The journey from screenplay to finished film is a long, drawn-out process. Months and months to write a script. Years of development before it ever goes to production. Shooting, editing, sound-mixing, color correction, score composition, and on and on and on until, finally, people get to see some version of what you wrote all those years ago.
In improv, someone in the audience shouts out a random word, usually pineapple. With no preparation, you and your group make up characters and scenes based solely on that single word. Eventually, the lights go out and you’re done. It’s immediate and ephemeral. Performed once then gone forever.
On the surface, screenwriting and improv couldn’t be more different, but they share the same beating heart of storytelling. The fundamentals of improv, when applied to your screenwriting process, can deepen your characters, heighten your story, and consistently surprise both you and your audience.
1. Yes, And…
Everyone knows the first rule of improv. When your scene partner says something, you agree and then you add more information.
“It’s a beautiful day today.”
“It really is. Our weather-changing device worked!”
Not only are you agreeing that it is a nice day, you’re taking it to the next level.
Setting up a fundamental baseline truth, then heightening it with layers, rules, and stakes. Building a story.
In screenwriting, “Yes, and” serves the exact same function. It is the through-line on which your entire script is built.
Let’s look at The Matrix as an example:
“Reality is a simulation.”
“Yes, and some humans broke free and are fighting the computers.”
From your baseline premise, you continually add information, further developing what came before. Every scene flows from, and builds off, the previous. “Yes, and” is the best tool to keep your story moving forward.
2. If / Then
How do you naturally build your story from your initial idea? Where does the “and” in “Yes, and” come from?
The second rule of improv-to-screenwriting will help build your world, your story, and your characters.
“If this is true, then what else is true?”
Going back to our previous example of The Matrix, we start with the basic premise “reality is a simulation.” If reality is a simulation, then all humans must be plugged into a central system. If all humans are plugged into a central system, then some humans must have been unplugged. If some humans are unplugged, then there must be machines looking for them. Etc. Start with a simple premise and, from the top of your intelligence, logic out your story from there. Every detail of your world and story will start to flow naturally.
3. Don’t Think
There’s a phenomenon in every single entry-level improv class, among every beginning improviser. Standing against the back wall, planning out your scene before you ever step out onto the stage. Your reactions aren’t honest because you’re not responding to your scene partner. You’re not in the moment.
The more you improvise, the more you’re able to stop planning. The more you just listen and react.
Similarly, screenwriters can spend so much time planning where their story will go that they lose where their story should go.
“Don’t think” doesn’t mean “don’t outline.” Outlines are vital for crafting your script’s basic structure. But, don’t be so attached to your outline that your story becomes inflexible. Give your characters space to react honestly. Audiences know when a character acts inauthentically just so they can move the plot forward. Letting your character be truthful to the moment may end up altering your outline, but the places you go will be more honest and rewarding.
Listen to your story and give your characters space to surprise you.
4. Have A Point-Of-View
When quickly creating a character from nothing on an improv stage, the first thing you need to find is an opinion or an emotion. How does your character feel about the unusual thing presented to them. Your reaction in the moment tells you so much about the person you’re portraying.
You’ve given your character a point-of-view.
In improv, you have just seconds to create a character and give them a strong personality. In screenwriting, you have around 100 pages and maybe dozens of characters. Some in nearly every scene. Some in just one. But, no matter the size of the role, for your character to make an impact, they should be specific and unique. They should have a point-ofview.
Think of No Country For Old Men, or really, any Coen Brothers movie. Every supporting character feels real and lived-in. They have personalities.
By endowing all of your characters with specific points-of-view, you’re able to create both dynamic leading roles and a more fully-realized world around them.
5. Play The Game
“Why am I watching this,” I remember an improv teacher of mine stopping a scene to ask:
“What’s the point of this scene?”
The idea he went on to describe is one I use before I begin any script. It’s the bar by which you should evaluate every scene you write. “What’s the point?”
Every improv scene has a game. In the simplest possible terms, game is what’s unusual, interesting, or unique about a scene. It’s the reason a scene exists at all.
In screenwriting, we should only be seeing moments that matter. The first, last, or only time this particular thing has ever happened. There should be consequences. Your story should be building and growing.
Get to the point of the scene as quickly as you can. And, when it’s said all it needs to say, for God’s sake get out of there.
6. Follow The Fun
When you begin an improv scene, literally anything can happen. There are no rules, no limitations. Infinite options. How do you even begin to pick a path?
Most improvisers choose to follow the fun. “What is the most fun choice I could make right now? What would I enjoy playing the most?”
When you’re writing your script, live by that same rule. Make the choice that feels most exciting in the moment. When you think, “wouldn’t it be crazy if x happened,” make x happen!
Screenwriters often talk themselves out of making big, bold choices and instead play it safe with their stories. Don’t be afraid to do the thing that excites you. The thing you’re afraid of. The thing that’s most fun. Make the bold choice and follow that path wherever it leads you. Fun is contagious. If you’re having fun telling your story, it’s going to be fun to read.
Brian T. Arnold studied improv and sketch comedy at Upright Citizens Brigade and The Groundlings, wrote for a sketch team at iO West (R.I.P.), and wrote for the CBS Diversity Comedy Showcase. As a screenwriter, Arnold won the Tracking Board Launch Pad Feature Competition and was featured on the Hit List and the Young & Hungry List.