When you get a logic note, don’t fight it. Have a character ask the question and answer it (or Justification)

A big part of writing is justification: anticipating common sense logic notes, asking them yourself in the script, and creating a plausible explanation

This maintains willing suspension of disbelief, and creates specifics of character that ends up paying off later. When people don’t get things, they’re not flawed or bad, they’re “calling out” a logical issue that you might have overlooked.

  • Why did he give up the gun?
  • Why did she go back to him?
  • Why would the town turn on the kids after they saved it?

Improv made me realize the best way to do this was to take the executive’s question, put it in a character’s mouth, and then give the defense I would give in the room. It always works. Sometimes we get non justifications (lampshade hanging), sometimes the justifications are lousy, but scripts get credit for anticipating the question that the audience was about to have.

  • Why did the hero give up the gun? Because he can’t bring himself to kill a fellow cop (I should probably seed that through act 1 and 2).
  • Why did she go back to him? Because of the fucking awesome “I’m sorry” speech I’m about to write for the abusive husband (you wouldn’t want to go with ’cause she’s dumb,’ which might cause the audience to detach from the character completely).
  • Why would a man marry a dolphin? Because they echo locate and thus are good listeners.

The really hard part is anticipating the common sense, zeitgeist, politics, and quirks of the average audience. Some people are really open and judging any idea as flawed or false is hard for them. Some people lack empathy and think every thinks like them. Some people spend pages justifying obvious things, like why a mother would run into a building to save her kids.

That’s why outside feedback is great. When people have notes, most of the time they’re reacting to a moment where the logic didn’t scan. Calling out and justifying is a powerful tool, you get better at it just by having a term for it, and you get good at it by putting it into practice.

Improv for screenwriters – Yes And

Improv for screenwriters – Yes-And

The basic rule of improv is “yes and.” If someone offers information, you say “Yes…” and then add some information.

For instance:

A: “Did you hear about the logger?”

B: “Yes and it’s crazy that he went mad and killed those 16 people in that diner.”

A: “Yes, and I was lucky to escape.”

B: “Yes and I’m sorry you lost your leg… and your football scholarship.”

A: “Yes, and now I work in the mines”

B: “Yes, and you always remind us about the logger. It made national news. We all know.”

A: And scene.

You can use yes/and to accomplish any scene you want, just cut out the “yes/ands”

There are nuances to this, but this is something a screenwriter ought to know how to do, especially if they have trouble with scenes.. The better you are at improv, the better your yes and’s will be. I’m sure someone will chime in with exceptions to the rule, and you’ll get to see me wildly try to bend over backwards to justify how this generally helpful simplification is still applicable.

I tried this on reddit. /u/whoizz [2] was brave enough to play along with me, and we generated this scene[3] .

As scenes go, it’s not the best. It’s shaky and expository. But it’s actually more coherent than a lot of beginner scenes because it’s got a clear intent, and every line agrees with each other.

Improv doesn’t necessarily create “finished” scenes, but it helps to create the understanding, character empathy, and immediacy you’ll need to finish a scene.

Here’s the same scene only more polished. Yes and-ing creates the understanding that you need before you can apply more advanced technique.

https://www.scribd.com/doc/270237525/Witch-Haven

If you want to test me on this, offer up any line of dialogue you want in the comments section, and I’ll yes and a scene with you. I’ll reply “Yes and ____” and you do the same after, and we’ll continue until one of us calls “scene.”

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.

Emotional grounding in world building via “the orienting effect”

The following is the work of Alex Berg, excerpted from this blog. He talks about using emotions to ground, frame and orient a reader in insane fictional worlds. I think every writer should read this one.

“The example I’ve been using for years to demonstrate the benefits of emotional heightening is a fictional scene titled “The Land of the Weird Dragons.” In this scene, let us suppose that we had a dragon who breathes penises instead of fire. One can easily imagine making a move to heighten the game of this scene by introducing a dragon that breathes vaginas instead of fire. However, this is a lateral move, in that a dragon that breathes penises instead of fire is neither more or less absurd than a dragon that breathes vaginas instead of fire. The absurdity has reached a saturation point…”

…Let us now imagine that there’s a dragonslayer, set out to fight these weird dragons. We can now judge whether or not one of these dragons is a weirder, more heightened dragon based on the strength of his emotional response. If he responds to the penis dragon with “Oh dear… a penis dragon,” and the vagina dragon with “WHAT?!? A vagina dragon?” then we can say that the vagina dragon is indeed weirder. However, if he responds to the vagina dragon with “Oh no… vagina dragon!” and the penis dragon with “EGADS!!! What madness is this penis dragon?!?” then we know that the penis dragon is weirder. But note that we haven’t changed anything about either dragon, the stimuli in this example have remained stable. We’ve simply introduced a trustworthy emotional proxy for the audience, and we’re evaluating the intensity of his emotional response.

That the intensity of an emotional response is positively correlated to how unusual a stimulus is well documented in psychology, and is called the Orienting Response. Here’s a quick quote from our modern day Lighthouse of Alexandria, Wikipedia:

The orienting response is a reaction to novel or significant stimuli. In the 1950s the orienting response was studied systematically by the Russian scientist Evgeny Sokolov, who documented the phenomenon called “habituation”, referring to a gradual “familiarity effect” and reduction of the orienting response with repeated stimulus presentations.

Really, just read the blog in its entirety.

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)

NOTES:

(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.

FINAL THOUGHTS

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.

Improv for screenwriters – Beyond Yes/And

“You have to keep the differences between improv and dramatic writing in mind. Improv is about agreeing and moving forward as a team. “Yes, and…” or at the most, “yes, but…” Drama is about conflict. In drama, you need to hear “no” more than “yes”.” Quote from a WGA writer that sums up the most common misconception about improv.

If people know anything about improv rules, they know the most famous one. “Yes/and.”

People tend to take this really literally. I think they picture scenes like this:

GUY: We’re at the beach. GIRL: Yes and we’re married. GUY: Yes, and I’m an alien. GIRL: Yes, and I’m a tiger. GUY: Yes and the beach is in a snowglobe. GIRL: Yes and the snowglobe is in 1965. GUY: Yes, and I support the Vietnam war. GIRL: Yes and I hate all war. GUY: Yes and…

That’s an example of bad improv, or at least a kind of improv that’s not helpful for for writers. The scene quickly went to “crazytown,” a world with no relationship to actual reality. UCB likes to say “blue doesn’t show up on blue.” What that means is, a crazy character tends to show up better in a recognizable world. A clown with two heads would be worthy of comment in real life, in the previous scene, he might end up being the most normal thing up there.

The reason the rule exists in the first place is because beginner scenes tend to go like this:

GUY: We’re at the beach. GIRL: Yes, and I hate the beach. GUY: We’re married. GIRL: You’re crazy! No we’re not! You just say that all the time. GUY: Your brother paid me to. GIRL: I don’t have a brother. GUY: And we’re not even at the beach, this is a hologram in Charles Xavier’s danger room! GIRL: I don’t get that reference!

By making the guy crazy, the girl has conditioned the audience to distrust everything that’s said in the scene. Given that there’s literally nothing onstage save for what the performers say is there, losing the audience’s faith/willing suspension of disbelief is a big fucking problem.

The agreement happens in the first few lines of the scene. This is what UCB calls the base reality of the scene. In screenwriting terms, this is Act One. Ideally, we’ll have a sense of who the characters are, were they are, what they’re doing, and what their relationship is to each other.

They continue to yes and until something unusual happens. UCB calls this “the first unusual thing,” which is improv’s version of the inciting incident.

You don’t want to yes and past this point. If a guy claimed to be an alien in real life, his wife wouldn’t say “Oh, that’s nice dear.” Not if she was really listening. So agreeing with this crazy idea is actually a form of denial – she was established as a “normal” wife, and now she’s not behaving as such. The only thing worse would be if she said, “I’ve always known. Also, there’s a gateway to hell in our basement.”

Realistically, she’d say, “No you’re not,” or “That’s not a funny joke, Thomas…” or “Yeah right, my husband the freakin’ alien. Hand me that towel before you phone home, you knucklehead.” Eventually she’d say something like, “If you’re an alien, prove it.”

This is the first sticking point a lot of improvisors hit – they understand yes/and, but they don’t understand how a realistic “no” can also be a yes/and. This is a bit of fancy semantic trickery. More on that later.

So let’s restart our hypothetical scene:

GUY: We’re a the beach. GIRL: This is a great honeymoon! GUY: I’m going to put on some sunscreen.

So let’s say the guy puts on “sunscreen” (there’s nothing there, but he’s miming, using “spacework.”, Let’s say he’s a lousy pantomimer, so he squeezes and squeezes and squeezes to the point that it’s obvious that he’d have used the entire bottle.

GIRL: You use a lot of freakin’ sunscreen!

This is called a “frame” or a “call out.” The guy didn’t know he was doing something funny, but the audience saw it. The girl is saying what they’re all subconsciously thinking, so they laugh.

Here’s where beginners get lazy or greedy. They recognize that using the sunscreen got a laugh, so they’ll keep doing it. This might get a second laugh, but it’ll quickly yield diminishing returns.

A more clever improviser might try to mix it up.

GUY: Yeah, I use too much of stuff. Watch me eat too much cake. Now I’m going to kiss you too much. Now I’m going to go swimming, I might go too far out there!

This may work for a bit, but similarly, it’ll yield diminishing returns.

This is because a simple pattern quickly becomes predictable and the audience doesn’t want to see people doing shit they could have thought of themselves. You need an underlying theory or justification for that–

And this is already getting complicated. I’ll go into more on this in part two, GAME.

NOTES

This is written with a strong UCB bias, because that’s the school where I trained. I’m afraid we’re all going to have to live with that.

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.