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Fiction and Improv: Sisters from a Different Mister

Last weekend, my husband and I took a quick jaunt to Chicago, the city where we met, dated and became betrothed. Our trip to the Windy City was twofold—an anniversary getaway (romantic!) and a way for my husband to get enough miles on Alaska Airlines to maintain his MVP status (not romantic!).

I had never once gone to improv at Second City, so we bought tickets, took our seats in the old people’s section, and laughed and marveled at the talent and quick-wittedness of the comedic actors. At least we marveled at four of the five comedic actors. While the fifth seemed to suspect that she was bombing, she didn’t embrace the bombing. As a result, highly sensitive and unnecessarily empathetic me felt like I was bombing right alongside her. It was like schadenfreude, only different.

During the show, when I wasn’t blown being away by the courage of the actors, or laughing at their wit, or doing empathetic schadenfreude or calculating that at least we were the youngest members of the old person section, I wondered whether the elements that make improv work (or flop) are the same as those that make fiction sing (or flounder). Here’s what I came up with. (Here’s up with what I came?)

Starting in medias res. I must pause here to confess that I’ve always thought it was “in media res.” I’m going to assume they recently changed the spelling without notifying me.

To return to the point: In improv, the actors drop the audience right into the middle of the action, the conflict, the tension. Improv never front-loads a scene with backstory. But what about fiction? While a fairy tale starts with Once upon a time, there lived a … other fiction writers do what improv actors do: drop the reader right into the middle of the story. Check out the first sentences from a few of the novels I pulled off the bookshelf:

This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper:

“Dad’s dead,” Wendy says offhandedly, like it’s happened before, like it happens every day.

A Little Life by Tanya Yanagihara:

The eleventh apartment had only one closet, but it did have a sliding glass door that opened onto a small balcony, from which he could see a man sitting across the way, outdoors in only a T-shirt and shorts even though it was October, smoking.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins:

I stare down at my shoes, watching as a fine layer of ash settles on the worn leather.

We read the first sentences of these novels, then proceed to the next sentence and then the next, all without knowing much, if anything at all, about these characters. But we know we are right there in the middle of the action, and we are intrigued. Why is Wendy so nonchalant? The eleventh apartment … what about the ten previous ones? Why is there a fine layer of ash settling on someone shoes?

Gifted writers know their top priority is submerging a reader in the story and offering her just a whiff of something that feels just a tad off. Once the reader senses something is not quite right, she will be eager to linger, if only to get her bearings within the story. We all long to be invited into a good story, and once we are there, holding a cocktail in one hand and a mini quiche in the other, our brains won’t let us leave until we make sense of the story that’s swirling around us.

Make Me an Offer

I have a husband who absolutely will not fight. No matter what I do, no matter how much I try to rile him up, he never takes me up on my offer to engage in some kind of emotional sparring. As a result my husband and I have had two fights in twenty years. Two. Our marriage would make a very dull novel and an even worse improv skit. For that I am lucky and grateful.

In improv, one actor must make an offer to a second actor, and the second actor must accept that offer. If actor #1 invites actor #2 into some kind of tomfoolery or shenanigan, and actor #2 refuses, the scene is DOA.

Some improv folks call this the Yes, and … rule.

In our writing, we are supposed to create scenes in which the protagonist’s needs and desires are thwarted and denied at nearly every turn. OK, but if our protagonist is told, Yes, and … doesn’t that grant the protagonist exactly what she wants? How does a story continue if the protagonist gets what she wants–and more–every time she asks? It can seem like Yes, and … is the opposite of what propels a story.

But Yes, and … is not a genie in a bottle. Yes, and … simply demonstrates another character’s willingness to participate in the story (or the fight, drama, tension, desire, goal-seeking).

Plot, remember, is ultimately born from the interactions that take place between characters. Characters must be saying Yes, and … to one another in order to continue co-existing in the story. When a character declines the invitation to stay in the story, the story fizzles.

To clarify, characters may not be cooperating with each other; they may not be helping one another achieve their goals and desires. In fact, they may be making life pretty miserable for each other, but by saying Yes, and … they are agreeing to stay in the story and build a scene. When a character makes on offer and another character accepts that offer, the juicy stuff starts getting juicy.

The Element of Surprise

During the Second City improv show, the skit that I found most hysterical was one that involved Jesus doing some awkward dance moves. Lots of high kicks and gymnastical splits. Remember the Ministry of Silly Walks [1]? The Son of God’s dancing was a lot like that but much more so. Best of all, He was able to do such impressive moves because, as we learned, He was clad in Lululemon yoga pants.

In Story Genius, Lisa Cron shares this fact: our brains crave certainty, familiarity and patterns. But we don’t watch improv because we crave certainty, familiarity and patterns. Jesus wearing an off-white linen robe? Snore. But put Jesus in Lululemons, something we’ve never seen in books, paintings, or churches, and our brains light up. It’s these silly and unfamiliar images that tickle our brains. How delightful!

We want fiction to tickle our brains as well. Thinking about some of my all-time favorite novels, The Book Thief comes to mind. There are three hundred reasons why I love that book; one of them is that the story is narrated by Death. Never before have I read a story about WWII-era Germany, told from the tender-hearted, resigned, melancholy-yet-resolute perspective of Death personified. Everything I felt and believed about death was upended, and that was delightful. Not quite as delightful as Jesus in Lululemons, but definitely in the same ballpark.

It’s your turn to improvise a bit. What other similarities do you see between performing improv and writing fiction? Have you been brave enough to do improv? If so, how has it helped you with your writing? Will you share how a favorite novel has surprised (and therefore delighted) your brain? Thank you, dear WU’ers, for reading and responding.

Photograph compliments of Flickr’s Daniel Hartwig [2].

About Sarah Callender [3]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.