Thursday, May 17, 2012

Things I Learned In Improv Class, Volume 1

Improv comedy is a form of live theatre in which the plot, characters and dialogue of a scene are made up in the moment, without a script.

In this series of posts I'd like to share some of the tools and creativity exercises I learned during the three years I studied improv comedy in Chicago.

In each post I'll start by explaining the tool/exercise, then show you how I apply it to my writing process.

Today's lesson:  saying "yes, and..."

The principle of "yes and" is simple - never deny anything you are given on stage.  No matter what crazy idea your partner throws at you, you must never, never say no and must always run with their ideas.

Why?  Because saying no brings your scene to a screeching halt and prevents you and your partner from reaching new, uncharted territory.  Saying yes is so much more interesting.  Saying yes creates unexpected scenes that lead to big laughs from the audience.  And saying yes just feels so good.

Here's an example:

Imagine you are on stage.  You have no script and no idea what's about to happen.  All you know is that you and your partner are about to invent a scene together, and someone needs to kick things off with an opening line to establish the starting point.

You develop a loose idea in your head - you're going to be a self-important investment banker on your way to work.  You get into character, and just as you're about to open your mouth to start the mystery scene, your partner says:

"Good afternoon magical unicorn."

Oh, poop.

According to the principle of "yes and" you must accept your partner's idea and build on it.  But how can you be a self important investment banker when your partner just told you that you're a unicorn? 

Light bulb! What happens if you're a self-important investment UNICORN on your way to work?  Now that could be interesting.  In fact that sounds way more interesting than your average everyday self-important investment banker.  That could even be funny.

Instead of saying no, you say:  "Yes, and if these leprechauns don't get off this troll bridge I'm going to be late for my 8am meeting."

Voila!  You've established a scene with the potential for something interesting, unique and funny to happen. That, my friends, is improvising.

Saying "yes and" to critiques:

I've had a number of beta readers review my manuscript, and they've all given me fantastic advice.  They've also made suggestions that I didn't agree with.

Initially, my instinct was to ignore the critiques I didn't like.  After all, I'm the writer.  I know what's best for my story.

But then I remembered what I learned in improv class - saying "yes and" to unexpected ideas can result in something better than what was originally intended. 

So I tried it.

The results?  95% of the time the rewrite was stronger than what I initially wrote.  That's not to say I always took their advice verbatim, but sometimes by simply exploring the idea of changing a section loosely based on their recommendation, I ended up with a stronger manuscript.

It's easy to brush off advice we don't agree with.  Instead, try 'yes anding' it.  Try not to think about all the reasons you don't agree with their advice and instead see what happens if you take it at face value and  incorporate it.  The worst thing that can happen is you end up back where you started.  The best thing that can happen?  You end up somewhere better.

Saying "yes and" to your writing

I'm a pantser when it comes to writing, so writing without an outline is in my wheel house. But I still have moments of over analysis.  I've had ideas come to me and thought, "there's no way that will work," and ultimately put them back on my mental shelf to rot.

But what would have happened if I 'yes anded' my own idea?  Maybe I'd prove my initial theory - the idea doesn't work - but what if I was wrong?  I might have walked away from something really great without ever giving it a shot.

Here is your challenge:  stop saying no to yourself.  The next time you feel that niggling urge to squash an idea before it's seen the light of day, try saying 'yes, and..." and see where your writing takes you.  You might be surprised.

Spoken like a true panster, eh?

Happy writing!

1 comment:

  1. That's a good idea. It's so easy to say no sometimes. But if you give it a chance, it might lead to something you do like.