One of the major schools of improvisational acting (improv) developed not as an exercise for actors, but as a tool to help creative writers develop new material and overcome blocks. Improv itself is really the art of trying to present the first draft of a play that’s so good it’s worthy of an audience. It doesn’t always work, quality wise, but with improv you always get something.
Without an audience, you have the ability to go back and perfect your draft until it’s fantastic. Instead of this making writers feel free to do whatever they want in their first draft, many people have difficulty even completing the first draft. It occurred to me that these rules might help writers free themselves up while writing.
Following these simple, basic rules of improv will get you a completed first draft and, over time, improve the quality of your first drafts of both fiction and non-fiction. There are great stories that break all these rules, so they really aren’t rules so much as suggestions. In my opinion, it’s better to break one of these rules in a second draft rather than the first.
1. “Yes, and…”
This is the most basic rule of improv. In fact, this is improv in two simple words. The idea behind these two words is that you always accept what came before and add something new.
In acting, the “yes” part of the phrase means not denying what someone else does or says. In terms of sitting and writing your draft, this means that as soon as something is down on the sheet of paper it is part of the story. There is no going back and switching around details because you got a better idea, it’s down in ink. I think more things were written this way before the word processor, but now it’s always easy to go back and change.
Now, let’s talk about the “and.” This addition to the phrase points to not repeating things over and over again. Each sentence should add something to the story or move it forward. So, you accept everything that has already happened and add something new. Each sentence should expand the world of the story or move it forward.
Taken together, they create an unstoppable force creating a world and telling a story.
This is an acronym for the most basic parts of a story that needs to be established fairly quickly for a reader to want to continue with the story. They stand for character, relationship, objective and where. Withholding one of these pieces of information too long results in a twilight zone story where everything is just killing time until a last-minute piece of information changes everything that happened before. You’re much better off giving your reader this information and letting the story follow its natural path. It belongs at the beginning of the story.
Withholding this information will make your audience lose patience with you.
3. Start in the middle of the action.
Try to start with characters that already know one another involved in an action. Starting with a couple leaving a dry cleaner with a stolen wedding dress and tuxedo being chased by the shop owner is far better than starting with two characters who have never met sitting on a bench. Strangers need to introduce themselves and have no emotional connections, which means more work for you and more patience from your readers.
I know, you’re not listening, you’re writing. So, really this one should be “read yourself carefully.” Everything you need to tell your story is right there. Often, people don’t figure out what they’re writing about until later drafts. Reading as you write will allow that process to speed up.
Also, have your characters listen to one another and really respond to what’s said to them.
Be as specific as possible in your details. If a character is reading, he isn’t reading a book, he’s reading Bridges of Madison County or Highlights Magazine or a copy of the Constitution. Every detail is important. Training yourself to be as specific as possible in your first draft will charge what you write with meaning.
There are no mistakes, justify what you write. If there is confusion or contradiction explain it. Repeated mistakes are a theme! However nonsensical something is in your story, make it natural and real. Justify justify justify. If it truly doesn’t belong, cut it out in the second draft.
Some of the worst improv scenes are when all the actors refuse to let their characters change. Story is change, if nothing changes there is no story. Don’t love your characters so much that it becomes like bad fan fiction where the familiar character run through familiar situations and say familiar things and leave ready for the next adventure with no emotional impact at all.
8. The end is in the beginning
Don’t pull in some outside force, deux ex machina, to end your story. Look at what initiated the story and find the solution there. Walk backward into the future figuring out where to go next by examining what has happened before. If a story starts with someone cleaning a gun, someone will probably be shot in the end. If a story begins with a farm boy who wants to be a hero, it will end with that boy either becoming a hero or not becoming a hero.