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.
I’m lucky enough to be in what I think is one of the world’s great screenwriting groups. We meet weekly, read each other’s work out loud, and offer notes. There’s alcohol. There are snacks. It happens to be a phenomenally talented group of people, and we have fun.
I want to highlight one element I just mentioned, because it can be so helpful...and because I imagine the majority of budding writers out there aren’t doing it.
Having your work read aloud.
Nothing brings out the rhythms, the characters, the pacing of a piece of screenwriting in the same way as having it acted out. You don’t need to have professional actors, and it doesn’t need to be read perfectly. But having your work read aloud will make you conscious of what works, and what doesn’t, in a way that silent reflection can’t hold a candle to. You end up feeling the work, rather than studying it.
That said, a casual script reading by even the world’s greatest writing group offers its own variety of aggravations and challenges. Will they read it correctly? Will they get the characters right? Will the group accurately capture the humor...the tone...the excitement...the melodrama...the romance...the suspense...the horror...? Etc. (And calm down.)
Here is some practical advice -- based on experience in numerous writing groups and classes -- from someone who’s been through it, experienced the benefits, and is ready to whine about the annoyances! Let the games begin!
Any writer’s group should be fueled by a (moderate) level of alcohol -- unless you’re recovering alcoholics (duh!) -- in which case, substitute with whatever food, candy, or beverages will get everyone in a good, fun mood. Generally, between what people show up with and what might be left over from previous weeks, we’ve got some wine, beer, and occasionally something harder on hand. But rock it out with a little Canfield’s Diet Chocolate Cherry soda or Orangina, why don’tcha? (And pass those gummy bears. You want me to send these cookies down to you? Snacks -- both sweet and savory -- are equally important.)
PITCH AND TONE
If it’s the first time you’re sharing a particular project, or if someone new is sitting in, it’s vital that you be able to quickly convey what your film is about, and what tone in which to read it. This will naturally force you to perfect your log line. You’ll also be strengthening your pitching muscles as you attempt to quickly convey the mood of your piece, in terms of how you’d like it read. It’s a science fiction comedy, but realistic, and not campy? Great. It sounds like they’ve got it. But remember...
You will completely take the wind out of everyone’s sails -- and kind of make them hate you -- if you give an enormous amount of notes before they’ve even started. (This has to be fun, after all! Even if it’s a serious script, people need to be relaxed enough to enjoy your piece.) DO NOT stop and start the reading, telling people, “No, no, no, you’re doing it wrong!” Maybe if it’s literally the first line and you feel like you’re able to do it in a light, funny way. But you do not want a room full of aggravated, increasingly passive-aggressive people giving you feedback. Remember: this experience will be helpful even if your script isn’t read perfectly. Chill out, baby. Have some Canfield’s. (With a slug of whiskey in it.)
Be sure to make the character descriptions as bulletproof as possible. If anything, an agent or a studio executive reading your work is going to give it less time to let it sink in than someone in your writer’s group. So you had better nail down your initial character descriptions as vividly and succinctly as possible. Figure the person reading your script is a dummy -- so communicate as simply and clearly as possible, both on the page, and as an aside to your reader as you hand them their copy of the script. “He’s like Sylvester Stallone, but 16 years old,” you might say. Got it.
Here’s where we get into one of the deep lessons. Your character description can be clear as day...but if that characterization doesn’t ring true in the dialogue, there’s going to be confusion. Every line should sound like it’s coming from the character you’re trying to write. If it doesn’t, you’re going to hear it during the reading. (And that’s helpful.)
CAST AHEAD OF TIME
Don’t waste the group’s time trying to think on your feet about who would be good to read each part. Have a little cheat-sheet. If possible, know in advance who’s showing up, and consider who should play each part if your first choice doesn’t make it. Get to know who’s good only at playing British people and Californians, and who can do a solid job no matter what you hand them. (Also consider who will take it personally if you don’t cast them!)
Now let’s look around the room and see who we typically might be dealing with.
Here are some typical “characters” you may encounter as you and your group read each other’s work aloud. If you have any suggestions for how to combat these behaviors without seeming like an over-controlling jerk, I would love to hear them:
The Over the Top Actor-- This guy over-emotes like he’s Snidely Whiplash no matter what you indicate to him beforehand. “Play it real.” “Maybe pull it in a little?” “Try and speak the way you would normally speak in real life.” They won’t hear any of these suggestions. However! The beauty of this person is that their over-the-top acting makes it immediately clear what kind of character you’ve written. And that’s good enough.
The Low-Talker -- What is this, a Seinfeld episode? Raise your voice, dude! No one can hear you on the other side of the table!
The Word-Adder -- This person feels it appropriate to add “naturalism” to their part by adding tons of, “Ums,” “Likes,” and, “Y’knows” to the -- y’know -- dialogue you’ve actually written. There is no way to address this without seeming like a jerk. (Again, if you have a suggestion, please comment below!)
The Person Who Doesn’t Realize It’s His !$!%$!! Line and Has to be Prompted Every Time His Character Pops Up -- Maybe try a cattle-prod?
The Dummy -- The guy who’s actually a classically trained actor (and potentially quite good after a rehearsal), but is genuinely too stupid to understand the lines as he’s reading them the first time, thus putting weird emphasis on words, turning questions into sentences, etc. (Two years from now, this person will be starring in the Mission Impossible reboot.)
GIVE ‘EM THE BUSINESS
Don’t forget to consider who’s reading the “stage directions,” or “business.” This is arguably the most important part, since it affects pace, conveys what’s happening on the screen, and keeps the reading trucking along. Not everyone is good at it. Try and pick someone with a clear voice and good energy. If you happen to know Morgan Freeman, Garrison Keillor, or James Earl Jones, invite him to your group.
If it’s running late in the evening, consider having the readers stand. It immediately makes the reading feel more like a presentation, and releases those post gummy bear, 11 o’clock endorphins.
AND REMEMBER...IT DOESN’T MATTER
Finally, it doesn’t matter if your piece is read perfectly. It really doesn’t. You’re still going to get amazing, viscerally-based feedback on what moments lagged, how people felt about your characters, which elements were confusing. If there’s any sort of consensus, you know there’s something you need to address. And if the group gets the wrong idea about one of the characters based on the fact that someone read his part more like a nerd than a cocky young Bill Murray type, now is the time to -- gently, nicely, breezily -- make the distinction.
I’d love to hear thought about people’s experiences, and other “character types” they’ve encountered in their writing groups! Please comment below, and follow me on Twitter!
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.
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