Improv, for those who don't know, is improvisational theater. It's usually funny, although that isn't a requirement. Most of the cast of Saturday Night Live started out doing Improv. That includes people like John Belushi, Mike Myers, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler.
Improv actors are able to write dialogue on the spot. Steve Carell, who played Dunder-Mifflin Regional Manager Michael Scott on The Office, started out in Improv, which allowed him to ad lib many of his lines on that show. Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report also credits Improv as a major influence on his work. Drew Carey and most of the cast of the Drew Carey Show knew Improv and were able to show off their skills in several episodes. One of my favorites is an episode where they rewind a scene so that the actor who last spoke has to come up with and deliver an alternate line. They really got to show off their creativity.
What can Improv do for writers?
Studying Improv can teach writers to think on their toes, trust their instincts, and change everything and anything at a moment's notice. In Improv there's no time for doubt. You just do it. What you come up with might be rubbish, but that's okay. Just rewind and come up with an alternate line, character, scene, or whatever. And if that's still rubbish, rewind and come up with another alternative, again and again until you find something you're happy with. It works for Tina Fey, who won a Mark Twain Award for humor and several Emmy Awards. It works for Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. It can work for you too.
Here are some specific skills writers can learn from Improv:
Look at old things in new ways
Every story has a who (characters), what (actions), why (motivations), where (setting), when (before, during, or after), and how (style, narrative voice, or genre). Many Improv games are about taking one of these elements out and replacing it with something else. For example, if you take the who out of Cinderella and replace with a different who, you could have Cinderfella, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Pygmalion, or My Fair Lady, to name just a few. Break down any old fairy tale, Shakespeare play, Biblical story, ancient myth, or other very old (pre-1900s) classic to its parts and change one element to come up with a completely new story. Rick Riordan took Greek Myths and changed the where to modern-day America to create the Percy Jackson series. It's amazing what changing just one thing can do.
Move the story forward
The two most important words to remember in Improv are "yes, and." What this means is that when someone offers you a suggestion, you take that suggestion and add something to it. The answer can never be “no,” and it can never be “yes, but.” It also can't be a simple yes. You always have to add something. You always have to be moving the story forward.
For example, if a fellow Improv actor gives you the suggestion "let's go to the movies," your answer shouldn't be "no, I'd rather stay home" or "yes, but let's go get ice cream first" or just a simple "that's a great idea." Instead it should be something like "there's a great new thriller I'd like to see."
In most Improv games that are performed on stage, the audience is asked to provide a suggestion, such as a genre, an occupation, a situation, a personality type, or even something as specific as a fairytale. The scene must be based on whatever suggestions you take from the audience. It's important to use the audience's suggestions as fully as possible. You can't just use or mention the suggestion once and then go off to something completely different. If, for example, you're playing Fairy Tale Court and the audience suggests Cinderella as your fairy tale, you can't just call the defendant Cinderella and ignore her cleaning, glass slippers, fairy godmother, pumpkin coach, and so on. Whatever you make your story about, dig deep. Try to explore it as fully as you can.
Avoid a sagging middle by raising the stakes
In longer Improv games, it's important to keep raising the stakes. It keeps your audience engaged and interested—same thing as in writing.
There are two ways to raise the stakes. The first is by the main character wanting whatever it is he wants even more. The second is by giving him more obstacles.
These obstacles can be internal or external but they have to come out of whatever it is the character wants. They can’t just be random obstacles thrown at the main character. If, for example, your main character wants to ask a girl out for a date, the obstacle shouldn't be that first he has to get past a thug who's threatening to break both his legs if he doesn't pay back the money he owes. It can be that he's shy, his best friend confesses he's attracted to the girl, the girl has an overprotective dad who never likes any of his daughter's boyfriends, and a million other things that have something to do with the idea of a boy asking a girl out for a date.
Don't underestimate your story--let it shine
Another thing writers can learn from Improv is that it helps to play things big. For example, if you ask for a character type, and the audience gives you “angry,” your character shouldn't be passive aggressive. If your character is supposed to be angry, he should be very angry. I wouldn't recommend playing everything at eleven on a scale of one to ten. (Yes, that's a deliberate This Is Spinal Tap reference, because that's Improv too.) That would probably be going overboard and it might turn off the audience. Plus, everything played at eleven make the volume irrelevant, because there's nothing to compare it to. A performance ranging between five and nine (with an occasional, brief ten or eleven) would probably be a good idea.
Trust your instincts
Most Improv games are only a few minutes long, and some can be even shorter. There's no time for doubt, so you just have to go with whatever pops into your head first. It might not make sense, but if you stick with it, you'll see there's a reason why that thing popped in your head.
In the very early years of Improv at one performance, an actor brought back a certain idea based on a suggestion long after it was offered. The audience loved it. The group asked themselves what this should be called, and someone suggested, “What about Harold?” So a “Harold” is when someone brings back an idea much later in the sketch or even in another sketch.
There's a lesson in this for writers: if you dropped something in your story early on, there's probably a reason you did. You might not know what that reason is yet, but trust your instincts. Don't just drop something into your story, think “Well, that doesn't make any sense,” and then just forget about it. Readers will love it when you bring that stuff back. Consider it foreshadowing. That thing you dropped in might not have made much sense in the beginning, but when you bring it back, it will make perfect sense. That's a first-rate Harold.
And if you bring something in only near the end, see if you can introduce it in the beginning. The foreshadowing will turn it from something sneaky into something brilliant. I call this a reverse Harold. You can't do this in real Improv, but as a writer you can get away with some things actors performing live in front of an audience can't. It might be cheating, but don't worry. I won't tell.
Don't be afraid to change everything and anything
When you get to something that seems weak or ineffective--whether it's a character, piece of dialogue, or a scene--press rewind. Then rewrite that thing in a different way, or even two or three different ways. The more choices you have, the better it will be.
Leave the audience wanting more
It's usually best to end an Improv game at a high point, because anything else after it will be downhill. The suggestion should be fully explored and whatever conflicts or questions the audience might have should be resolved in a satisfying way. Then the story should end. This is also true for the end of your story. Leave the reader feeling satisfied but wanting more.
Now look at your own writing and ask yourself, "What can Improv do for you?"
Next week, I'll be sharing with you five Improv games you can play on your own. See you then!