Improv for screenwriters – Mapping improv concepts onto three act structure

Screenwriting Example UCB Example
Opening image The sun rises over a skyscraper in Century City, CA. Initiation “Dad, thanks for taking me to your office!”
Ordinary World We meet shy Tom, a guy at an ad agency who wants to move up. Base Reality We establish that we’re watching a father show his 10-year-old son around the ad agency where he works.
Inciting Incident Tom discovers a genie bottle that contains Grooves, a hippie genie from the 60’s. First Unusual Thing The son says, “Wow, dad, I can’t wait to work here. Your secretary has huge tits!” This is a break from how we’d expect the 10-year-old to react
Refusing the Call/Debate We know from the trailer that this is going to be a buddy movie between Tom and the Genie. But first Tom’s got to realize that Grooves really is a genie, get to know him, and establish their dynamic. Do they get along? Why is Grooves in a bottle? What are the limits on his powers? We need to know all this before the story can start rolling. Calling it out/Justify/ Philosophy/ Frame The boring version of this scene has the son repetitively sexually harassing people. To get a more sustainable “game” we need a an underlying reason for this. Let’s say the son does everything his dad does at home. (1)
Threshold This is the point of no return, generally spurred by a character choice. In this ridiculous genie example, Tom might swear to his boss that he can quintuple sales… an impossible task, but doable with Grooves’ limited, comedically specific genie powers. Here, the writer is implicitly promising that he can make this idea entertaining and watchable for the 45-60 pages that the second act is going to run. Good luck with that! Locking the Game Son: This is your boss? He doesn’t look like a jackass to me, but I guess you’d know, pop. (2)
Second Act: Premise explored So we’ve got a genie in a PG-13 comedy helping a shy guy get mojo. We’d want to see him using his funny powers in the reality of Tom’s world. We might see Tom at a pitch, with the genie literalizing everything Tom says. We might see Tom sweeping the office beauty off her feet on a magical evening. We might see a fight between Tom and Grooves, but Grooves magically can’t hurt Tom and Tom can’t punch for crap. Ideally, your script is better than this one. (3) Playing the game of the scene The son is going to embarrass the dad with table talk from home: He might diss the boss, mention the time a closeted coworker hit on his dad, talk about how much mommy humiliates daddy at home, reveal that the dad is thinking of defecting to another company, etc. He might pee sitting down as dad does at home because of a bent urethrea. He might darkly quote Glen Beck, the way his father mutters when he’s at home and his friendly mask slips. You get the idea. (4)


(1) Other options: A) The son repeats dad’s behavior at home. b) The son only knows about offices from letters to Penthouse. c) The son believes that everyone should be honest. d) The son doesn’t want his dad to know he’s gay.

(2) I pitched four options in the previous step. Each is a different rationale for the unusual behavior. Each, if selected, would give birth to a different pattern. If A) The son might then bad mouth the boss to his face, like daddy does at home. If B) The son might describe the office, his dad, and the scenario in the breathless, cheesy style of a Penthouse letter. If C) “Just being honest. You’re a very pretty lady, but you’d be prettier if you wore less makup. If D) Yeah, softball. I wish I could play on that. Sports with guys. I mean, the sports are what I like. Not the guys. I’m totes hetero!

(3) The point is, we want to explore this idea to the hilt. We want to see every aspect of the high concept explored hilariously, so by the time the third act comes along it’s almost a disappointment that the fun times are over.

(4) You can’t just hit jokes (or game moves) though. It yields diminishing returns. If the kid tells the secretary she has a nice rack, most of the humor is going to come from the secretary and the father’s honest emotional reaction to that. Once that is explored and dealt with, we can go onto the next joke/game move.

Occasionally, we’re going to want to rest the game, in that case we go back to the base reality. “Son, for god’s sake, shut up. He’s 20 dollars, go nuts at the vending machine.” The son will head off, the dad will go back to doing normal office things, and the game moves will restart at a time and from an angle the audience doesn’t see coming.


Screenwriters might be wondering where’s midpoint? Where’s the third act? Scenes tend not to have either of these. Most scenes have a minimal “first act” and are mostly “second act.”

Like screenwriting, the setup in improv takes far less time than the action main part (the second act). Like screenwriting, there’s a lot of terms and milestones for the first and and few for the second act. Not sure why that is, but it is.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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