Just about everyone has heard of or seen an improv show. But what does a performing style that’s known for comedy have to do with writing serious fiction? Especially, since the definition of the word improv is making things up as you go along and not writing a script ahead of time. First of all, improv need not be about comedy. I’ve seen improv shows that were serious and meant to be. (As opposed to certain comedy ones I’ve seen that just turned out that way). And second, there’s an expression among improvisers that improv is writing on your feet. Just because something is not written down, doesn’t mean it’s not a story. For thousands of years people told each other stories orally. Writing only came later.
People who aren’t familiar with improv think all it takes is going up on a stage and talking. Great improvisers make it look easy, however, it’s very much like playing a musical instrument. There’s a lot to know. Here are a few of the basic principles of improv and how they might help your fiction writing. These can be applied to both short stories and novels.
YES, AND – This is the one that even people who know nothing about improv have heard of. Yes, and, is all about agreement. Have your characters agree with each other and then add to what they’re saying or doing. For instance, let’s say your story starts with a man and a woman sitting on a couch in an apartment. The man says, “Let’s go out tonight.” The woman says, “That sounds good.” (That’s the yes part.) She then says, “And let’s go to a movie.” That’s a simple example of yes, and. Statement, agreement, addition. So what does this do? It moves a story along. If the woman said, “No, I don’t want to go anywhere,” everything is at a standstill. A skeptic might think, well, then the story is about the man and the woman in the apartment. Maybe. But unless they agree eventually, all you have is an argument. And not only that, the story would take a lot longer to get off the ground. Yes, and, makes it immediately move forward.
DON’T BLOCK – The example I gave of the woman saying she doesn’t want to go anywhere is a block. It stops the story. The natural human reaction to anything new is to block, to disagree, to tell the other party why it won’t work. Whether it’s new idea, another way of doing something, or an invention. In real life such a response is annoying, frustrating and can stand in the way of progress. In a story, blocking stops the action cold. If you agree, the story moves forward. If you don’t it stagnates.
DON’T PLAN – The essence of improv is spontaneity therefore planning is the antithesis of improv. In writing a story some people write outlines and others don’t. (The planners and the pantsters – named for seat of the pants writing.) I think not having a plan makes it more exciting both for the writer and the reader. How can the reader guess where you’re going if even you don’t know?
THE DAY EVERYTHING CHANGED – Your short story is about the most important day in your character’s life. (Your novel is about the most important time in your character’s life.) The day (or time) when things changed. A day like no other. Good fiction is about change. Whether it’s comedy or drama. Your character changes.
These are just a few improv principles that might help your writing. More about improv in a future post!