In the opening moments of Guardians of the Galaxy, Chris Pratt’s protagonist character Peter Quill, as a child, hesitates and refuses to take his mother’s hand as she lays dying in a hospital bed. Is that heroic? Not exactly, no. But it’s a great example of how the mistakes a character makes can help define him and clear a path to his becoming a hero.
We often think of our lead characters as little wind-up automatons we have to move from Point A to Point B, trying to accomplish a task as we set up obstacle after obstacle for them to overcome. For the story to be compelling, the reasoning goes, they have to try as hard as they can, at the height of their intelligence, to jump over each challenge as they move from one scene to the next. That’s a good way to think of it. But if we want to keep an audience on its toes, change up the energy in an unexpected way, and possibly even reveal more character depth by setting up an internal obstacle for our protagonist to overcome, it helps to pick key moments for them make a mistake.
Think of that moment soon after Peter Parker acquires his powers in Spiderman: he’s angry at the wrestling promoter who doesn’t pay him, so he purposely lets the guy robbing him get away. Not a quintessential heroic moment, and that robber (of course) ends up murdering Peter’s Uncle Ben. Allowing the main character to do something unaligned to his ultimate goal (of literally becoming a hero, in this case) and make a mistake, enables the writer to showcase that character’s eventual leap over an internal obstacle.
This doesn’t only have to do with comic book movies and superheroes. Think of all the stumbles Dustin Hoffman makes in the movie Tootsie, in relation to his wooing of Jessica Lange. Or consider Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally: don’t you want to just yell at them half the time?
Here’s a more recent (and specific) example: in the movie Trainwreck, Amy Schumer’s character is clearly falling for the sports doc played by Bill Hader. Fairly far along into our story, at just the point where their relationship seems destined to coalesce more fully – and right when she could use his support, at a funeral – she rebuffs his “I love you,” and tells him that it’s bad timing. A mistake, to be sure. But it’s one that her character has to make for us to fully recognize her internal flaw – that she self-sabotages her relationships – so that she can then recognize it in herself and hopefully overcome it.
In the world of improv, we learn to embrace so-called “mistakes” in our own performances, because often, the first noticeable mistake we make in building a scene together on stage – an accidentally weird way of saying something, a bizarre response we didn’t intend to have, or two improvisers blurting out an unexpected combination of factors – often becomes the “game” of the scene, i.e. the comedic focus. The gold we’re looking for lies in the unintentional mistakes we find ourselves making.
Which brings me to my final point: that in the act of writing, we must learn to embrace our genuine, unintended mistakes as writers. We’ve outlined our plot, sat down to write the script, banged out the first sixty pages…and only then do we realize we’ve messed up. We’ve put the focus on the wrong thing; we’ve gotten a character totally wrong; our sequence of events is off; we’ve chosen the entirely wrong environment.
Should we start crying? Delete the entire script? Burn the computer? No. Because chances are, as annoying as it may feel in the moment, our mistake has probably led to us realizing something important about the screenplay. What did we find out about the character, having placed her in the wrong environment? Why is it that we realize her best friend character has to be completely re-envisioned? Isn’t noticing this “mistake” better than to have written (and rewritten) the script and sent it out without having recognized the flaw? Aren’t you able to create a stronger piece of work -- perhaps having exposed a key element of your character or story, which you can now fully work with -- than if you hadn’t made the mistake at all?
In improv, on some level we want a mistake to happen: that’s where the key to the entire scene is hidden. So I won’t trot out that cheesy cliché about a etaistake being an opportunity. But if you have just recognized a mistake in your work, I will say: Congratulations.
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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