In Improvising Screenplays, improvisational actor Brett Wean shares how the concepts of improvisation can be applied to the work — and play — of writing your script. Follow Brett on Twitter @brettwean.
Alright alright alright, as Matthew McConaughey says. Someone has given you notes on your script. Maybe it’s a trusted mentor. Possibly it’s a paid script consultant. Mayhaps it’s some dude from your screenwriting group you think enough of to ask for his opinion. At any rate, you’ve got a copy of your script with their scribbled notes jotted down all over; or perhaps it’s on another page, neatly typed out, organized by scene and page number.
Today’s the day you’ve set aside to go through these notes methodically, and start revising your work.
Look at all that red. It almost seems like blood. Wait: is that ink, or is it blood?!!! Did Ronny actually write his notes down in blood?? Could he have written his notes out in human blood? Would Ronny do that??!
No. Calm down. Ronny wouldn’t do that. Probably he wouldn’t. I mean, the man is an army chaplain, for god’s sakes.
Look how many pages it is, though. He sent it in an email, so when you first saw it, you weren’t thinking in terms of page length. But now that you’ve printed it out...jeez. Now that you look at it, you realize your printer’s running out of ink. It’s getting a little faint starting at around P. 40 or so.
Okay. Settle down. Breathe slowly. Out through your nose, and in through your mouth. Or is it out through your mouth and in through your...never mind. This isn’t yoga class. Let’s focus on the first note.
Oh, man. What the hell? Ronny really thinks that? Does he just not get it? How could he not...
Okay. Keep it together.
Here are some tips on how to keep your blood pressure down, and your wits about you, as you make your way through someone else’s notes on your screenplay.
1. Keep in Mind that Your Note-Giver Loves You.
You are not Batman, and this is not The Joker trying to destroy you psychologically. Whomever gave you the notes thinks enough of you, and your ability, to have taken the time to do it. Unfortunately, they may also think so much of you that they didn’t bother to frame their harsher sentiments inside of some positive thoughts. Hence the profanity, and the entire scenes crossed out with doodles of an outstretched, punk-style middle finger. Wait -- is it possible this person is a super-villain out to get you? Does he wear a lot of purple? Never mind. Chances are, if this person took the time to give you his thoughts, he thinks your project’s strengths make it worth the effort. If your writing were total crap, he probably wouldn’t even know where to begin.
2. Pretend it’s Someone Else’s Script.
This is one of the marks of a truly evolved screenwriter: the ability to turn off your natural defense mechanisms, consider someone’s thoughts, and look at your own script as though it were someone else’s. Imagine you were brought on as a highly paid script doctor, and it’s your fun job to ruthlessly, surgically remove the bad bits, and pump up the jams on the good-but-could-be-better parts. (I didn’t use the phrase “pump up the jams” properly there: I just felt like saying “pump up the jams.”) If you can do this -- revise your script like it’s someone else’s -- you’re on your way to your next epiphany, and most likely saving yourself years of staring at the same project, too emotionally invested to be able to make it better.
3. Save As.
You saved your script as a new document, right? You named it clearly? So what difference does it make what changes you make? You can always just go back to how it was before you got this idiot’s notes. Have fun with it. Gleefully pretend you’re in total agreement with the note-giver’s suggestions. Be sarcastic about it, even, if you have to. Yell the note-giver’s suggestions out loud, in your best sarcastic voice, as you embrace and enact them. “Ronny thinks I should cut this entire scene, and add in a moment in the aquarium? Sure! Delete! Here we go...Int. Aquarium - Day...” In improv, this is what we call Yes-Anding your scene partner’s idea: treating it as gold no matter how silly or stupid you may think it is. It is the only way to move forward. Maybe you’re right and Ronny was wrong. This way you can show it to him and say, “Well? What do you think now? Maybe it will pave the way forward to get to a better, more refined explanation of what Ronny thought wasn’t working. Anyway, who cares? You can always go back to your original document.
4. Take Breaks.
Look. You’re not a machine. You’ve spent a significant amount of time writing an entire screenplay, and now this Ronny schmuck -- who cares if he’s a chaplain, you’ve seen him stub his toe and curse like a sailor -- has heartlessly dissed all your best lines of dialogue and poo-pooed the moments you think are going to win you an Oscar. Give yourself a time out every so often, before you even think you need it. The impulse is to just get it all done, but going through notes can be really draining. Close your eyes. Let your mind relax. Pretend you’re a fish, serenely swimming through the ocean. Breathe in through your gills, and out through your fins. Or is it in through your fins, and out through your...look, you know what I mean, I’m not a fish scientist.
5. Reward Yourself.
Have something fun planned for after you’ve spent some time going through feedback. Calgon that bathtub. Buy yourself one of those big, phallic-looking Dove chocolate ice cream bars. Get together with your girlfriends and go out dancing. Not to meet guys. Just to dance, ya know? Sometimes ya just feel like getting out and dancing with your girlfriends! You know what I mean. I’m a guy, but all my suggestions are really girly. Don’t judge me.
Have any questions about improv, and how it relates to writing for the screen? Feel free to post comments below or send questions via Twitter. They’ll be considered for a future installment.
- More articles by Brett Wean
- Breaking & Entering: Cut Straight to the Slap
- Balls of Steel: Getting Honest Feedback
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