Thursday, July 5, 2012

Things I Learned In Improv Class, Volume 3: The Bell Game

Improve comedy show logo - whose line is it anyway
What's improv comedy and why the heck am I writing about it? Check out the intro of Volume 1 and Volume 2 of this series for more info.

Today's Lesson: The Bell Game

If you've ever watched Drew Carey's Whose Line is It Anyway, you may have seen a version of the bell game.  It's a classic, and one of my favorites.  In it, the actors on stage improvise a scene, while another member of the team (Drew Carey in the case of Who's Line) watches and rings a bell at random intervals during the scene.  When the bell is rung, the improviser has to alter whatever noun or phrase they just said.  Typically the bell ringer will have the actor change their words three times, or as many times as it take to get a big laugh from the audience.  Here's an example:

"I have to go home and walk my dog."


"I have to go home and walk my cat."


"I think I'll stay right here with you, forever and ever."  *creepy stare*

Typically the first change of phrasing is closely linked to whatever was originally said.  The next change is more drastic, or the complete opposite of what was originally said.  It also usually gets the biggest laughs because of its juxtaposition to the original phrase.

Because the actors have no idea what phrase will illicit the bell ring, they can't plan ahead and are forced to think on the fly.  Okay, that's kind of the whole point of improv in the first place, but the difference here is that the new phrase usually alters the direction of an existing scene.  The case above is a perfect example - a scene where an actor goes home to walk their cat is much different from a scene with a stalker house guest that never leaves.

So what's this got to do with writing?

The bell forces quick, stream-of-conscious thinking.  It takes the actor out of their head and forces them to come up with a new idea on the fly.  As a writer, you can't exactly "bell" yourself, but you can use similar tactics to take yourself out of your head when you need to come up with a new idea or way to describe something.

My current work in progress involves a seemingly infinite staircase to the afterlife.  As you might imagine, the staircase is mentioned quite a bit.

If I shift + F7 the word 'staircase' I get the following results:

flight of steps
set of steps
flight of stairs

Not very interesting.  How else can I describe the staircase without actually using the above six phrases over and over again?

The staircase in my world is made of grey stone.  A starting point for me is to think of other things that are made of stone, or are grey.  It's also massive and seemingly endless, so I can leverage other things that fit this description.  

To get myself into the "bell game" mindset, I set a timer for 60 seconds and start making a list of everything I can think of that is grey, stone, or some visual representation of a staircase.  The idea is to take myself out of my head and into stream-of-consciousness mode, where I may uncover some new ways to describe a staircase beyond those provided by my good friend Shift F7.

Stone staircase
ancient relic
zig-zagging stone
chomping teeth
teeth chomping at the sky
stack of squares
stack of right angles
stack of rocks
jagged rocks
jagged grey

 And as you can see, my ideas deviated in several different directions, which is exactly what you want.  I might not describe a staircase as Sisyphus, but the act of climbing a staircase might make someone feel like Sisyphus, so in that way the ideas are all connected, and potentially usable.

If I wanted to build the list further, I might pick one of the more random descriptions as my anchor point and go for another 60 seconds.  What would come out of 60 seconds of stream-of-conscious writing about a tombstone or a stack of right angles?

The next time you're stumped, or if you need to describe something in multiple ways throughout your story, pull out the stopwatch and see what happens when you let your subconscious take over with a mini brainstorming session.  It might be just the thing you need to kick start your creativity.

Happy writing!


  1. Hmm, I'm going to have to try this sometime! I'm a fan of the ol' Shift + F7, but sometimes I get frustrated when there aren't any logical synonyms for something. Your "staircase" was my "water" in my last book - how many different ways can you say "water"?

    I should also admit that I like any excuse to make a list. I like lists. :D

    1. Hmmm, water is tricky. Outside of liquid I can't think of any other ways to say it either! :-P I might start with bodies of water and see where that took me, or maybe even vessels for water. Could get the juices flowing. It's a fun exercise to try,especially if you're a list maker! :-)