(But first order of business these days: EFF NAZIS. Or better yet, NAZIS CAN GO EFF THEMSELVES. I’m not wasting perfectly good swear-words on proud white supremacist garbage scum.)
The older I get, the more convinced I am that one of the most valuable high-school experiences for my professional life was competing at the Canadian Improv Games.
Improv is a special beast. Many people find the idea of getting thrown into a scene with no preparation, relying on others to bring the whole thing together and actually be clever/entertaining instead of crashing and burning to be daunting. I’m pretty sure I did. I’m pretty sure, but I can’t actually remember, and I seriously don’t remember why I auditioned for the team in the first place.
But I’m so glad I did, because improv helped me develop skills I have been using professionally ever since. Many are obviously applicable to working in education — it’s a lot easier to run a class if you feel confident winging it or reacting to the moment in front of an audience — but there are also improv principles I find myself coming back to as a writer.
Here are four:
1. Set the scene
At the Improv Games, there are no props or sets except for a bunch of wooden boxes and the bodies of the performers. One of the guidelines that our coach used to hammer home is that it’s critical to make sure the audience knows where you are and who you are as soon as you can within the start of your scene.
Without sets or scripts, it’s too easy to let a scene become talking heads. You know where you and your teammates think you are, or maybe you know what you’re trying to do but haven’t actually thought about the world your actions inhabit. Either way, you’re forcing the audience to do the work of making the world real for them, if they even feel motivated to try. If you’re lucky and they don’t just wind up hopelessly confused/disoriented.
So instead, performers have to clearly indicate the setting, whether in speech (“Here we are in the Forest of Arden”) or mime or both.
I remember this principle every time I start a new scene in my MS. In writing, it’s easy to take the reader into a character’s train of thought, which could be happening anywhere. Or to unmoor dialogue from a concrete setting. Sometimes, in some genres, that’s exactly what the writer wants to do. But for me, at least in the MSs I’m working on now, I can’t let that happen.
I remember so vividly that criticism of leaving audiences floating in limbo, unable to sink their teeth into what’s going on until they know where they’re supposed to be. I don’t want that for my readers: I don’t want them to keep their finger between mental pages until they finally find out where they are and how they’re supposed to picture what my characters are doing/saying.
So I try to include setting clues, details, description as close to the start of the scene as I can.
2. Avoid repetitive conflict
“We have to!”
Unless you’re deliberately setting up a joke, arguments in which the characters repeat the same points get boring and stagnant really quickly. In a scene, this is not action, it’s a death rattle: something new needs to happen, and fast. If your scene partners sound like this, it’s time for you to jump in and save the flow. If you sound like this, it’s time to introduce a new idea.
As I’ve blogged about before, when I write, it’s easy for me to start working out the logic/logistics of the scene in my characters’ dialogue. That sometimes means scenes that sound like this in my first draft. Or, worse, I have scenes that sound like carbon copies of each other, in which the scenario is similar, the stakes are the same, and the choices the characters have to make don’t differ significantly from the ones they made before.
Conflict is sufficient but not necessary for (Western-style) interesting storytelling. Conflict with no forward momentum makes your audience feel the seconds ticking away in the four minutes you have to do your stuff onstage. In writing, it’s unforgivable: it slows the pace and waters down the actual conflict, and, hey, we don’t do the long-vaudeville-hook-yanking-performers-off anymore, but we still sure do the putting-boring-books-down-and-never-picking-them-back-up.
3. Go with the flow
In some courses, I teach public speaking, and this skill is the reason I try to sneak in a couple improv exercises. It’s why my first recommendation for students looking for lessons outside of class is improv.
Improv — good improv, anyway — forces players to create in the moment. To do that well, players have to learn to be aware of what’s going on right now and open to taking the scene new directions. Both these things require and teach the skill I think is most important: confidence that no matter what happens, you can roll with it and be okay. That even if the scene is crap, you’ll live, and maybe even do better next time. That the people who are worth working with will support you in failure and guide you to success because they know you’ll do the same for them, and if they won’t, well, see the first part of this sentence.
Writing is less about living in the moment, I admit. You can take your time with writing, go back, hesitate, revise, rework. But writers still need to be able to go with the story however it seems to be flowing, even if the destination isn’t where we’d originally planned. Because writing takes a lot longer than improv, there’s a lot more time to learn things about our characters, our stories, our world, ourselves that we weren’t expecting.
If I try to forge ahead and pretend that new knowledge doesn’t exist, I’m wasting effort fighting the tide instead of finding where it takes me, and I might shipwreck my scene besides.
4. Sometimes the problem is saying no
The first rule of improv is so ubiquitous it’s cliché: always say “yes.”
Do not reject ideas without at least offering an alternative. Slamming a hard “no” down on the scene like one of those fire-containing automatic doors cuts it off short and kills its future. It forces your scene partners to come up with a new suggestion on the fly, it reads clearly to an audience as lack of teamwork/cooperation, and it halts the action because everyone involved has to stop and reroute their brains to something new.
You’d think that writing wouldn’t have this problem. Again, it’s not in real-time. Unless you’re writing collaboratively (which I’m not), there’s nobody to say “no” to. Right?
For me, at least, wrong. Often, when I’m stuck on a scene — when I see my characters saying “no” to each other — I realize the problem is I’ve said “no” to myself.
“No, that can’t happen because I don’t know how to write it.”
“No, that can’t happen because I don’t know enough about it.”
“No, that can’t happen because I’m scared to put it into words.”
So many problems in my writing have come from me saying “no” to my own ideas because I’d have to put a ton of work into making them happen: offline research, emotional work, hours of drawing-board drafts. I let myself talk myself out of doing what’s right for the story by allowing fear or lack of confidence or laziness take over.
With improv, the negative consequences of those forms of self-talk are immediate: you can feel the scene fall flat, sense the annoyance of your team-mates at being put on the spot, feel the audience wince. When I’m writing, I don’t have those external cues to remind me that I can, I should shape this story the way it needs to go. So I try to recognize the pattern in my thinking, catch myself saying “no” when I could and should be trying, “Yes, and…”