In improv, the distilled premise that’s funny in a scene is known as the game. Writer and actor Brett Wean does a nice job in this Scriptmag article of explaining how the game and other improvisational tools can be useful to screenwriters. I agree that exploring one central idea is essential, be it in a comedic or dramatic scene. A strong central focus is the glue of a scene. Exploring too many different ideas in one scene dilutes the overall impact.
A useful resource for screenwriters wishing to further explore improv and comedy writing is The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual by Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, and Matt Walsh. The book discusses finding the game, heightening the game, and using an established premise in scenes. Also included are suggestions about creating characters, scenes improvisers avoid, and descriptions of various improv show formats. Some of the tips included for improvised scenes are also great to consider in scripted scenes:
1. Don’t Talk About the Thing. And Don’t Talk About What You Are Doing. In a scene, the relationship dynamics are more interesting than the “thing” that is happening. For example, if two characters are breaking up at a ballgame, we would most likely rather hear about the breakup than about the details of the game.
2. Don’t Talk About Characters Who Are Not There. The scene is between the characters we are watching. If you find yourself mentioning other characters, it might be time for a scene about those other characters.
And 3. Don’t Talk About The Past and Future. What’s happening between the two characters right now? That’s what’s interesting. If you find yourself mentioning past or future events, it might be time for a flashback or flash-forward.
Lessons from improv are useful to screenwriters. Just as improvisers search to find a funny game in their scenes, screenwriters must also find a central focus. A strong central core is the backbone of an effective scene.