Always Say Yes: What writers can learn from our actor friends and improv

(L-R): Nyima Funk, Colin Mochrie, and Wayne Brady from the TV show Whose Line is it Anyway?

(L-R): Nyima Funk, Colin Mochrie, and Wayne Brady from the TV show Whose Line is it Anyway?

Out of all the different types of artistic expression, the artists I seem to befriend most often are actors.

I’m not really sure why this is, for I’m sure as hell no actor.  I have no poker face whatsoever, let alone the ability to re-create a given emotion at will, and body movements range from woodenly awkward to determinedly abrupt.

As well, the mechanics and semiotics of acting are largely lost upon me. I can’t really distinguish a “good” performance from a “spectacular” one, and when I watch movies or plays, so long as the story obeys its own internal logic and follows a satisfying story arc, that’s good enough for me.

I’m a writer; I’m far less interested in the performance of a story than I am in the creation of that’s story’s script.

And yet, as different as my actor friends and their art seems to be from me and mine, I’ve come to discover the usefulness one particular actor’s tool can have for writers.

That tool is improvisation.

An offer you can’t refuse

Improvisation (improv for short), according to Wikipedia, is the act of spontaneous creation for the purpose of achieving expressive freedom and exploration.

In acting, it often takes the form of short physical comedy sketches like on the show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, although full-length sitcoms and even movies often contain improvised lines and performances as well, both intentionally and to cover up when an actor makes a mistake.

Improvised scenes tend to involve two or more people, with the opening line of the scene as presented from one actor (person A) to another (person B) referred to as the “offer”.  The first rule of improv is to always say yes to the offer, that is to go along with whatever you’re presented with rather than ignoring or trying to change it.

Three years ago, I volunteered at a writing camp for youth where one of the workshops was on improvisation in storytelling.  The workshop was delivered by Canadian improviser Mike Fly, in which he explained how acting out improvised scenes through a variety of theatre games can help familiarize writers with the five elements of a simple story:

  1. Setting
  2. Characters
  3. Something out of the ordinary (i.e. conflict)
  4. Rising action / trials and tribulations
  5. Resolution

However, Fly also discussed how improv can apply to the act of writing itself, stating that the way to continue a story through to completion is by pretending you are “person B” – the person accepting the offer of person A and giving a new offer in return.

According to Fly,

Improv teaches how to play out or work with a seemingly bad or wrong idea to see where it goes.  “No” in improv slows things down and stops the action.  It is negative.

Improv in/and action

This idea of spontaneous creation in writing isn’t new: free writing/timed writing/writing in stream of consciousness is a well-known exercise for writing without judgement of what’s being produced and for getting words down on the page.  So too is the act of “pantsing”/discovery writing one’s way through a story.

Personally, free writing has never worked well for me for another other than writing in my journal.

Call me a perfectionist (or maybe a lazy editor), but I just don’t want to produce pages that read like a passage from James Joyce’s Ulysses in my novel-in-progress.  That method might do wonders for some, but for me, it just causes me more writing stress.

I like to maintain control over my words, seeking the middle ground between the time it takes to agonize over every word and the time it takes to decipher and rework a stream of consciousness into a stream of coherence.  This is especially true with me now more than three-quarters of the way through my WIP, trying to tie up every loose end without inadvertently leaving some aspect of the story unresolved.

Talk about writing stress.  Unnecessarily self-inflicted stress, I know, yet there it is all the same.

I find Fly’s advice particularly helpful at this stage (no pun intended), and the adoption of an improv mentality liberating.

When progress on my WIP grinds to a halt, improv offers permission, in the absence of knowing for sure what to write next, to simply write the first thing that comes into my head, even if I get no immediate sense of rightness from it.

By just saying “Yes” to whatever my mind offers me, I’m given a clear direction of travel and an obligation to see where – if anywhere – it leads.  And if it goes nowhere, then it’s simply discarded as one less possibility in the ongoing search for the true next sentence to be distracted by.

A literary process of elimination, if you will – one built on the premise that it’s better to write garbage than write nothing.

And that one never knows where an unexplored idea might take you.

(Image source)

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