Improvisational Writing

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, Master Certified Life CoachDiane 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

45 thoughts on “Improvisational Writing

  1. Love exercises like these…the restrictions always lead me to what I “need” to be writing at the moment! I also love to roll dice, and then write a paragraph using sentences with that many words…it could be 2 word sentences, or 12 words, or somewhere in between. Word of caution, make a pact with yourself before starting–contractions count as on word–Yes or No 🙂

    • Hi Mom,
      Thanks for the dice game–I like it! And I can tell you right now, contractions will count as one word!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  2. This one is very interesting. I will bookmark it for future reference. There are are some helpful tips there like Yes and… and writing each letter of the alphabet the next one related to the last. Really interesting.

    • Hi improssiblebebong,
      Thank you! I can’t take credit for “Yes, and…” but I did make up the alphabet game. Glad you found it useful.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Warmly,
      Diane

    • Hi impossiblebebong,
      The post has a title, Improvisational Writing. I wonder why it didn’t show up for you? Anyway, thanks for reading!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  3. Was your class designed for writers? This is so much like improve in acting. I teach drama and love doing these exercises too. It really gets you thinking quick on your feet. I’ll definitely try this.

    • HI atimetoshare,
      No, the class I took was Improv 101, for the stage. I just thought it would be fun to apply what I was learning in class to my writing life. So far there are a lot of concepts that cross over–I tend to overthink things–in speaking and in writing, so improv is good for me. Let me know what you think after you apply improv techniques to your writing.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Warmly,
      Diane

      • This is so interesting. I’ve been teaching drama for over 35 years and I guess I have already used this technique in my writing without even realizing it. Being in the moment as we act or write is so freeing, isn’t it. Thanks for giving me a new look at this term.

  4. This post is extremely helpful! Thank you. This will definitely help me expand on conversations within my first novel. A big help and I am looking forward to putting it into practice. Thanks again!

    • Hi drakes1,
      I’m glad you found the post helpful. Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Happy writing!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  5. I’ve been taking acting classes for over a year now, and I remember the “Yes, and…” too. Improv has always been my favorite part of class. 🙂

    • Hi Katy,
      I love the classes, from the warm-ups (which are really silly games) to the scenes. And I’ve been having fun applying the concepts to my writing.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  6. Hi Doctor Mac!

    I did improv theater for a number of years at one of those them there Renaissance Faires. (With an “e”.) The yes, and and no, buts were two tools we used. Unfortunately, it was awful when you threw out a premise and the other person shot it down. Or just took over the gig to promote their own POV.

    Guess that’s sort of like what the characters do in the book. You think the gig is moving along splendidly, then someone decides to grandstand and kill the gig deader than last week’s broadway reviews.

    Anyway, fun! I hadn’t thought of applying this training into writing… I’ll consider these methods.

    • Hi pontiuscominius,
      Yes, it can be difficult when someone negates the premise you offered, but luckily we are learning how NOT to do that in my improv class. It makes it really easy to get a scene going when your partners are supportive. The concept has allowed me to let my characters go a little more and to let things happen without always asking myself questions like, “Would this really happne?” Those questions are better asked at the editing stage, in my opinion.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Warmly,
      Diane

      • Dr. Mac:
        Yes, and when you’re learning all those tools, it’s pretty fun to do improvs because you can get some really crazy scenes.

        Has your training emphasized a sort of no-judgment just blurt out whatever kind of paradigm? I remember that being a part of many of the theater games, that you were to say whatever it was, no matter how crude or rude or crazy. It’s the idea that if you turn off your censor (a left brain function) and you’re doing a sort of no-judgment improv, you get a more honest improv. Sometimes it’s pretty funny.

        If you like the Office, some of the Michael Scott improv scenes are painfully hilarious because he breaks all the rules of improv. “What’s the most exciting thing you can have in a scene? A gun.”

        http://www.frequency.com/video/michael-scott-improv/60278742

    • Hi Michelle,
      I’m glad you liked the idea of using improv techniques in writing. Adapt away, I say! Have fun!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  7. I’ve now heard several writers recommend improv as great “cross training” for writing. Makes me want to take a class! I had fun with drama classes years back, so maybe one day. Great post!

    • Hi kthrog,
      I’ve been wanting to take an improv class for years, and I finally did it. I feel it’s helping with my speaking skills and my writing skills, plus it’s a lot of fun. Fun is good!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  8. Lovely. You have supplied some wonderful ideas to get your writing muscles working and also in discovering those ever-elusive characters. I feel I will be using these in the near future. Thank you for sharing 🙂

  9. So glad you brought up the “Yes, and…” It really is a useful idea for pushing any story forward. I was in a comedy troupe once and we got some really good ideas from a book called “Truth in Comedy.” I’ll have to dust it off and see what else I can use in my fiction.

    One game we used to play was called “Expand/Advance.” Someone would call these out during a scene and we would have to either expand the scene or move on to the next scene. That might be another helpful too for writing–sometime my scenes suffer from a lack of material and need expanded. Other times I need to just move along.

    Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Hi Gene,
      Thanks so much for adding the “Expand/Advance” technique. Very helpful idea.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Happy writing!

      Warmly,
      Diane

    • Hi Sally,
      I agree, this is a way I can let my characters develop without worrying where they are going. Even if they end up someplace I can’t use in the story, I’ll know a little more about my characters than I did before.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Warmly,
      Diane

  10. I’ve never had a character respond with, “Yes, and…” but I’ve found that it’s sometimes good to keep going in a similar way in life. Thanks for sharing!

  11. Pingback: A Lesson Learned from Improv | Live to Write – Write to Live

  12. I love the idea of “Yes, and …” Awesome way to find your flow. It’s sounds familiar … Like playing with my six-year old when he’s created his Lego Star Wars base and we’re on a mission. Love it! Thanks for posting.

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