MAY 2012 Improv and Writing
What can unwritten improvisation teach us about writing?
Improv comedy is a performance art in which actors, often inspired by a suggestion from the audience, spontaneously act out scenes without any script or rehearsal. Essentially, they make it up as they go. This isn’t to say that there is no preparation involved, because good improv is performed by actors who have extensive training in the art form. There is a set of rules and guidelines that improv actors tend to follow to ensure the scene is engaging. For example, the famous, “yes, and” rule dictates that an actor should agree with the offer that was made and expand on it. “Yes, we are on a pirate ship, and I’m about to walk the plank.” If the actor were to respond with, “No, we’re not on a pirate ship; we’re in a kitchen, idiot,” then the scene would lose its momentum and come to a crashing halt.
So how can an art form that is completely unscripted and unwritten help a person who is writing a script? In many ways, it seems.
Another improv guideline is to “establish a relationship.” It is recommended that when a scene begins, the actors should identify how their characters know each other. Are they friends, spouses, relatives, coworkers, etc.? What are their names? More importantly, what is the tone of their exchange, and how do they feel about each other? Once these points are established, actors have a strong foundation for a scene that will keep the audience engaged. The same can be said for scenes in a movie or passages from a book. If the audience doesn’t know how the characters relate to each other or understand the emotions that accompany their relationship, the audience will become disengaged. Writers should try to identify who the characters are and what they mean to each other for every interaction in a story. Emotions are magnetic. As long as a character is displaying genuine emotion, the audience will be drawn in and become attached.
Improv can be very fanciful and absurdist. Inexperienced improv actors might think that because they are in a bizarre world they’ve created, nothing about real life needs to apply. But scenes should still have roots in realism in terms of basic human interaction and emotion. Characters must act and react in a way that is believable. The same goes for writing a story. Even with genres like fantasy and science fiction, where characters might be wizards or aliens or robots, the audience still needs a trace of humanity to be able to connect. They will have trouble suspending their disbelief when characters aren’t the acting the way real people would normally act. Like improvisers, writers should focus on making the interactions and emotional connections between characters believable.
Improv actors-in-training might get stuck in the middle of a scene when they are not sure what line or action should come next. When this happens, improv teachers often jump in and ask, “If this is true, what else is true?” In other words, if what the actors have established so far in the scene is reality, then what else can they assume must be true based on this reality? Writers can use this technique when they are experiencing writer’s block by asking, “What else must true about my character or scenario?” They can refer back to the set of characteristics or circumstances they have created. It should become easier to determine what could logically happen next based on what has already happened.
In general, the elements that make for good improv and good written storytelling are the same. A strong connection between characters, which will nurture the audience’s connection. Believable emotions and reactions. A consistency with characters and their actions—if this is true, that must also be true. Following these improv guidelines will help writers create an engaging and emotionally rich story.