07 December 2007

What Writing Can Learn From Improv

In my writing workshop, we spend a lot of time talking about some basic building blocks of fiction: setting, plot, character, conflict. Every single week during our discussion, at least once, I think, “Just like in improv!” It makes sense: long form improv, at its best, is just another form of storytelling, and the purpose of telling stories, in any format, is to tell the truth about what it means to be human.

Here are some of the things improv has taught me about writing fiction:

1. No talking heads.
One of the most common scenes you see in amateur improv involves a bunch of people standing on stage talking to one another. Turns out, this isn’t usually the most fascinating thing to watch (though of course there are exceptions: one of my favorite scenes of all time involved two women sitting in chairs, just talking – but you have to be very, very good to pull this kind of scene off), and when you’re just standing around, it’s easy to get stuck. In improv, the trick is to build your setting around you: instead of just standing and talking, start slicing that loaf of bread, or sanding the bottom of your canoe, or polishing your shoes, or flossing. Suddenly, you have a setting, which helps to develop character and further plot. Two guys standing around talking about their wives might be sort of interesting, but if they’re talking about their wives while they’re performing surgery, or while they’re robbing a bank, suddenly you have a whole new layer of insight into who these people are and what their relationship is with each other and with their wives. The same goes for writing. Often, when I find myself stuck in a scene, I think about where the character is and what she’s doing, and the setting helps me move the plot forward almost every time.

2. Don’t try to be funny, try to be true.
The best improvisers don’t spend too much time thinking about how to make a scene funny. Rather, they work to find the truth of the scene, knowing that telling the truth on stage is funnier than any shtick or joke. In writing (fiction, at least), if you set out to teach some moral or elicit some specific reaction from your audience, you’ll be apt come off as phony and contrived. If, however, you set out to tell the truth about a character, you’ll be much more likely to connect with and affect your reader.

3. Don’t talk about doing it… do it.
I really hate improv scenes where people stand around and talk about what they should do. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could rob a bank?” they ask each other. It’s improv! You CAN! You can do ANYTHING! It is far more interesting to watch people rob a bank than it is to watch them talk about doing it. This is why, in Ocean’s Eleven, the getting-ready-to-rob-a-bank part is a montage, and the robbing-a-bank part is scenes. I’m currently reading Madame Bovary, and it’s the same thing. Madame Bovary thinks about how she might cheat on her husband? BO-ring! Madame Bovary cheats on her husband? Fascinating.

4. Show us the day the shit hits the fan.
As an audience, we want to know why we’re seeing this particular scene. One of N’s teachers tells her class, “There are two kinds of scenes: ‘A Day in the Life of the Johnsons,’ and ‘The Day the Shit Hits the Fan at the Johnson’s.’ Guess which one is more interesting.” The day the shit hits the fan is the day that everyone’s characters will be tested, pushed, and will either rise to the challenge or crumble beneath the pressure. In improv, we want to see reactions, and growth. In a story, we want to see the character change in some way, even if it’s just a tiny, momentary epiphany. Ask yourself, “Why this day? Why tell this story now?” Even on the day the shit hits the fan, if your characters aren’t learning, growing, and changing – even if the change is a little teeny shift – your readers will be unsatisfied. Show us that moment of change.

5. Characters should have wants.
In every human interaction, each person wants something. Approval, acknowledgement, obedience, understanding, love, an admission of guilt, respect, revenge, sex…the list is endless. Often you have more than one want motivating you at any given time, and often you don’t fully realize all the petty and noble desires that drive you at any given time. But that doesn’t mean they’re not there. Onstage, knowing what your character wants can help you to react more honestly to everyone else on stage, and as we know, truth=funny. The same thing goes for writing. If your characters have strong wants and needs driving them, your scenes will be more complex and more interesting, especially when we get to see the ways your character reacts to the inevitable obstacles standing in his way.

We humans are endlessly fascinated by relationships. Bad improv – and bad writing – often makes the mistake of telling stories about stuff instead of about people. We don’t care about stuff, we care about human beings and how they relate to one another. Think about it: when people speculated on what would happen in the last Harry Potter book, they didn’t wonder what robes the Hogwarts kids would be wearing or what spells Harry would use against Voldemort, they wondered whether Ron and Hermione would get together and if Snape was really evil and how Harry would manage without Sirius and Dumbledore. In fiction, if you realize that you’re writing a scene without strong relationships… fix it. Strengthen the relationship by knowing what each of your characters wants. Remember, the best stories tell us some truth about what it means to be human, and we learn how to be human through our interactions with each other.

1 comment:

Natalie said...


(that was me, starting an e-slow clap that will eventually turn into a standing ovation)

Good job.

I hope everyone has read Harry Potter.