a lot of practice — to adapt the question into a statement. If they’re about to say, “Why are you bothering me, Joannie?!” they instead turn that question into a statement, and force themselves to answer their own question. “Joannie, I assume you’re bothering me while I’m trying to study because you want to get a higher score on the math test than me.”
The constant challenge in screenwriting is to keep things trim, and save space for your page count. Think about all the extra space questions add.
“Why’d you come back??!”
“There are guards waiting out back!!!”
“What are we gonna do??! ”
“Let’s go around the other way!”
Instead, try leaving out the questions…or at least making sure the questions you do have actually provide information within them:
“Guards out back?”
“Let’s go around the other way!”
It’s possible that by pushing your characters to make natural assumptions — and ask fewer questions — you’ll significantly trim down your page length. You’ll also subtly make your scenes feel like they’re moving faster, and avoid letting the audience feel like they’re two steps ahead of you.
You also don’t want to have your characters explaining actions we should be seeing…or repeating information we already know. (Both the consequence of questions.) When you’re looking over your script, let the questions that are there serve as bookmarks for you to watch out for these tendencies.
Once improvisers get the hang of not asking questions — after hours of stage time and practice — they learn that they can ask questions that add information, rather than just begging for it. “Are you bothering me because you want to keep me from studying for the math test?” Of course, by then, they’ve trained themselves to speak in statements and ask fewer questions, anyway.
See what you can do with this concept by applying it to your writing. Are you helping your scenes move along faster? Are you making your characters seem smarter and less passive? Are you cutting down your page length?
Sorry — I’ll stop asking so many questions.
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.
Karl Iglesias gives advice on writing dialogue in
‘Writing Great Dialogue’ Video Download!