Wisdom for Writers From the World of Improv
Improvisation is at the heart of creativity. That initial moment when nothing becomes something is at the core of artistic endeavour and of invention, and it is by definition improvisational.
Craft takes that inital something and forms it into an object d’art: a painting, a sculpture, a machine, a tool, a book, or a rehearsed performance.
Writers need craft. We need grammar and vocabulary, paragraphs and structure, tone and style. But we must not lose our connection with that creative moment, that initial spark, our muse. If we are in danger of losing that initial impulse, we can find guidance in the art forms that celebrate the creative moment as a complete thing in itself, improvisational forms.
To set the scene
I discovered Viola Spolin’s work during my theatrical training. Her book, Improvisation for the Theater was a primary text in my directing class and had an enduring impact on the way I work as an actor and as a director. Later, I trained with BATS Improv, where I learned about long form improvisation and the work of Keith Johnstone. I attended a master class with Johnstone that was instrumental in changing my understanding of character relationships in life and in stories.
When I returned to writing fiction a few years ago, the practices and principles of Improv were tools I brought with me.
Wisdom from the World of Improv
- Show Up and Commit: For improvisational performers, the moment of stepping on to the stage and doing something, anything, is an oppurtunity that fear can kill. To make a performance engaging, the actor must step boldly onto the stage and perform as though there is nothing else that she could be doing at that moment. So, too, for writers. The moment we show up at the page can be fraught with fear. But, if we write boldly, with commitment to moving forward, we are creating. We can edit later, but for that first creation, we must simply show up and start writing – something, anything.
- Start Anywhere: There is no correct place to begin. A performer can start with a setting, a gesture, a line of dialogue, an idea. So, too, can a writer. Start with the first thing that comes to mind and commit to that and it will lead the next word.
- Be Obvious: Here, I will simply quote from Keith Johnstone’s book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. The parallel to writing should be clear.
“The improviser has to realize that the more obvious he is, the more original he appears….Ordinary people asked to improvise will search for some ‘original’ idea because they want to be thought clever…. No two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improviser is, the more himself he appears. An artist who is inspired is being obvious. He’s not making any decisions; he’s not weighing one idea against another. He’s accepting his first thoughts….Striving after originality takes you far away from your true self, and makes your work mediocre.”
- Accept What is Offered: The Improv mantra is “Yes, and….” This is shorthand for accepting what your scene partners give you and incorporating it into your work rather than rejecting it because it didn’t match your ideas of where the scene can go. This principle of “yes, and…” is what writers use when the muse hits them with an idea that pushes them to revise the outline they were following. Orson Scott Card used to tell his writing students that “the best stories often come from the juxtoposition of completely unrelated ideas.” Take those ideas and run with them. Don’t squash them. See where they lead. It might be magical.
- Make Mistakes: If you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t risking enough. If you try something different, you’ll probably mess it up a few times. Keep trying. Making mistakes is how we learn. Haven’t tried improvising a song before; you’ll sing a few horrible ones before you find a chorus that works. Haven’t written a sonnet; you’ll probably write some stinkers before you write one you don’t hate. If you aren’t willing to risk mistakes, you won’t grow.
In improvised performance, mistakes invite the audience into the journey more deeply as they worry whether the actors will find their way out of that challenge. Thriller writer Barry Eisler posts errors readers find in his novels on his web site; I am sure that has endeared him to some readers and sent others back to his books looking for mistakes just so they could make meaningful contact with him.
- Status Matters: This is actually a key to characterization. People care about how they look and feel in relationship to one another. Every single interaction between two characters can be played or written as a move in a status game. The basic possible moves are: A tries to increase own status; A tries to decrease B’s status; A tries to increase B’s status – notice that having the power to do that immediately conveys status on A as well; A tries to block B as B tries to increase own status. For melodramatic purposes and for exercises, these can be huge moves. For realism, they must be as small as possible, but they must be there for characters to be believable. Friends agree to play status games with each other and accept defeat graciously; enemies play to win; everybody plays.
- Use Your Craft: Skilled long form performers work as a team to tell a complete story, sometimes hours long. To do this, they draw on their knowledge of story structure, their experience of how to get in and out of scenes, their ability to remember what props and characters were mentioned earlier. The best performances occur when the craft is there but the audience can’t see it, when the craft is buried so deeply in the actors’ performances that it just happens. As writers, we can use this wisdom. Study craft, become consciously aware of all your available tools, practice so often that you can use them without thinking, then tell your story.
For a look at how improv can provide more general advice for life, I suggest Improv Wisdom by Patricia Ryan Madson.
If you have other ideas of how improv can be useful to writers, please share them in the comments.