What writers can learn from improv

I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone that I love comedians and stand up. When asked to list my heroes, there are four women who top my list; Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey in that order. These women were never afraid of being exactly who they are, and who they are is funny as hell. They don’t care about being ladies, getting married or structuring their lives to suit the world around them. They did what they wanted, and they were good at it.

Poehler and Fey both got their start in improv in New York. I went into this in some detail when I talked about Yes, Please, Poehler’s autobiography. Because it was so influential in their lives, I had to learn about it. And, as you might have guessed, I learned that the rules of improv can dramatically improve your free writing and first drafts.

Here’s how.

Rule one, say yes!

The first rule of improv is to say yes! What this means is, if you’re working with a partner and they say, “We’re flying to Jamaica on the back of a trumpeter swan that will only fly if we bang coconuts together,” you have to roll with that scenario. You’re not allowed to say, “Janice, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, and I’m not doing it. Obviously, you’d fly to Jamaica on the back of a swallow.” Even if a swallow would be the obvious Monty Python reference that Janice was obviously going for with her coconut theory.

When writing, sometimes we find that the story wants to go in a different direction than we initially planned. And while I’m a steadfast believer that you should have at least some form of an outline, I also don’t think that it’s a bad idea to defer from that outline. In other words, say yes to your story taking a different turn. It might be terrible, or it might be way better than your original idea. But that’s for the second draft to decide. The first draft should just say yes!

Rule two, say yes, and!

Improve is best done with a group of people who add to the other person’s original idea. If all you do is agree to everything the other person is saying, you’re going to be a bad improv partner. So, whatever setup someone’s just made, it’s your job now to build on it. So, if you have Janice as a partner, you might say, “Yes, and then I drop one of my halves of the coconut into the ocean, so I have to clap with my hand. But the swan knows it’s only half, so it’s only flapping one wing!”

When you have a good idea, you need to build on it. What’s the next step from where you are? What can you add? What would be a logical but unexpected thing to happen next?

Rule three, make statements.

You don’t ask questions in improv, you make statements. You don’t ask, “What should we do next?” You boldly say, “Janice, we’re landing on that random island, like it or not, and I know it’s not Jamaica because this swan is only flapping with one wing.”

I am trying to incorporate this into my everyday life more. I tend to ask people things I should tell them. “Do you mind if I-?” That sort of thing. I shouldn’t be passive in my life, I’m a grown woman.

As far as our writing goes, though, I consider this a deceleration of war on passive voice. Unless I am writing a passive character, I despise the passive voice. How do you know you’re writing in the passive voice? This is one I learned from Rebecca Johnson. “If you can insert ‘by zombies’ after the verb, you have a passive voice.”

Don’t get eaten by zombies. Make statements.

Rule four, there are no mistakes, only opportunities.

Let’s say you’re doing improv, and you trip over an uneven spot on the stage, fall over and crack your knee on the ground. You’re probably going to shout something obscene if you’re anything like me. If you did that under normal settings, you might brush off your pants, apologize, and move on. But in improv, you just roll with it.

If you botch a line or tell a bad joke, it’s not a mistake. It’s an opportunity.

The same is true for our writing, there are no mistakes. Truly, if we are making up our own worlds there are no mistakes. So, if you’re looking back at something you’ve published, and you think you messed something up, keep that in mind. It’s just an opportunity to make something better.

AA-001Josey finds an AA meeting.

Josey was new in town, working two jobs and reeling from her divorce. She needed a lot of things, but most of all she needed a meeting. She finds one in the basement of her local library. But the meeting that she finds isn’t the one that she’s expecting.



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