Improv for screenwriters – a sketch exercise that’s useful for scene work.

This is the exercise:

  1. Pick a situation that would happen in life.
  2. Identify five typical things thats would ordinarily happen in that situation.
  3. Pick an unusual thing.
  4. Apply that unusual thing to the list you generated in step 2.

Example: A lady goes to a gym to see a trainer.

Unusual thing: the trainer is the most pervy guy ever.

You want to find things that show him being pervy, but also relate to personal training. So wesk ourselves, what would a normal personal trainer do? That’s the base reality, the world of the familiar.

  1. Greet client at desk.
  2. Ask about fitness goals.
  3. Run through stretches.
  4. Cardio on Elliptical.
  5. Spot the client on weights.

Now we want to filter through the pervy trait.

  1. Greet client at desk. “What’s your sign?”
  2. Ask about fitness goals. “I think losing 7 pounds is your sweet spot. Lose that, keep the rack.”
  3. Run through stretches. I see him crawling under the client in suggestive ways.
  4. Cardio on Elliptical. He puts a porn DVD on the LCD screen.
  5. Weights. “Snatch, clean and jerk, baby. This remind you of anything?”

You can generate sketch ideas off the personal training specifics with different adjectives. Fatherly, religious, paranoid. You get the idea.

ISN’T THIS FORMULAIC?

Yeah, kind of. But it’s a general framework for a kind of sketch writing. Think of it as an exercise, simplified but illustrative of a more useful idea.

It’s only as formulaic as you make it. You could choose a more complex trait for the trainer, you could make the client a memorable character in their own right. But even at its most simplistic, this exercise drills pure creativity. Any hack can fill out a template like this. It takes a creative person to fill this out creatively, populating a tired old frame work with a surprising, understandable pattern, amazingly lifelike dialogue, beautifully rendered specifics.

HOW DOES THIS APPLY TO SCREENWRITING?

Movies will always have a premise,  a character, and a setting (world). Given that all of these will have wonderful specifics, it’s pretty easy to list what’s ordinary, than layer over what’s special and specific about your story.

World: Science fiction, ten years in the future.

  1. Greet client at desk. Maisie walks to the desk. A scanner grid covers her body, rendering her form on the hologram pad. VOICE: Hello Maisie. You have gained three pounds.”
  2. Ask about fitness goals.VOICE: It looks like you haven’t done much… cardio lately. Would you like to do more… cardio? Maisie ignores the voice as she breezes through the turnstile.
  3. Run through stretches. Maisie stretches. She puts on a VR headset. Suddenly, she sees a yogi master guiding her through her positions.
  4. Cardio on Elliptical. A zero-gravity upside-down elliptical.
  5. Weights. She straps into an electrical iron maiden. It works out all of her muscles. A 30 seconds later, she stumbles out. She looks ripped… and exhausted.

Premise: Ordinary world, Claire is a trainer who spent last night helping her best friend hide a body.

  1. Greet client at desk. Oh shit. It’s a Sheriff’s deputy.
  2. Ask about fitness goals. She asks about fitness goals. He replies, but she’s sweating badly, she can’t follow along. She’s going to get caught. She knows it.
  3. Run through stretches. As she helps him stretch out his back, her leggings ride up. She’s got dried blood around her ankles. She hides it.
  4. Cardio on Elliptical. The deputy reveals that the Sheriff is going to be checking out a storage locker that could incriminate them.
  5. Weights. She sends a secret text to her friend. “Get to that storage locker now!”

Character: Bob is a nice, Fundamentalist Christian people pleaser who’s wife left him last night.

  1. Greet client at desk. Everything is hunky dory!
  2. Ask about fitness goals. “You have to have goals. Without a plan you’re lost and alone.”
  3. Run through stretches. They talk about church. The client brags about his happy marriage. Bob pushes the client too far, hurting him.
  4. Cardio on Elliptical. Bob runs alongside the client. He pushes himself hard. Scary hard.
  5. Weights. Bob is about to bring over a plate for the bench press. He collapses, sobbing. His wife has left him and the world, once friendly and happy, seems cold. Is god really there? Everyone looks at his destruction, unnerved.

HOW DOES THIS WORK?

This comes from UCB, which is focused on “game,” which, put simply, is that which makes entertainment (UCB’s game is all comedic because it’s a comedy school. But you can use game for horror, romance, etc).

The trainer specifics are the base reality. It’s the ordinary world, the frame of reference that grounds us to the material. Even in the future example, we know how gyms work, so the future gym, while different, is relatable and subliminally illustrates truths about the world and time it exists in.

The responses to the specific are the game moves. They each form a pattern, and taken overall, they communicate one main point in a variety of interesting ways. (1. The future is different in the following ways… 2. Claire’s ordinary job is now super complicated by the premise… 3. Bob’s character traits are illustrated by watching him do what he does…)

You want to start with a base reality, something that a normal human can relate to. Then you want to heighten it with the specifics of your plot, characters and world. You can have characters react to new information, but then the scene can keep moving, setting you up to illustrate the next specific point.

BASE REALITY IS IS IMPORTANT

In a scene you can have a crazy character, a crazy world, or a crazy plot, but not all three. Something on screen has to be understandable to regular folks, otherwise we get lost and lose the ability to relate to whats on screen. But relatable gets predictable and predictable is bad. You want to provide some break from the expected because your telling a story. But make sure that you  break from the reality. More importantly, you want to find a way to get back to the reality, setting it up again so you can knock it down again.

Let’s say you’re doing a scene where the new king gets crowned, but that king is actually a nervous imposter. You might want to show as much of the coronation as possible so you can mine that characters discomfort before he inevitably gets exposed (or worse, named the ultimate dictator of the land).

If you ever get stuck in a scene, ask yourself what would typically happen in an ordinary reality or a genre. Return to expectation until you find another way to subvert expectation.

This is based on an improv training exercise by Nick Mandernach. Used with permission.

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