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.
Let’s talk about Joseph Campbell for a minute. Old. Dead, actually. (RIP.) Cute New England accent. Probably lusted after by many a female student for being super cool and smart. Expert on mythology. Namely, the promulgator of the idea that all the world’s myths and folklore share the same basic themes and structure. (Actually, that was probably Sir James George Frazer, who wrote The Golden Bough. But Campbell popularized the idea with his own book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Have you never heard of Joseph Campbell? Congratulations! Welcome to your first screenwriting how-to article! Just kidding. Sort of. Many a screenwriting guru has used Joseph Campbell’s idea of “the hero’s journey” as a template for story structure. Young protagonist leaves his familiar surroundings, goes on a quest, meets up with a wise trickster character who sort of helps him, or maybe tries to trick him (duh), maybe a little of both, faces down an enemy, becomes an adult, returns home, yadda yadda yadda. (Or Yoda Yoda Yoda, if we’re talking Star Wars, which these articles often are.)
It’s good to be familiar with the tropes of the Campbellian Hero’s Journey, because it will more than likely come into play with your script, and may very well help you figure out your plot. One of my teachers once referenced a specific element of the HJ (as I’ll call it) -- the Refusal of the Call, in which the hero initially tries to turn away from the adventure -- insisting that it is present in every...single...script. That was kind of stupid, because it’s not in every single script. But it happens in many, many scripts... so it wasn’t that stupid of a comment.
So why should you consider supplying your main character with a scene -- probably near the end of Act One -- in which he goes through this moment of hesitancy? Good question, silent reader! As my 7th grade Latin teacher used to exclaim after demanding that one of us ask him a very specific question: “I’m glad you asked that!” (Funny, but I still can’t speak Latin.) Here’s the answer.
Having your main character say yes under duress (YUD, as I’ll call it) makes the stakes higher. It instantly forces the audience to recognize the sheer impossibility of the task at hand, and the obstacles your protagonist must face to accomplish his goal. If it weren’t a big deal, he’d instantly say Yes, and simply get on with it. After all, it’s what we’re expecting: we’ve read the reviews, we’ve seen the commercials. Paul Rudd is going to fight a dragon. (I would totally watch that movie, by the way.)
But to make us realize that fighting a dragon is, well, actually kind of dangerous, Paul Rudd has to seemingly stop the action in its tracks, and say, “Hold on a minute, um...NO! Who do you think I am, The Rock? I’m not fighting a dragon! What are you, crazy?”
Now, listen: I know this isn’t your first rodeo. If it were, you would be insisting that I buy you a hat. Or maybe a t-shirt. You’ve seen enough movies to recognize this moment when you see it. You know that Paul Rudd is, eventually, goin’ dragon huntin’. (The name of the movie is, after all, Dragon Huntin’.)
So your task, as a screenwriter, is to make this ‘Refusal of the Call’ moment seem fresh...have it feel unexpected or surprising in some way.
But how do you do that?
If you’ve read this column before, you know that the main guideline behind performing theatrical improvisation is Saying Yes. If your scene partner proposes an action -- “Let’s bake a cake!” -- you don’t say “No” to it. You say, “Yes.” Otherwise, you’re impeding the action, and interrupting the natural flow of the scene.
Great improvisers learn to remain true to their character while still saying, “Yes,” even if the proposed action clearly goes against what their character would want: “Hey! Professor Bertram! For today’s science class, will you teach us how to make a bomb?”
“That’s...a terrible idea,” an experienced improviser might respond. “It would be putting us all at tremendous risk, and I’ll be in danger of losing my job, or even getting arrested. BUT...” he might then continue, justifying it, “You will learn a great deal about science. And I don’t want to discourage your natural curiosity. Hand me that uranium.”
Your task as a screenwriter when devising a ‘Refusal of the Call’ scene -- let’s call it an ROTC -- is to make sure the audience recognizes the level of the stakes. Perhaps you can even come up with clever ways to add to the stakes while writing out your ROTC dialogue. “Not only is it dangerous to fight a dragon, but my fiancée is an animal rights activist! She’ll call off our engagement!”
Then -- and this is a big improv term -- JUSTIFY the ultimate acceptance of the action.
Don’t just go for the obvious: “Well, somebody’s gotta kill the dragon. Might as well be me.” No. Not good enough. That somebody doesn’t have to be Paul Rudd. Your average person will do everything they can to get out of that dragon-killing mission. (Wouldn’t you?) Let ‘em squirm for a scene or two. After your main character does everything he can possibly think of to get out of his high stakes assignment, it is your task to come up with an absolutely UN-REFUSABLE reason that he has to do it...one that you couldn’t get them out of if you tried. Hopefully, it's also one that requires your hero to eventually grow internally, and adapt psychologically in some way, maturing as a person by the end of the film.
If you’ve written a unique and specific enough character, chances are that you will be able to come up with a justification that is original and unexpected. You’ll have written a scene that raises the stakes of your story, and is surprising and entertaining in itself.
Crafting an original ROTC scene achieves the aim of making it seem like your character truly has no choice, his fate in the story inevitable, almost like a dream...which, one might argue, the greatest films often feel like.
What is the task your character would least like to do?
What is the only situation you can imagine in which he would agree to do it?
If you can answer those two questions successfully, you’ve got a great script on your hands.
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
- FREE Download with tips for creating plot points that help your characters' development
- Reel Story: Why Story Structure Formula Doesn't Work
Get more tips from Joseph Campbell with his book,
The Hero with a Thousand Faces