When I started learning how to improvise it wasn’t so that I could become a better writer.
I thought it would help me be braver. I had some notions of being happier. Mostly though I learnt how to improvise so I could bring more love into my life - all due to a meditation during which the idea of improvisation jumped out of the collective unconscious and into my cross-legged-lap.
I answered the call.
I went to Impro Melbourne to learn how to improvise and I've never looked back.
Later, as I was slogging my way through the nth rewrite of my first book - The Book That Broke the World (currently being shopped around) – I began to realise the things I’d spent my time learning on the impro stage were things that could help me take my story from mediocre to more delightful.
I found as I reworked my book that impro was a useful prism through which to view my story.
It gave me a different way of relating to my writing.
IMPRO RULES FOR BETTER WRITING:
Discover what delights you (and your readers too)
The story doesn't seem to be working. It's thin or obvious or by-the-numbers or bland or just not quite right, but you can’t figure out why. During my many rewrites I sometimes found myself in this situation. Impro teaches us to ask the question: “What would delight me/ my partner/ my audience?”
When I ask this question on the page, a whole world of possibilities open up because my inner child is itching to get in on the act. Instead of reacting predictably, a key character suddenly does the unexpected; a setting is changed that adds colour to the scene or ups the stakes; character details are added that add a touch of quirk.
If you’re stuck – touch base with your inner child and ask yourself – what would delight me now? Then paint that delight into your story.
Accept your own offers
Another way that we put this in impro is ‘Yes AND’. It's a fundamental principle of good improvisation – the ability to get on a stage with someone and fully accept the story, character and setting offers they are making. The best improvisers accept every offer made to them and leave no offer unaccepted so that it appears as if magic is unfolding on the stage. As a writer, you may be the only one making or accepting offers, but the same rule applies.
Is there a thread, theme or subplot you’ve thrown in to your story that you abandoned or left under-developed? Is there an interesting side character that does little to forward the plot? Is there a plot point that doesn’t connect to anything else? Or an event or conflict that doesn’t play itself out to its ultimate conclusion? The problem may be that you’ve made yourself an offer on the page that you’ve not then fully accepted. Accept your own offers. Look for those gifts you've given yourself and play them out. If they don’t belong in the story, you’ll quickly figure it out and then be in a position to cull what doesn’t work.
Be prepared to risk everything (most especially the characters you love)
If things are not moving forward - or the story seems stuck - ask yourself whether you’re playing it safe. We have a tendency both as improvisers and writers to try to protect our characters from emotional and physical disaster. Our human survival instinct kicks in and we don’t want to hurt them all that much. It’s a strange phenomenon that can kill our stories.
Very often this is the reason why a plot that's been kicking along beautifully suddenly feels stale. The best stories are the ones with the highest stakes for their characters, whether those stakes are emotional, psychological or physical. So if you find yourself in this place, ask ask yourself: Have I risked my characters to the greatest degree that I can?
Quite often the answer in my mediocre scenes has been no. I’ve partially risked them but essentially kept them safe. Don’t. Throw them right into the middle of that pit of snakes. Ask what is the very worst that could happen here and let it happen. You’ll gift yourself with the creative challenge of having to figure out how you’re going to get them out of it – if indeed you can get them out of it at all. What a great problem to have.
The devil is in the detail
You're on stage and your partner turns and offers you something. What is it? That's for you to decide. You grab it and look at it. The audience is waiting for you to fill them in. "Oh," you say. "What a delicious bit of food." Flim-flamy-vaguey-waguey.
Replay this again but this time with more detail: "Oh, a giant purple turnip from your garden that you grew from seeds you inherited from your dead father!"It may or may not end up being a very good scene, but there's detail there your partner can use now.
On the page it's the same. Most of the time when we're being unspecific it's because we're not confident about what we're offering. It's like we're handing over something half baked and saying 'maybe this?' We hope our partner or readers will do the work for us and help pull our offer out of mediocrity. Don't sell yourself short. Be detailed. Be specific. Name the thing. Commit. Use colour - emotion, environment, character, relationship. Be as detailed as you can.
Trust your own voice
The final rule is one that I still work on but that is at the heart of what I think separates great artists from developing ones. Both on the stage and on the page I can only be the best version of myself possible. I can’t write like Kate Di Camillo and I can’t improvise like Patti Stiles. (As much as I’d love to do both). I can only write and improvise like me and that means growing my capacity to trust myself.
Trusting your own voice is about trusting that this story is coming through you for a reason. Everyone can tell a love story – no one can tell it like you’ll tell it when you tap into your own experiences and unique point of view.
If your story feels derivative or you're thinking that it reminds you of something you've read before, it may be because you have read it before. I got part way through an early proto-draft of The Book That Broke the World before I realised I'd basically tried to write The Neverending Story again. I found my story when I put aside the fear that it wasn't very good in comparison.
This applies on the stage when we find ourselves playing out scenes we’ve seen many times before or trying to replicate another player’s style. It applies on the page when we find ourselves writing to capture the essence of our favourite authors or because we think some story type is the trend we ought to follow.
Trust your own voice. The more you trust it, the more it can expand, grow and develop. The world needs your stories told only the way you can tell them.
So there they are - the things that impro has taught me about writing.
Let me know if you found the tips useful, and happy writing!