Lessons in Writing from Improv Comedy

I once read that being a fiction writer is like being a schizophrenic actor because authors can play multiple people in a single scene each with distinct personalities, speech patterns and emotional states without letting them blur into one another. The simile made me smile. Growing up as a shy kid, I’d never had an interest in acting aside from watching it in the movies. However once I considered acting as a facet of storytelling that I knew nothing about, I decided to check it out to see where it could take my understanding of stories and what impact it might have on the way I write.

Improv Comedy

One of the types of stage acting I tried was improv comedy and, yes, when I say “improv” I do mean “sketch comedy” (think Whose Line is it Anyway) where the players have games that require suggestions from the audience for unusual characteristics, themes, locations, objects, etc. The key is to improvise a fluid scene within the rules of the game using the audience’s suggestions. At the beginning of our very first class, our instructor told us that our very last class was going to be a performance in a restaurant in front of a live audience and we all stared at him in horror. Initially, we worried and worried about not knowing what to say or not being funny but, once we grasped our teacher’s simple rules, we had a great time. Here are some lessons I took away with me:

Lesson #1 – Don’t Say “No”

As a writer, this sounds silly. Don’t say no? Well, characters can’t say yes all the time, that’s ridiculous, so what do you want me to do? In a sketch, Player A might make a recommendation, “The avalanche is gonna catch us-let’s surf on those sapplings!” If Player B replies with, “No, I don’t want to,” then Player A needs to go back and redo the recommendation. The scene has stopped moving. It’s stalled.

If Player B can’t say “no”, does that mean she must always say yes? Not necessarily. She has 2 options: (1) she can agree and leap with Player A onto the saplings and out-surf the avalanche, or (2) offer a counter recommendation, “riding those running bears would be faster!” Player A says, “let’s go!” They jump on a pair of sprinting grizzly bears and the scene goes on.

In writing fiction, I’ve found that the danger comes with saying “no” too often or without a counter-option. They can become arguments. But aren’t arguments part of human nature? What if they’re an element of a relationship important to a story? Think about scene flow for a moment. Where might an argument go if one side continually negates? In circles instead of forward. Or nowhere. Use “no” wisely in a way that it facilitates scene flow instead of stops it.

Lesson #2 – Replace Questions with Statements

When you ask a question, you get an answer. Obviously. However, if you’re not careful, that’s all you get. Especially with yes/no questions (opt for open ended questions instead). Replacing questions with statements add color, texture and/or an opening for an explanation.

Example, two friends meet up at an outdoor café for coffee on Saturday morning. Friend A is already seated when Friend B arrives dragging her feet with dark circles and drooping shoulders.

With questions: Friend A asks, “Whoa, are you okay?” Friend B may answer, “No, I’m so tired. I had such a long week.” Friend A asks, “What happened?” An explanation follows, hopefully not in a dry Q&A format.

With statements: Friend A says, “Whoa, you look like you’ve been run over by a herd of horses.” Friend B might reply, “I was except they looked exactly like my first graders and every last one of ’em had boogers dripping all over the place. I love them but if I get sick, I’m gonna be pissed.”

Again, I’m not saying to never ask a question. Every story is different and, within them, direct questions will have their place. But it’s also important not to let them dominate.

Lesson #3 – Trust Yourself

This doesn’t directly aid scene flow or anything like that but it’s something I needed to hear again.

In improv, you need confidence. In yourself. In your players. In your abilities and preparation. Your players are depending on you, much like a writer’s characters, and in both cases the scene can’t move forward without you.

As a writer, letting someone read something I’ve been passionately reworking for years is like a exposing a corner of my soul and the fear of a negative reaction can rule me if I let it.

Remind yourself you know these characters better than anyone. You know their story better than anyone. You may not be a pro just yet but as long as you don’t give up and you’re willing to learn, anything is possible.

Believe in yourself and keep the scene moving. Happy writing!

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4 thoughts on “Lessons in Writing from Improv Comedy

  1. Adam says:

    #2 really stands out to me. I keep thinking of examples of strong dialogue and a lot of them used this technique. In some cases they would also pair two characters who want to have completely different conversations.

    She may be focused on a bandage the has over his forehead, while he is focused on how she manipulated his father into letting her stay with them. It was a powerful back and forth, as neither character actually responded to what the other was saying.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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