Last week I talked about my love of Improv and how I use Improv to do everything from coming up with story ideas to raising the stakes to editing. This week, I’d like to give you five Improv games you can play on your own.
It might seem like a strange idea. Improv, after all, is performed in groups; whereas writing is usually a solitary activity. But really when you’re writing fiction, you can have as many people to play Improv games with as you like. You just have to make them up.
Each character should behave like an Improv actor, responding to everything with “yes, and.” This keeps the story moving forward. Try to explore each idea you choose as fully as you can. And if you drop something in early, try to remember to pick it up before the end.
And now, here it is:
Five Games Based on Improv
Writers Can Play On Their Own
1. Word Association (1-3 minutes)
Technically this is more of a warm up exercise than a game, but it does help you explore ideas or themes in a way that will let you come up with related stories.
Think of something, anything, and then think of all the things you associate with it. Rattle them off as they come to you, whether they make sense or not. You can record them, type them, or just write them down by hand on a piece of paper. (If you like to doodle, you can sketch ideas as well.) If you have someone else who can work with you, they could offer the original suggestion for you to brainstorm. Or if you have an idea of something you’d like to write, you can just start with one word associated with that thing.
For example, let’s say you want to write a YA. YAs are about teenagers, and teenagers go to high school. Your note might look something like this:
The words you come up with can help feed you ideas for the other games, so it’s usually a good way to start. In Improv, all players will come up with their own word lists. Sometimes they’ll actually talk about a topic instead of just listing words. However you do it, this is a good way to start.
2. Who, What, Why, Where, When, How (3-5 minutes)
Every story has to answer these questions. Who are your characters? What are they doing? Why are they doing it? Where are they? When is this scene taking place in regard to the action? (This isn’t about a time period, because something like the Ice Age, Victorian times, or in the future is really more of a where then a when. The when is before, during, or after the action.) How is this story shown? (For example, is it shown as a fairy tale, a romance, or a detective story, or all three at once?)
There are many different kinds of Improv games that are based on taking a scenario with assumptions and replacing a who, what, why, where, when or how with a different who, what, why, where, when or how.
One of these games, for example is Fairy Tale Court. Pick a fairy tale, take two or more characters from it, and come up with a scenario that would explain why one is suing the other. This is all about changing the what. Instead of doing what these characters would normally be doing in the fairy tale, they’re dealing with a lawsuit. You might think this is a where thing, but the court setting is just an extension of the what (the lawsuit).
For a more adaptable game, start with a story that has assumptions about all six. Do a one-minute word-association game related to that story, so you have all of your assumptions before you. Now change one of those assumptions to something very different.
Let’s use Cinderella as an example. Cinderella has Cinderella as the who, going to the prince’s ball at the castle as the what, falling in love with the prince as the why, Cinderella’s house as the where (for this part of the story), during as the when, and fairy tale for how the story is told. Write each of these down in a separate column. Now below each item, write a different who, what, why, where, when or how. Don’t think too long about each thing you write down. Whatever comes to you first, no matter how crazy it might seem.
Here’s a chart I wrote for Cinderella:
Go to the Castle
Fall in Love with the Prince
Run for Office
Go to bathroom
On a beach
You don’t have to fill out a complete chart, just enough to give you some original ideas. As you can see, there’s no end to the number of variations you can create from just one story.
Writers do this all the time, which is why there are so many variations of some stories. Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Ella Enchanted, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Pygmalion, My Fair Lady, She’s All That, A Cinderella Story, Another Cinderella Story, Ever After, and Just Ella are all variations of Cinderella. You can probably think of some more.
This game might be a little overwhelming at first, but it shouldn’t be. Just trust your instincts, no matter how crazy the idea you come up with seems to be. The thing to remember is that whatever you choose to change should be used consistently and in a way that makes sense within the context of your new story. Don’t just drop the change in and forget about it. Explore it fully. If you can’t trust yourself to come up with original changes, ask someone for a suggestion, like a type of person to replace the who or an activity to replace the what.
Once you’ve picked something, ask yourself, “What if?” Taking one idea at random, what if Cinderella was a robot? What if she was built to cook and clean, and what if she wanted something more? What if her fairy godmother was a nerdy guy who fixed her to make her beautiful so she could live her dream? It’s such a fun and interesting idea to explore.
3. Do It in Style (5-15 minutes)
Technically this is just about changing the how (as in how the story is told) of any story, but it can be very helpful for writers to experiment with different styles, so I’m including it as its own game.
Start with a very simple short story. This could be a well-known fairy tale, an ancient myth, a news item, a movie or book plot you’re very familiar with, a Shakespearean play, a Bible story, or even something interesting that happened to you recently. It should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Now write it in a genre different from the one it was originally.
I’ve done this with students in an English class, and they loved it. Some of the genres a writer can use are children’s book, Dr. Seuss (easier than it sounds, because you can just make up words if you can’t find a rhyme), spy thriller, romance novel, love letter, complaint letter, job application, horror, high fantasy, steampunk, Biblical, Shakespearean, or newspaper article. If there’s a popular movie or TV show character or celebrity with a particular way of behaving or talking, you can use that too. How would the characters on Jersey Shore act out the story of Cinderella? It could be fun to find out.
Doing it in style helps writers work on voice, which many believe is the single most important quality of every story. As the saying goes, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”
4. Raising the Stakes (3 minutes)
Raising the stakes is an important part of longer Improv games, because it keeps the audience engaged. It can also determine whether your reader will put your book down or feel compelled to keep reading from beginning to end.
In Improv, this game might simply involve having one player playing a character with a goal, while all the other players are required to step in, present an obstacle, and then leave. Or it could require two players to raise each other’s need to achieve their own goals while presenting each other with obstacles. Or raising the stakes could simply be an element of another Improv game.
To play this game as a writer, start by creating a character and giving that character something he or she wants. Now write a list of the reasons that character wants this thing, what it will mean if the character doesn’t get it, and what it will mean if the character does. One part of raising the stakes is about raising the character’s desire, so put these reasons in order from least important to most important.
For example, at first your character might want to pass a test just so he doesn’t fail the class. To raise the stakes, he might later find out that if he doesn’t pass the test, he’ll have to repeat tenth grade. Then he might start thinking about how this will affect his relationship with his girlfriend. Will she break up with him? Each stage here raises the stakes from a simple want to a deep need.
Next, create a list of the kind of things that might get in his or her way. I like to call this Murphy’s Law for Writers, which I sum up as, “If anything can go wrong (for your main character), it should.” These obstacles have to come out of what it is the character wants, not random, outside obstacles. They can come from the character himself (internal conflict), other characters, or the environment. One of the best obstacles is time itself, because if the main character doesn’t achieve his or her goal by a certain time, it will never happen. He has to pass the class tomorrow morning, because he won’t get a second chance.
Create other characters to make him need to reach his goal more or to provide obstacles to reaching his goal. For example, his girlfriend could tell him she couldn’t date him anymore if he’s held back a year. That would increase his need to reach his goal. Meanwhile, his best friend invites him to a party at his house, which tempts the main character away from studying for the test, thereby creating an obstacle. An environmental obstacle could be that the main character’s computer breaks down, so he can’t use it to study. Keep raising the stakes and keep having your main character do everything possible to achieve the goal until the question of whether or not your main character gets what he wants is answered. Your audience will be riveted, because your audience will need to know the answer to that question.
Goal: pass test
Can stop studying
Will prove he’s smart
Parents are pestering him
Needs to pass to move up to 11th grade
Parents will be disappointed if he fails
Needs to be in same class as girlfriend
Needs to keep girlfriend
Needs to keep his friends
Party at friend’s house
Homework he still has to do
The book is boring
He’s too tired to study
Girlfriend wants him to go to party
Parents refuse to help
Teacher won’t allow a makeup test
You don’t need to use all the things on your lists, but it’s a good idea to explore as many of them as fully as you can. (It can be really funny, though, if you do use everything on both lists and use them very quickly.) Try to raise the stakes physically and specifically, as well as internally and through dialogue. The more dimensions you can give the conflict, the more real it will be for the reader. And the more real it is, the more engaged your reader will be.
5. Rewind (1-3 minutes per rewind)
In Improv this game involves rewinding the last thing you said and saying something else. As writers, we shouldn’t just settle for the first thing we think of. What if the next thing you could have come up with would have been so much better? You won’t know unless you try. So do your story and yourself a favor and rewind.
This is a great game to play while you’re editing.
If you have a scene you’re not absolutely delighted with, rewind it and take it in a different direction. I often use this for dialogue, but it can also be a good way to raise the stakes. I like to use the comments section in Word for this. If what I come up with is better, I’ll replace the old scene in the document but keep the original scene in the comments section. Don’t be afraid to change anything and everything. Giving you more options can only give you a better, stronger story.
It will also save you from annoying the audience by missing something obvious. Ever watch an action film and think, “Why hasn’t anyone called the cops? There’s a guy running through midtown shooting. Surely at least one person has dialed 911 by now”? If the writer of that movie had gone through all the options, he would have an explanation as to why no one called the police or he would have had the police arrive at the scene. Explore as many logical possibilities that you can think of, because you don’t, your audience will.
This is just a small fraction of the number of ways you can use Improv in your writing.
Next week we’re going to look at Improv games that can work at writers’ workshops, classes, and the like. See you then!