I took an improv class in Cambridge this winter. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since 2008, when I did improv during a Master Coach training. Since taking the class, I’ve been using some of the techniques I learned to get more words on the page. Here are two of the ways I’ve incorporated improv into my writing life.
Warm-Ups: Every week, at the beginning of class, we would do a series of game designed to warm us up; to get us out of our heads and into our bodies. I’ve started doing warm-ups at the beginning of my writing sessions. One (silly) warm-up I do is write a word that begins with each letter of the alphabet, relating each word somehow (even tangentially) to the previous word (not all the previous words, just the word before that word).
An example: Apples Bruise Colors Design Elements Forever Granite Houses Invite Jollies Kites Lift Metal Nails Overbite Perpetual Queen Red Shoe Trees Undulate Visually Wonderful X-Ray You Zephyr.
One of the first things you learn in improv is the idea of “Yes, and…” No matter what your partner in the scene says, you don’t disagree with them. You accept the reality of the world they have created (that’s the “Yes,”) and you expand upon it (that’s the “and.”)
If your partner says, “Oh my God, your head is on fire!” and you say, “No, it’s not,” you have completely negated the premise they gave you and now there is no movement, no energy. The scene is completely dead.
But if your partner says, “Oh my God, your head is on fire!” and you say, “Oh my God, it’s on fire and we’re standing in the middle of a match factory!” now you’ve got something. There’s energy and movement to the scene and the audience gets to see what these two characters are going to do next.
In my writing, I’ve started taking my characters and letting them do some unexpected things. Whatever they do or say, I respond, “Yes, and…” then I see where it takes me. Not every part of this exploration will make it into my finished piece, but I find it’s making my characters more interesting and giving me a lot more flexibility as to what happens next.
Once I expand my character this way, he doesn’t go back to the narrow person I first imagined. He doesn’t necessarily remain totally outrageous, but he definitely becomes more three-dimensional.
What happens to your characters when you say, “Yes, and…?
Diane MacKinnon, MD: is a writer, blogger, mom, life coach, and family physician. I’ve also found the stories I tell my son are getting more fun and I find it much easier to find new ideas since I took that improv class.