I’m in an improv class. I started a year ago at the Bovine Metropolis Theater in Denver, and then moved back to Austin in January and started taking classes at the ColdTowne. Now that I’m in the fifth and final level of classes at ColdTowne, I’m reflecting a little bit on what exactly I’ve learned from improv that can inform my writing. There are a number of answers to this, and for now I’ll focus on the one I learned today: moving the action forward.
This is not something new – we’ve been talking about this in improv for a long time, but I just made the connection to my writing.
The rule in improv is this: quit talking about what you’re going to do and just do it. No one wants to watch a scene in which two people are looking for a hammer. Just find the f***ing hammer, and move on. I believe it’s McKee in Story who talks about how easy it is to hail a taxi in the movies, or how they never have to get change from the cab driver when they get out on the other end. That’s because no one wants to watch that scene: quit finding the taxi and get in the f***ing taxi.
Simple as it may sound, it’s one of the hardest things to do. It’s easy to knock on the door, but frankly, we don’t need to see it. Just open the f***ing door. You wanna go to the drag race, but Tommy doesn’t think it’s a great idea? That’s great, get to the f***ing drag race and tell us while we’re there that Tommy doesn’t want to be there. That’s a much more compelling scene.
This translates directly into the well-known “show, don’t tell” maxim. It’s much easier to have your character say how unhappy he is with the merger, than for you to come up with creative ways of showing it: he plays solitaire on his laptop at the negotiation meeting; he calls his boss a jerk; he calls a headhunter while selling the stock he has in the company; he loses interest in sex with his wife. Think about how much these scenes communicate and how much more interesting they would be for the audience. We’re smart, we get the gist. And by showing, rather than telling, we’re getting that juicy subtext that adds texture and meaning to the dialogue.
As I think about this with my own screenplay, the heroine is unhappy with her job – but she never says “I’m unhappy with my job.” She says, “I wish this place would burn to the f***ing ground,” but only after we’ve already seen her in her environment, annoyed by the gossip and slamming her locker shut, and physically assaulting a customer.
By the time we get to her talking about it, she doesn’t even say how much she hates her job. Rather, we take it to the next level: she throws a dying house plant into the trash and says, “I can’t even keep a plant alive.”
This clearly delivers much more to the viewer than “I hate my job and I’m so unhappy.”
Of course, the flip side is that you can say that line in five seconds, whereas the scenes I just described unfold over about 20 pages. Which is why you have to make sure that every scene serves at least three purposes; that every line communicates something valuable.
And in discovering these little nuggets of writing wisdom, I can now see moments all over these opening pages where I’m telling instead of showing; where I’m talking about instead of doing. Although I’ve known this rule perfectly well for years, I think the most valuable lessons must be discovered on your own. I may have to go back and re-design or eliminate some crucial scenes. Such is the game of mastering the art of the screenplay.