Improv for screenwriters: Color/Advance

Purpose
The exercise underscores the fact that plot in and of itself isn’t entertaining. Plot is simply the structure that allows a writer to deliver detail. A lot of screenwriters get so excited in the telling of the story that they forget to make that story entertaining to the audience. This improv exercise shows how judicious use of detail can spice up an otherwise dull recitation of incident.

The exercise
Two improvisers face each other. One is the storyteller, one is the listener. The listenergives a suggestion, anything at all. The story teller begins telling a story. The listener listens, but can give the storyteller two commands:

1) (more) COLOR
2) ADVANCE (the plot)

Exercise continues for three minutes. Then the improvisers switch roles.

Example:

LISTENER: Your suggestions is “shots”

STORYTELLER: So last Monday, I go to my local bar and I really want to–

LISTENER: More color on the bar.

STORYTELLER: The bar is called O’Hurley’s and it’s a real dive. It always smells like stale whiskey. It’s got a quarter jukebox, but that’s always broken. The owner’s name is Dave, and he’s really cheap–

LISTENER: More color on Dave.

STORYTELLER: Dave is a character, man. He fought in Gulf War one and he has a limp.  I think he saw some serious stuff, but he never talks about the old days. He’s really buff, but he has a pot belly.  He’s got a tattoo of a sailor–

LISTENER: Advance!

STORYTELLER: So I go into the bar, and Dave smiles at me, I’m the only customer. He asks me if I want to buy a rabbit. Turns out that he found some orphaned baby bunnies at his place.

LISTENER: Color!

STORYTELLER: Dave lives in an Airstream trailer in the Lancaster desert. He
wakes up one morning and sees a coyote run off, muzzle covered in blood. He goes to where it was, sees a dead mother rabbit, and one little baby, hiding by a scrub brush. Tiny thing.

LISTENER: Advance!

STORYTELLER: So he shows me the rabbit. He has it in a shoebox. I ask, “Why are you selling a rabbit? He says, someone’s gonna buy it.”  Now, I’ve fostered animals before, so I know it’s a lot of work. I say, I’ll give you five bucks if you let me  take it to the shelter in Encino. He says, sure–

LISTENER: Advance.

STORYTELLER: So I’m on the bus with the bunny in a shoebox. It’s got airholes poked in it, he’s poking his little bunny nose out of it. This amazingly hot woman sits down next to me, strikes up a conversation.

LISTENER: Color!

STORYTELLER: She’s real hot.

LISTENER: More color!

STORYTELLER: Like if Arianna Grande was 30 and a Suicide Girl.

LISTENER: Advance.

STORYTELLER: Long story short, we had sex.

VARIATIONS

  • Even if you can’t find someone willing to improvise the story, you can often ask someone to serve as a listener for a couple go-rounds. It’s good practice, and a way for your friends to get revenge on you for inflicting your early drafts on them.
  • You can make the “story” more specific. It could be a personal account, a fairytale, a scene from a genre movie… anything. The more specific you make this, the more challenging and useful this becomes.
  • The listener  can get creative. They can ask for more color on anything, until you’re describing the star whose explosion birthed the atoms that make up the water that beads on the upper lip of the bartender’s mouth. They can ask for backstory, flashbacks, or a cut to an alternate universe where everything is opposite. This is less directly useful for the purpose of learning how to color in a tale, but a good challenge.
STRAY THOUGHTS

Writers sometimes forget that the audience can’t read minds.. Just because a writer sees something doesn’t mean he’s going to convey it to the audience. I once read an entire script that took place in a hotel where the writer never bothered to describe the hotel.

Sometimes we get so caught up in outlining a plot, fixing story logic, or laying exposition to explain how the main plot device works that we forget to ask ourselves why a reader might find the idea fun.  At the end of the day you want enough color so that everything, even the most egregious exposition, is passably amusing to read.

Writers sometimes write gingerly, spending all their time setting up, and then writing like they’re scared to be specific once they get to the good part. Don’t spend 10 pages setting up a chase, only to resolve it in a paragraph. Find the moments in it, let it breathe, and show how it directly effects the protagonist. Your writing will be richer for it.
* Note: I’m not sure where this came from or who invented it. It wasn’t me. If anyone knows, let me know and I’ll be sure to credit the originator.
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