Thursday, June 7, 2012

Things I Learned In Improv Class, Volume 2: You Are Not The Star

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 I learned during the three years I studied improv comedy in Chicago, and show you how I apply them to my writing.

Today's lesson:  you are not the star

One of the hardest pills any aspiring improv actor must swallow is the idea that they are not the star of their scenes. Improv is a team sport, so spotlight stealers beware - nobody wants to work with someone who's only in it for themselves.

A scene ends after a big laugh.  Why?  Because there's usually nowhere else to take it once you hit the punchline, and you always want to end on a high note.

People who come out of the gate swinging with funny one-liners and punchy jokes kill the scene before it's started.  The truly great improvisers are able to take time and build scenes out so that they not only get a chuckle, but they get side-splitting laughs and thundering applause.

Even better than that, the truly great improvisers are experts at setting their scene partners up for success.  They don't focus on themselves and making everyone think they're funny - they focus on making the scene funnyEven if that means giving the big laughs to someone else.

So what's this got to do with writing?

I love me some metaphors.  Similes?  Check.  Analogies?  You betcha.  I love nothing more than crafting a beautiful sentence that will make readers sit back and say, damn, that girl can write!  

The problem is that beautifully constructed sentences and flowery comparisons may not be the right thing for my story or the voice of my character.  And really, it shouldn't be about making a reader sit back and marvel at a single sentence - it should be about making them sit back and marvel at the story.  

Essentially, I am not the star of the stories I write - my characters are.  By focusing on myself I am doing my story a massive disservice, because I'm taking the voice away from my character and giving it to me. Me, me, me. 

Learning to let go during revisions

At first, revisions were extremely hard for me. I had trouble cutting sentences or sections of the story that weren't really working, so instead I would try to write around them and force them to fit.

Then one day I started letting go (see my first post about saying 'yes, and' to critiques) and the most amazing thing happened - I was free!  The scenes read smoother, my characters were more consistent and my story was much, much stronger.  All I had to do was learn to let go of the scene or sentence that I was, for whatever reason, so enamored with, and focus instead on my characters.

No matter how much you love your writing, if it's not doing your story any good then it's time to say goodbye.  Remember - you are not the star, your story is. Focus on what's best for your story and your characters, and you will never go wrong.    

Happy writing!


  1. Yeah, you were really good with the similie/metaphor thing. Me, not so much. :)

    1. Aww, thanks. But I've noticed that I have a tendency to overuse them. Lately the delete key has been my best friend!