Mention improv to a writer and chances are he’ll turn whiter than a whipped cream hat on a snowman. Most people who put pen to paper think of improv as something that can be carried off only by fearlessly funny comedians. Yet the definition of improvise is to “invent, compose or perform something extemporaneously.” What’s more improvisational than the act of creating stories?
Alongside my writing career, I’ve been an improv performer and instructor for 10 years, and many of the most brilliant ideas I’ve ever seen hatch have happened in those moments when everyone felt the most free. Recently, for example, a player in the middle of a scene blurted out this line: “Do you want to discuss the origins of the universe in something more comfortable?” Ten hours of sitting at a computer might never have yielded what five minutes of reconnecting with his more playful side through improv did.
This guest post is by Leigh Anne Jasheway. Jasheway is a stress management and humor expert, comedy writer, stand-up comic, and comedy instructor/coach. She has an M.P.H. degree which is either stands for masters of public health or mistress of public humor She consults with organizations on how to use humor to manage stress, change, and conflict, and boost creativity, teamwork and morale. In 2003, she won the Erma Bombeck Award for Humor Writing, has 21 published books and has hosted two radio programs, Women Under the Influence of Laughter, on KOPT AM in Eugene, Oregon and the Giggle Spot, on All Comedy 1450. She also teaches comedy writing and stand-up and is a part-time faculty member at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communications. Follow her @lajfun and accidentalcomic.com.
While experimenting in the writing workshops I teach, I’ve found that, when adapted for writers—whether your focus is fiction, nonfiction, or anything else—the techniques taught through improv can enhance creativity, improve storytelling and dialogue skills, help make problems easier to solve, and make writing fun. After all, enjoying the process is the best way to prevent burnout, boredom and burrowing under the covers on bad-idea days.
Before jumping into these writing improv games (let’s not call them exercises—games are enjoyable, while exercise sounds like work!), keep these tips in mind:
- There is no wrong way to play. And you can’t fail—so there’s no reason not to jump in and just see what happens.
- Don’t wait until you have a great idea to move forward. Move forward and great ideas will come. Creativity is like a rusty spigot; you have to turn it on and let the gunk run through the pipes in order for the clean water to eventually pour out.
- Nothing is too silly to try. As the scriptwriter Beth Brandon said, “Opening your imagination to the ridiculous opens your mind to what you’re not otherwise seeing. In other words, it makes room for the genius to come through.”
- Whatever happens, explore without judgment. Improv is all about shutting down your inner critic and not measuring your work against anyone else’s (including your own previous writing). Yes, you’ll end up taking some side trips, but who knows what you might discover along the way.
Playing these games—alone or with a partner or group—can help you become more creative and fearless without ever having to step into the spotlight. Find one that speaks to you, and get ready to improv your way to better writing.
In the theatrical improv game by this name, two or more players act out a transformation—say, from egg to chicken—in their own ways. One might focus on the chick’s facial expressions and sounds, while another breaks out of the egg and unsteadily begins to walk. Writers, too, must be able to focus on details that capture the nature of change, and this game helps you do that.
How to play: Choose a pair (e.g., infant and toddler, geeky guy and prom king), and describe a specific aspect of the transition from one to the other. What sounds does the baby make as she learns to walk? How does her body move? What do her eyes do? How does she hold her head?
2. Half a Script
Imagine that you’ve never seen the movie When Harry Met Sally … or read Nora Ephron’s brilliant script. What would happen if you could read only Harry’s lines (e.g., “There are two kinds of women: high maintenance and low main-tenance”) or Sally’s (e.g., “How much worse can it get than finishing dinner, having him reach over, pull a hair out of my head and start flossing with it at the table?”)? Filling in the rest on your own is a fun way to work on dialogue and storytelling skills.
How to play: You will need 10–12 pages of a two-person script (these are easy to find online). You don’t want to see the full script before playing, though, so you’ll need to enlist the help of a writer friend to delete all of one character’s lines and print out the rest of the script for you. You can do the same with another script for your friend. What you end up with might look something like this:
Trudy cuts Billy’s hair as he fidgets in a tall kitchen chair.
TRUDY: You have to sit still. I almost van Goghed you.
TRUDY: I’m allowed. I’m older than you.
TRUDY: Oh, that will happen soon enough. We’ve already got plans for your room.
Trudy takes an electric razor out and begins to shave something into the back of Billy’s hair.
TRUDY: Wait, you’ll see.
Trudy hands Billy a hand mirror.
TRUDY: What do you think?
TRUDY: Oh, boo hoo. You always wear that hipster stocking cap, so no one will ever know.
Tip: Read the entire half-script before you begin so you can do the best job of filling in the blanks.
3. Four & 10
This counting game explores differences in the way people talk—specifically, the length of their sentences. Some folks are chatterboxes, while others basically nod and grunt (think of an old married couple or a parent and a sullen teen). If you write dialogue, this game can help you make sure your characters don’t all sound alike; if you write nonfiction, you’ll learn to tune your ear to how different people talk and convey that on the page.
How to play: Write two pages of conversation in which one character speaks in four-word sentences and the other speaks in 10-word spurts (which can be one sentence or more). Here’s a short example of how this might play out:
“Hey Jen, what’s new?”
“Not much. Just sitting here wondering what it all means.”
“What all what means?”
“Everything. You know, life, death, sex, sandwiches, politics, ‘The Bachelorette’ …”
“You need to meditate.”
“I can’t. It’s like the big bang in my brain.”
“That’s, uh, very philosophical.”
“Or hallucinatory. It’s hard for me to tell the difference.”
4. Scenes cut from a movie
What would have happened if in The Princess Bride, Princess Buttercup beat Prince Humperdink in a sword fight and escaped before Westley made it to the castle to rescue her? Similarly, what would happen if you added a chapter to your novel that wasn’t in your original outline? Or if you put that perhaps-too-revealing scene in your memoir? What then? This game challenges you to investigate what might develop if you add to something you’ve thought of as finished.
How to play: Pick a movie you know well. Now imagine a new scene that would change the outcome inserted somewhere in the script. You don’t have to write in script format; a new story of any kind will work. Aim for 1,500 words.
5. Freeze Tag
One major difference between writing and improv is that writers spend most of their time sitting at a desk relying on their brains for inspiration, while improvisers are in constant motion. For fiction writers, this game will help you focus on the physical action in a story. If you write nonfiction, this game will help you pay more attention to nonverbal communication, strengthening your insight into your subjects.
How to play: Write a short description of something physical a person could do—say, Stanley tapped his foot while making occasional clicking sounds with his tongue. Now, write 1,500 words that are inspired by only that physical description, with no preconceived notions about where your piece will take you or even what genre it will be.
6. First line, Last line
Let’s say you’ve crafted the perfect opening for your book, article or screenplay, and you know how you want things to end up, but you’re stumbling over what needs to come in between. This game can help strengthen your writing core by focusing on the middle of it all.
How to play: Borrow a brilliant opening line from a writer you admire, and then a closing line from a different one. For example, Anne Lamott began her essay “My Year on Match.com” with “Heroes come in all circumstances and ages,” while Tom Robbins concluded his novel Still Life With Woodpecker with “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”
Type the opening line at the top of a blank document, insert some line breaks, and then type the closing line. Give yourself 1,500 words to write from the first sentence to the last, creating a fictional story, a personal essay, a new chapter in your memoir, or even a self-help article that not only ties the two incongruous elements together, but does so imaginatively and in a way that surprises you. Don’t cheat and wrap things up in fewer words. The goal here is not just to get from Point A to Point B, but to enjoy the journey.
Tip: Playing this game with a writing group? Try having everyone choose the same first and last sentences and then reading the resulting stories aloud. Nothing stimulates great ideas like seeing how different writers approach the same challenge.7.
When you …
Readers are like dogs. They can smell when you’re bored or just going through the motions. If you want your readers to be passionate about what you’ve put on the page, you have to be as excited when you write as Fido is about a ride in the car. This game is all about sticking your head out the window and enjoying your own process.
How to play: Start with the statement “Remember when you …” and dream up something unusual to fill in the blank. You might try, “Remember when you were the first person to walk on the moon?” or, “Remember when you discussed Frisbee golf with Sir Isaac Newton?” (I like to think this is the way Steve Martin conceived his brilliant play Picasso at the Lapin Agile, in which Picasso and Einstein meet regularly at a bar.)
Once you have your imagined memory, write a 1,500-word monologue in which you passionately describe from the first-person perspective what happened, using powerful imagery to draw readers in and make them believe every nuance. If the story is frightening, make it deeply, psychologically so. On the other hand, if your character is describing a joyous moment, let the readers feel her ebullience.
8. New Choice
First attempts are usually not the best. There’s a reason the “test” pancake is usually a throwaway, and upgraded cellphone models are rolled out roughly every four days. Unfortunately, many writers get overly attached to words, sentences and ideas and are reluctant to make new choices. If you’re ever afraid to let go of something you created, but you know that it still needs work, this game will embolden you.
How to play: Gather a pair of dice and a few pages of a project you’re currently working on. Roll the dice and count from the beginning to the sentence that matches the number on them (if you roll a seven, go to the seventh sentence). Whatever you find there you must make a new choice for. Change not only the way the sentence is written, but the content. Do so in a way that it fits with what has come before, but takes your writing in a different direction. Write 12 sentences that explore the new choice, then roll the dice again and count from your first new sentence, repeating the challenge. Play this game for an hour.
Anytime you find yourself going down a literary dead end, try this approach.
9. Opposites in Peril
Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple is a perfect example of how two characters with opposite personalities can create conflict and interest simply by virtue of who they are and how they behave. This game will help you learn to use the lens of personality to keep your characters—fictional or real—true to themselves.
How to play: Write five traits for a character. For example: optimistic, chatty, affable, calm, afraid of taking risks. Now create a second character who is the opposite. In this case: pessimistic, brooding, short-tempered, adrenaline junkie, reckless. Imagine a scenario in which both characters must work together. Perhaps they are stuck in an elevator, or planning a wedding. Write 1,500 words in which the differences in their personality quirks are central to the story.
10. 60-Second Fairy Tales
In improv, almost anything is funnier when it’s speeded up, and that’s what this game aims for when played on a stage. But on paper, it still teaches a valuable skill every writer needs to know—how to say a lot in a few words.
How to play: Pick any fairy tale and reread it so that you remember the most important details. When you’re finished, summarize all the vital story elements in 150–160 words (the length that takes about one minute to read aloud), making sure to use compelling language that would inspire anyone reading your summary to pick up the story and dive in. Needless to say, this is a terrific technique for honing your pitching skills, too.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.