One of the best things I’ve done for myself as a writer and speaker is study improv. Not stand-up comedy—think of the short-form improv show Whose Line Is It Anyway? There’s also another kind, long-form, that I’ve studied this year. Long-form improv particularly lends itself well to novel writing as it deals in characters, relationships, and scenes. Any form of improv will help your writing, though, because of the specific way it forces your brain to work. Why is that?
The first thing you learn in improv is that you always say, “Yes, and…” You are not allowed to say no to ideas. You agree to the idea and add onto it.
Imagine you step on stage and you’re thinking you’re going to be an astronaut on Mars. But another person steps on to be your scene partner and tells you that you’re a cowboy on a ranch. You don’t say, “No, we’re actually on Mars, duh.” You change gears and accept their idea, then add your own. “Yes, and we’ve been stranded here for thirty years!”
How often do we “say yes” while we write? Too often, we censor ourselves. “Got to stick to my outline!” we mutter during the first draft. “That’s no good. I suck. This is terrible!” I’m sure we’ve all had those feelings as we try to pound out some words onto a blank screen.
Instead, trust your subconscious mind. Say “yes, and…” and let yourself take the risk. Write what comes to mind without censoring yourself. Let your mind build on your first idea, and keep adding.
But how do you flex that subconscious mind muscle so it becomes second nature? How do you “get out of your head” and stop doubting yourself?
The best way is to take a class. If you can’t, you can do some improv exercises on your own. Matt Sheelen, my intrepid instructor at Old Town Improv Company, suggested these solo exercises, which I’ve matched with novel writing elements.
Warm-Up Exercise: Word Pattern Game
Obtain a random word, either by asking someone or, if you’re alone, pointing blindly at a book’s page. Say it’s “dog.” What does that word remind you of? Say it. Then what does that next word remind you of? Continue free associating each word. With “dog,” it might go something like this:
See how it returned to the original word? You can try to get back to the original word, or just keep going. The trick to this one is to not think about it too much. If you find you’re too much in your head, though, and thinking too much, abandon it.
Character work is as important in improv as it is in writing. In improv, you might begin with the germ of an idea for a character—an accent or a way of moving or even an animal (tigers move differently than mice!). Then, as you speak, you follow that outward trait into the inner character workings.
In improv, plot takes a backseat to character. Of course you want some stuff to happen, but as in novel writing, you have to care about a character to be interested in whether they die in a car chase. Action serves the character’s development.
Character Monologues: Give yourself a few pieces of information – maybe age, occupation, life goals – and then do a 3-5 min monologue from that character’s perspective. The key is you must keep talking until time is up and just follow your thoughts aloud.
This is a lot like a character interview, except it’s a monologue. It’s a handy-dandy idea generator for your character. I bet you’ll find out lots of things when you make your character “talk” aloud.
If you don’t have a character in mind or just want to warm up, try this one:
Emotional Monologues: Similar to above. Write a few emotions on pieces of paper and pull them every 1-2 minutes changing emotions. Playing authentic emotions and allowing yourself to be vulnerable is one of hardest things for improvisers (and humans in general).
You have characters. Now, what are they going to do? Put two characters in a scene together!
Two-Person Scene: Give yourself two characters and try to do a good scene playing both of them by alternating character. Use your voice, body, etc. to differentiate. This is difficult, but see if you can develop an interesting solo scene.
Finding “The Game”
Through scenework, you discover what is called “the game” in improv. The “game” is the most interesting (or in improv, because it’s comedy, usually absurd) idea that pops out.
Say you’re acting out a scene between a boss and an employee and they’re discussing reports, and it seems like some kind of power play, but then one references how they used to date.
Ah ha. Suddenly it gets interesting. That’s what you want to focus on for the rest of the scene. The “game” is basically that element that makes you perk up and take interest in a story.
Use the novel characters you just created a scene with to find your novel’s “game,” or theme. What was the most interesting part of their interaction? State it out loud or write it down. Could that also become your novel’s theme or subject? It could also be a smaller discovery, like the “game” of the scene you’re writing.
Your Mind Contains Never-Ending Stories
Your mind bubbles a constant fluid stream of ideas like some mythical fountain. All you need to do is know how to access that fountain. With the right prodding, they will keep coming out. Writer’s block? Try some improv and unblock those clogged channels.
And you don’t have to be a super extrovert to do it. It’s a matter of firing up your brain and specifically training it like you would with any other intellectual pursuit. Public speaking becomes much easier, because you’re not gripped with the fear of saying the wrong thing. You start trusting your instincts. You also realize that the world doesn’t end if you say something sort of lame—the moment’s quickly over and forgotten. It’s awfully good practice for people with social anxiety.
Bonus: Practicing improv allows you to come up with comebacks to people in everyday life instead of thinking of them two days later, like used to be the norm for me.
Everyday Practice Exercise:
Talk in random accents during your everyday life, like on the phone with customer service or leaving a voicemail for a friend.
The following is a video of Chicago’s iO theater and a discussion of what improv is and can mean to people, and of course, some scenes.
Have you ever used any exercises like these before? Would you try any? What other non-writing-related activities have helped your writing?
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