6 Improv RulesThat Will Improve Your Writing.
Improv is more than make-’em-ups, finding the funny, and yes, anding. It’s being in the moment, trusting your gut, and being flexible enough to fully commit to something even when you don’t have a plan or any idea about what you’re doing.
Sounds a lot like writing, doesn’t it?
Improv has been part of my life for over 30 years. I’ve taken classes everywhere from The Groundlings to Comedysportz. I’ve started improv groups, produced improv shows, and have even participated in improv competitions.
I’ve had moments of brilliance, and times when I stunk up the theater, mostly because I got stuck in my head instead of just allowing the magic to happen.
I don’t do improv on stage anymore but at this point, it’s still part of my daily life — in ways I’m not even conscious of.
You never know when your ability to improvise is going to be needed.
Improv can make you a better writer — look at all the writers who trained in improv — and a better human too. You don’t get thrown when something unexpected happens so that you don’t get stressed out as easily.
In improv, you learn to trust your instincts, to be open to what your partner gives you, and how it’s not about pleasing an audience; it’s about telling the truth and being present.
As a writer, I use improv to write. Exploring characters and stories through improv and sitting at the computer and thinking about what this character would say or do helps me creatively — Natasha Rothwell.
When I was studying improv, I became fixated on the rules and tried to follow them to the letter. I didn’t understand you learned the rules so that you were then free to break them.
Nothing is absolute when it comes to improvisation and that’s its beauty.
I was so hung up on being perfect and funny that I stifled my imagination and paralyzed my spontaneity. It took me many hours of failing and sucking to stop caring so much about doing it right and to just enjoy the process.
Now I use improv rules as a suggested but not required guide.
Writing may seem like the exact opposite of improvisation and yet, the two go together in a way that makes perfect sense.
Research has found that improv helps expand vocabulary, increases confidence in our ideas, and boosts one’s ability to express themselves.
Here are some ways to use improv rules to help enhance your writing ability.
You may not have a “partner” when you’re writing but there are many parts of you that work together to put words down. Your brain, your instincts, and even your inspiration are all a part of the writing/process.
Listen to your inner voice as long as it has something helpful to say.
Too often, we find ourselves editing what we’ve written before we’ve even finished, or we just throw it all out and start again. Having a blank page is fantastic at the beginning but if you never get past the middle, you won’t have anything to finish.
Make a promise to yourself just to write through until the end before you stop. If you get stuck, just write a tiny note to yourself within the text like “insert funny joke here” or “put a quote here” and move on.
Tell the Truth.
When you’re doing an improv scene, the best moments come when you’re being honest. It’s not that you just playing yourself or doing the things that you know how to do, it’s that it’s better and more believable when there’s some truth to everything that you do.
When you’re honest about what you’re feeling or thinking, it makes you easier to relate to and it speaks about the human experience.
The more you try to be funny and the further you get away from the truth; the less humorous it will be.
My improv teacher and mentor, Cynthia Szigeti, used to yell at people in her classes to “look in the mirror and see yourself for who you really are.”
If you’re a character actor, don’t fool yourself that you’re a leading man or lady, and if you’re a writer, be truthful with both yourself and your reader.
If you spend all your energy hiding from the truth, you won’t have anything left to give.
The first rule of improv, Yes, and, means to accept what your partner is giving you and add to it. If your partner labels you as a master spy, then you agree that you’re 007, and add to the scene that you’re at spy-headquarters.
You don’t want to say, “I’m not a spy, I’m a cheese-maker” because then you’re denying the reality that your partner just set up and that makes things awkward for everybody.
Yes, and in writing, it helps you to expand upon an idea and to go as far as your imagination will let you. It’s a great way to brainstorm and come up with new ideas.
Yes, and — frees your mind and lets you follow your creativity wherever it takes you.
Show don’t just tell.
If an actor came on stage and spent the next 15 minutes describing the set, you’d get bored pretty quickly; the same is true with writing.
Sure, you need some exposition but it’s much better to show that a character was angry by the way their nostrils flared, their eyes pulled back, and their fists were clenched than just saying, “Tyler was angry.”
Use an active voice.
When improvising, it’s suggested that you make statements more than you ask questions. When you make a statement, it gives your partner something to work with and helps the scene to move.
When you use an active voice over a passive voice in writing, you’re doing something similar to how it’s used in improv. With an active voice, the subject of the sentence does the action of the verb, whereas, in the passive voice, the action happens to the subject.
Passive voice has its place but for many types of writing, it’s bolder and more exciting for the reader when you write in an active voice.
With improv, you need to trust both yourself and your partner. You shouldn’t plan out what you’re going to say or how you want the scene to go. You’ll be able to find the game of the scene if you just let it play out.
With writing, you also need to believe in yourself. Whether you plan what you’re going to write or you just write whatever comes into your head, give yourself permission to go with the flow.
In any creative endeavor, you need to have faith in yourself. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a huge support-system or fan-base, as long as you trust yourself.
Trust that you’re interesting, have something to say, and an original way to say it.
If you’ve never taken an improv class or even seen a show, you can still use these rules. Improv is about being present, spontaneous, and flexible. Don’t close yourself off to the possibilities because following them may take you somewhere in your writing that’s way better than where you thought you were going.