The 12 Steps of Improvisational Screenplay Writing

Step 1. Write “FADE IN”

Step 2. Write a location, starting with “INT.” or “EXT.”

Step 3. Write a time of day after your location

Step 4. In two lines, write a description of that location as you see it in your mind’s eye

Step 5. Write down the name of a character.

Step 6. In a line, write a description of that character.

Step 7. In a line or two, write a description of what that character is doing at the location.

Step 8. Write the name of something with which that character is interacting, be it a person, object or something more ephemeral.

Step 9. In a line, write a description of that thing with which the character is interacting.

Step 10. In the middle of the page, write the name of your first character.

Step 11. Below that name, write an emotionally charged statement that this character says about the thing with which he or she is interacting, the nature of the interaction, or a total non-sequitur to confuse the hell out of people.

Step 12. In writing, rationalize these choices for the next 95 pages.

(I never said I’d help you make a movie, just a screenplay)

Words in other people’s mouths

I’m not an actor. I cannot act. Actually, that’s not exactly true.

I am an extreme introvert who has learned to live (and thrive) within an extremely extroverted world, so I can technically act aka hide my true identity behind a false façade.

But what I mean by acting is the theatrical form. Give me lines to memorize and my brain fries in mere seconds. I can say the line, I can emote or I can move my body across the stage…ask me to do any two of those at the same time, however, and we have issues.

I can do improvisation. I love improvisation.

The thrill of trying not to anticipate what your stage partners are going to do but instead simply react to what they have done and add to the reality of the situation is an adrenaline high of which I cannot get enough.

And the typical improv audience is a forgiving lot because they know you’re making this up before their very eyes. In fact, they will actually ask you how you prepare for an improv show and sit amazed when you tell them that you arrive at the venue slightly earlier than they did.

But even improv has its self-imposed pressures, because at the end of the day, you have to respond to your colleagues and say or do something. A couple of years ago, however, I found a work-around for that.

A friend of mine introduced me to puppetry improv. In this case, we put Henson-style puppets onto our hands and created amazing scenes with characters that didn’t exist until mere seconds ago.

It was magical.

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The minor act of picking up a puppet and letting it do the talking gave me enough distance that I was free to think and do anything I wanted without fear of recrimination. People stopped watching me and immediately followed the puppet. Whatever the puppet said was funny or poignant or shocking. Even saying nothing spoke volumes.

And if I thought improv audiences were generous, oh my God! Puppets can get away with murder! There are no taboos.

Which brings me to writing.

As it was with the puppet, so it is with writing characters for screenplays, stage plays or novels. I have the freedom to write anything, to say anything, because ultimately the words are the responsibility of the characters I create.

Maybe this is a sign of a need for medication, but when I write a character, I hear his, her or its voice in my head. Change the character and the voice changes.

By moving the focus off of me—my skills or lack thereof, my insecurities, my knowledge—I free myself up to pursue something bigger.

Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself. It seems to be working for me.