Exercise: Write one thing well (Improv for Screenwriters)

THE EXERCISE

  1. Start with a random noun. It should be a tangible, common thing like mug, clock, sword. Courage is too abstract, postitronic laser metric is too esoteric. This is a good resource if you work alone.
  2. Write a normal statement about this thing. For instance, a mug: it’s a cheap ceramic mug from Crate and Barrel.
  3. Write another normal statement about this thing. For instance, it’s full of lukewarm coffee.
  4. Write an unusual thing about this thing. For instance, the porcelain is splashed with a spray of dried blood.

Blood spray is cliché as hell, but use it if you can’t think of anything else. It’s the most useful, because it gives you an instant lead-in to a scene. Who’s blood is on it and how was it shed?

EXAMPLES

The unusual thing doesn’t necessarily need to be big. For instance a client once pitched me a clock.

It’s digital. It’s made in Taiwan. It was inherited from my aunt.

That’s not a big choice, but it’s big enough. It reminds me of Rope. If she inherited it, she doesn’t know much about it.

Maybe something’s inside. Maybe one day, two big scary guys in Armani trench coats come and gruffly offer $500 for the clock. Maybe she closes the door in a huff, but the guys don’t leave. Maybe she calls the police, goes to open the clock and finds…

Now you have another item to describe.

APPLICATIONS

This drill develops imagination and improv sklls.

This drill helps you compose de facto shots. If Chuck is at a table drinking coffee, the cup need not be described. But if we spend an action line saying three things about the clock, it’s probably going to be a discreet shot, which you’re implying, not telling.

Beginners often struggle to write scripts because they can’t write acts because they can’t write sequences because they can’t write scenes, because they can’t write shots. This exercise gives you an instant shot, and it’s much easier to build from something than nothing.

This exercise gives you an automatic opening image. Rather than blurt a bunch of information about Grace, her shitty apartment, her mannerisms, and her beloved cat (as well as indicating the clock unsubtlely in the background), you can start with:

EXT. GRACE'S APARTMENT – NIGHT

The aging digital clock flips from 8:59 to 9:00 PM. It's cheap plastic, meant to look nice. It rests on a thrifted Ikea nightstand.

GRACE (20's) drops her mail by the clock, and curses when she notes the hour. She picks up her orange cat as she kicks off her shoes. She goes into her tiny, messy kitchen and holds the cat with one hand while grabbing a can of cat food with the other.

Someone knocks on the door... hard.

And you’re off to the races.

BACKGROUND I’ve often wrote about improv and how it helps in screenwriting. A surprising number of my clients have a hard time with this. They’re not comfortable with improv, so they shut down, refusing to give ideas in the moment. That’s a natural reaction, but it’s not a helpful one, especially for writers who’s efforts aren’t producing the results they want (and let’s face it, whose are?).

Improv isn’t about coming up with the perfect idea every time, it’s about freeing yourself to have lots of ideas. The better you are at generating, the more likely you are to have a great idea when you need it. Plus, improv is easy. Once you get over the fear, anyone can improv. If you don’t believe me, go to an amateur night. Yikes.

Improv is the ability to pull ideas from your imagination quickly and usefully. Given that you already know you’re imaginative, you should be better at it than the average improv, kid not worse. If it’s hard for you, it’s you judging yourself. Relevant Ira Glass quote.

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