Applying Improv to Screenwriting

Updated: Apr 20, 2018


I’m pretty firmly in the camp of ‘everyone should take improv classes’. No matter your age, industry, or any of those things, it’s an experience that will bless you with a wealth of transferrable skills. But screenwriters especially should go out of their way to experience the magic of an improv class. The concept of improv is, essentially, acting without a script. You create a scene from nothing. There’s no structure, no ‘boundaries’. Just you, your teammates, and a stage.


And the great thing is that the principles of comedic improv can be applied to all genres. Drama, horror, you name it. So while this may not be a comprehensive list of everything I’ve learned from my classes, I hope these few tips provide at least some kind of enlightenment to the benefits of this growing art form.


ALWAYS ‘YES, AND’

The core principle of improv is ‘yes, and’. It’s the acceptance of what has come before (‘yes’), and a development of what is next (‘and’). In screenwriting parlance, this relates to that old tip of ‘every scene should push the story forward’. Everything should add something new, while being sure to not ignore, reject or contradict what came before. Every line of dialogue, every action, every response, should accept everything that came before and further it in some way. For screenwriters, this can work on two levels: scenes, and dialogue.

For scenes, we go back to that old tip: ‘every scene should push your story forward’. If you have a character taking an abandoned dog home in one scene, and then show them living alone without any trace of the dog in the next, the audience will feel betrayed, not to mention confused. You introduced a development, and then dismissed it in the very next scene. It’s just bad writing. Every scene should feed into a cause-and-effect relationship that accepts and develops the conflict:


Scene 1: The Queen buys her castle.

Scene 2: The castle is crumbling.

Scene 3: The Queen hires help to fix up the castle.

Scene 4: The Queen develops a crush on her new hire.

Scene 5: The Queen demands the hire marry her.

Scene 6: The Queen’s family are outraged.


For dialogue, it’s a slightly different thing. You don’t HAVE to follow the ‘yes, and’ rule. But we’ll come to that.


The great screenwriters, from Sorkin to Mamet, aren’t too concerned with writing ‘realistically’. More often than not, it’s just not interesting. Sorkin himself refers to dialogue as ‘music’. The great rapid-fire back-and-forth dialogue you get from movies like His Girl Friday or The Social Network, or recent shows like The West Wing or Gilmore Girls works because, like music, the characters are (mostly) playing the same notes. They’re responding to the last line in agreement, and adding something else. This is a key tip for good dialogue, and I’ll explain why!


But first, here’s an excerpt from my favorite episode of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s fast-talking Gilmore Girls that encapsulates the nature of ‘yes, and…’ dialogue:

LUKE: Why are you up so early?

LORELAI: Oh, well, you know me.

LUKE: I do, so why are you up so early?

LORELAI: I have chores.

LUKE: It's six o’clock in the morning.

LORELAI: Well, it's early morning chores.

LUKE: What's early morning chores?

LORELAI: You know, just milking cows, feeding chickens, slopping pigs.

LUKE: You have to slop pigs?

LORELAI: They're certainly not gonna slop themselves.


— Gilmore Girls, 6.13: ’Friday Night’s Alright for Fighting’                                     Written by Amy Sherman-Palladino


Obviously, the dialogue is very punchline-heavy and you’d struggle to find anyone that actually speaks like this. But here, it works. And it works because of two things: in the heightened universe of that show, it fits. We buy it as an audience. The second is that this is actually how good conversation works. Listen in to the conversations around you. Good conversations are the ones where both are actively listening and building on the last sentence with a ‘yes, and…’ or some similar acknowledgement. Bad conversations, or arguments, stem from ‘no, but…’, dismissals or just generally ignoring the other person. If your characters are fighting, or dislike one another, they’re going to have more of those ‘no, but’ kinds of conversations.


Here’s an except from that very same episode of Gilmore Girls:


LORELAI: Ugh! I can't believe what I'm hearing!

EMILY: If we'd known the extent of the issue, we might not have taken Rory in.

LORELAI: I tried to tell you!

EMILY: You did not!

LORELAI: I came here and I told you exactly what happened with Mitchum, and you didn't want to hear it.

RICHARD: I don't remember that!

EMILY: I don't either!


— Gilmore Girls, 6.13: ’Friday Night’s Alright for Fighting’                                     Written by Amy Sherman-Palladino


Almost every line here is a contradiction, even in subtext. ‘I can’t believe this!’ ‘Well, if you had told us, we wouldn’t be here!’ ‘I did tell you!’ ‘No, you didn’t!’ ‘I told you, you didn’t want to know!’ ‘I don’t remember that!’ ‘Me either!’ What we get is an amusingly dramatic scene of a family that cannot communicate. And it’s all through the magic of ‘yes, and’, or in this case, ‘no, but’.


PLAY THE GAME OF THE SCENE

The ‘game’ of the scene in improv is the pattern of interaction between two or more characters. It’s the interplay between those characters, specifically their wants and needs. It’s essentially about establishing a base reality, finding a pattern (stemming from the scene’s first unusual thing, or ‘inciting incident’), and heightening it (exploring) for the remainder of the scene. Simply put, the ‘game’ is the concept of the scene, the act, the screenplay. Every piece of well-written narrative has a game. Here, we’ll look at the ‘Screenplay Game’ and the ‘Scene Game’.


The Hangover has one of the greatest ‘games’ in its premise: ‘trying to remember the night before’. The screenplay heightens that concept with every page, every set piece, every sequence. Everything relates to that forgotten night and the efforts to recall the details of where their friend could have gone.


The key question of improv is: ‘If this is true, what else is true?’ In The Hangover, that question is answered in just about every single scene — as hilarious, insane things just continue to happen.


The Hangover — Screenplay Game

BASE REALITY: A guy is getting married, and his friends are planning the ultimate bachelor party in Vegas.

FIRST UNUSUAL THING: The guy’s gone missing; and his friends don’t remember a thing.

THE GAME: Trying to remember the night before.

HEIGHTENING: Doug is gone; Stu’s lost a tooth; there’s a tiger that belongs to Mike Tyson; they have a baby for some reason; their car is now a police car; Stu has married a stripper; etc.


The opening scene of Scream is incredible for many reasons. But the game at the core of the scene is chillingly well done, and a perfect example of how these tips can be extrapolated to other genres. The core concept of the scene is a young girl being menaced by unwanted phone calls. Like The Hangover, the scene is entirely focused on heightening that particular concept. The phone calls become more personal (“what are your favourite movies?”), more intense (“Listen to me, you little bitch!”), and more physical (culminating with the death of our heroine). In this example, the game is scary, rather than funny. But it’s still a game.


Scream — Scene Game

BASE REALITY: A young girl prepares popcorn at home to watch a movie with her boyfriend.

FIRST UNUSUAL THING: A strange phone call by a sinister-voiced man.

THE GAME: A series of increasingly menacing phone calls.

HEIGHTENING: A wrong number comes through; the guy calls back to apologize; the guy calls to talk about movies; the guy reveals he’s looking at her; the guy gets violent on the phone; the doorbell rings; the caller has her boyfriend tied up; etc.


PLAY TO THE TOP OF YOUR INTELLIGENCE

‘Playing to the top of your intelligence’ simply means playing the scene as you would in reality. Audiences suspend their disbelief all the time, but some things just feel wrong. We’ve all seen movies where the characters have acted in a way that just does not make sense. Look at horror movies — if a character goes to investigate a weird noise after their friends have been murdered, we unanimously go ‘Why?!’ An intelligent person would hide, call the cops and hope that the tub of Ben & Jerry’s you were planning to binge eat while watching Steel Magnolias isn’t going to completely melt.


Imagine a scene in which a homeless man finds a $10 note on the floor. He looks at it, picks it up, and then gives it to some passing guy. The audience unanimously goes ‘What?!’ Unless it’s been established that our homeless guy doesn’t accept help from others, it makes no sense. Every homeless person would take that money if there were no consequences. It’s unrealistic to even consider otherwise. It’s not real. It’s not playing to the top of your character’s intelligence.


This goes back to what I said about Now You See Me a while back. [Spoilers ahead for the “ending” of that “movie”] The absurd twist does not work for many reasons, but no less than the fact that Mark Ruffalo’s character doesn’t play to the top of his intelligence at all. There’s a whole sequence where we see him chasing the suspect on his own and ending up in a bathroom stall screaming how he’s ‘chasing myself’, the big twist later being that the culprit was him all along. So why did he go to the effort of running on his own, and why did he insist on shouting that out? Nobody of note was in there, nobody’s going to question where he went. It’s there to trick the audience, but it just makes no sense from a narrative standpoint. It’s playing to the bottom of his intelligence.


SAY YES

I truly believe improv has benefits that could help everyone. It takes you out of your head, makes you listen to others, gives you more confidence. But for screenwriters, especially, it’s a creative rush and a learning experience like no other. Getting to work with others to build a story out of nothing, to craft scenes and dialogue that works in the moment without stopping to think about anything else but the present moment, that is storytelling in its purest form.

Everything in your screenplay should be designed to move forward — scenes, dialogue, acts. Everything should be pushing forward. And the only way to move forward is to accept and develop, to say yes and add something.

Yes, and…

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