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.
We’ve all heard that hokey (but wise) bit of advice about how you shouldn’t compare your insides to someone else’s outsides. Wait, is that how that’s worded? It sounds so serial killer-y. But you know what I’m talking about. People tend to put on a brave, cool front, and peacock around, acting like everything’s going great for them, while you’re secretly thinking to yourself, “I can’t even pay my Hulu statement this month.”
For the purposes of this article, though -- and the stories you’re writing -- I want you to think about how you can purposely match your character’s insides to her outsides by externalizing your character’s internal struggle.
The classic (dumb) example I can think of is when all seems lost in a movie, or the protagonist is depressed: whaddaya know, it suddenly starts raining! The two movies that immediately spring to mind for me with that, for some reason, are The Verdict, and A Few Good Men. Apparently, whenever it rains, it means that somewhere out there, a lawyer is sad.
That can be clichéd and silly. It’s often a bit too on-the-nose. But let’s do better than simply matching the weather to the character’s mood. Let’s consider getting creative -- and surprising, and original -- by formulating a specific, external situation that perfectly matches your character’s internal struggle. This is what I often do as an improviser on stage: find some parallel in the external environment or plot details that can mirror back some reflection of my character’s internal state. It’s often used to great effect in films and TV shows, and often it’s so seamless that it’s easy to forget it was a conscious choice on the part of the writer.
I just saw a wonderful example of this, which I’ll share with you. It’s from a fun, smart sitcom you should consider watching called You’re the Worst. In the episode “Spooky Sunday Funday,” the supporting friend character Lindsay, brilliantly played by Kether Donohue (yes, her name is Kether; apparently that’s a thing) is having a personal crisis. She’s going through a divorce, and regretfully pining after her nerdy soon-to-be-ex-husband, who always took care of everything. Lindsay is a bit of a girl-child who’s never had to face up to any adult responsibilities; she doesn’t even know how to get her power turned back on after missing a payment.
The writers probably had in mind that at some point toward the end of the episode, Lindsay needed to have an epiphany. But how to show this in a way that we haven’t seen a million times before? How can we make her reach her breaking point?
Most of this episode takes place in a rather intense haunted house exhibition, with the various characters meandering about and getting the pants scared off of them. If you’ve seen Silence of the Lambs (of course you have), you remember when the senator’s daughter is trapped at the bottom of the well, as the serial killer Buffalo Bill, played unforgettably by Ted Levine, taunts her from above.
(In case you’re not familiar, here’s a LEGO-ized YouTube video of “Put the F-ing Lotion in the Basket” from Silence! The Musical.)
Well, where do we find Lindsay, but shivering at the bottom of a well inside the basement of the haunted house. (I told you this haunted house was intense.) “Hello? Hello?” she calls out. “Oh my god, where am I? Help me!!!”
“No one can help you now, Lindsay! You’re all alone!” yells a terrifying voice from above. It’s a Buffalo Bill-like character, played by actor James Pumphrey. (IMDb lists the character as “Buffalo Bob.”) He puts the hose on her, as one does.
He’s surprised, though, when instead of screaming and crying out, she simply sits down, defeated and wet.
“Um…what are you doing?” he finally says.
“What I always do,” she answers him, depressed. “Giving up.”
See what they did there?
Of course, Lindsay soon opens up to her play-acting captor. She was a shitty wife, she divulges. She’s now a shitty homeowner. She can’t even turn her power back on.
Buffalo Bob thinks for a minute, and then, half breaking character, says: “Did you try calling customer service?”
By the end of the episode, Buffalo Bob, from the top of the well, has talked Lindsay through how to deal with the power company, and given her some more general life advice. When he offers to dial the number for her, she triumphantly replies, “No. I’ll do it myself.” He sends a cell phone down to her in a bucket.
Now, the writers could have crafted an obvious, by-the-book scene of Lindsay getting upset about her electricity being shut off, and had one of the show’s other main characters give her a rousing, “You can do it!” speech. But that would have been boring. Instead, they came up with a perfect externalization of her internal struggle. What’s a situation where someone needs to show some independent spirit and moxy? What about that senator’s daughter in the well scene from Silence of the Lambs, when she has to outwit her captor?
Now, in this example, the writers have taken a pop culture reference and stuck their character inside of it. But you don’t have to do that. What you can do, more simply, is think of any external situation that mirrors your character’s psychological obstacle. Hopefully, this can be said of the basic story of your entire script in a general sense. But you can also use this technique for specific emotional, psychological turning points in your screenplay.
Have any other examples of this that you like? Have you thought of a great use of this for your own work that you’d like to share? Write in! I’d love to get a conversation going.
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.
- Read more articles by Brett Wean
- Jeanne's Screenwriting Tips: Character Evolution - Finding Your Character's WoundWound
- Improvising Screenplays: Writing Compelling but Unlikeable Characters
Download the 4 Crucial Questions for Your Protagonist to learn what is a protagonist character who can build a solid story!