A Lesson Learned from Improv

This past winter, I took an Improv 101 class at ImprovBoston in Cambridge, MA. I had a great time and I learned a lot. I expected to apply a lot of what I learned to my role as a public speaker, but I also took home a lot of tips to help my writing—specifically to boost my creativity. I wrote about it here.

This spring I’ve been taking the 201 level Improv class and it’s been, once again, a lot of fun. I’ve also learned something every week that I have been able to apply directly to my writing life.

For example, one week we talked a lot about “status.” High status vs. low status; and we created characters who were either high status or low status. Since it’s improv, we didn’t make a list on a blackboard, we just started scenes and had our characters show characteristics of either high status or low status. It was amazing how quickly we (as the audience) could tell who was higher status and who was lower status, no matter what the scene was.

We played one game where we had Post-It notes with a number or letter (aces low) from a deck of cards on our foreheads. The scene was a wedding reception and we all walked around talking to the other guests. We had to figure out, by the way the others treated us, what our status was. After we finished the scene, we lined up according to how high or low status we thought we were.

Those of us who were very high status or very low status were pretty accurate in our assessment. When one party guest asked me to find the caterers and see if they had any more bacon-wrapped scallops to pass around, I figured I was pretty low status—and I was right. Those who were in the middle were not as accurate, although they knew they were in the middle.

On my drive home from class, I started thinking about the character in the short story I’ve been working on. I’ve been having a hard time showing him to be the person I see in my head. My critique group commented that he seemed immature and naïve. After that improv class, I could see I’d given this character some low status characteristics that took away from his authority and his believability as a physician.

More importantly, I could see how to fix that.

Just as I don’t want to confuse my audience when I’m doing improv, I don’t want to confuse my reader in my writing. I went through my short story and made my character’s words, gestures, and thoughts more consistent with who he really is—and I made sure that his “status” in relation to the other characters in my story was equally clear.

What’s the status of your latest story and characters?

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon, MD: is a writer, blogger, life coach, and family physician. I also do some public speaking and am so glad I tried improv as a way to improve my public speaking skills. I’ve never had so much in a class before–and I’ve taken a lot of classes over the years!

7 thoughts on “A Lesson Learned from Improv

  1. Thanks for sharing Diane!
    This is very interesting and also so helpful to keep in mind while forming characters or writing in general.
    I love improv, it helps with so much in life it’s amazing, I never thought about it in terms of writing. Very cool!


  2. It is very interesting to hear about your experiences since we don’t have so many opportunities to expand our knowledge in writing and creating where I come from. Thank you for your posts, you always offer such valuable information 🙂

  3. Yes! Improv is the place I learned to act on my feelings and to listen to my intuition. It’s excellent complimentary therapy ( which can be a well-ness approach) and it happens to be great fun. Thank you for writing about improv, Diane!

  4. I never would have thought of improv as a way to boost writing skills. This is a great lesson in really getting into the character when your writing a story. I write young adult fiction so there is some high and low status in relation to high schoolers- popular kids vs nerds. I will give a little improv a try on my next story.

  5. I hadn’t heard of these high-low status characters before, but I’m so glad I did, thanks for posting this. I loved the Post-it note exercise great way to look at characters.

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