How Improv Can Improve Your Writing

I’ve mentioned before (in 7 Tips for Writing Realistic Dialogue) that trying improv (the art of performed improvisation) can improve your writing.

Well, currently I’m reading Bossypants by Tina Fey, and in it she gives the rules of improv and describes how these rules have changed her life. The rules are as follows:

  1. Say “YES”
  2. Say “YES, AND…”
  3. Make statements
  4. There are no mistakes, only opportunities

Applying these rules to your writing will help you soldier through a crummy first draft by shutting up your internal editor. The trick is to improv against yourself.

Say “YES”

Stop arguing with yourself and start writing. Stop saying you can’t do it, or it’s too hard, or you need to learn more before you can start. Just start. Your improv partner (you) might be crazy, but go with it. In fact, craziness usually translates into energy, so embrace the crazy and hammer out that draft.

Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.

You can't be that kid standing at the top of the water slide overthinking it. You have to go down the chute_Tina Fey
Jason Merritt / Gettyimages

Say “Yes, AND…”

Rather than tearing at or criticizing what you’ve already created, build on that and create in a different direction.

If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth”–now we’re getting somewhere.

Maybe you’ve written yourself into a corner. Maybe you’ve hit a writer’s block. Don’t stop, don’t backtrack, don’t correct. Just blast through that obstacle in the weirdest way imaginable. Keep moving forward, as Walt Disney would say. Don’t stop moving forward until you’ve typed “The End;” then go back and start revising.

See Speed-Writing Your First Draft: 5 Tips as well as 10 Steps to Finishing a Novel for more ways to silence your inner critic while writing.

Make statements

This is a positive way of saying “Don’t ask questions all the time.” … In other words: Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.

Have enough confidence in yourself that if you come to an obstacle, you’ll be able to get through it. If you need to, take inspiration from fictional characters. It’s their job to overcome obstacles.

There are no mistakes, only opportunities

If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been put on “hamster wheel” duty because I’m “too much of a loose cannon” in the field.

If your improv partner (you) screws up a scene for you, just go with it. If your characters don’t cooperate with your plot, change your story. In fiction, you might be a writer who outlines or meticulously plots beforehand, but between Chapter One and The End, your characters are the monarchy. You might be an omnipotent god-with-a-keyboard, but your characters still need free will. Forcing your characters to abide by your plan turns them into objects, not characters.

In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents.

Look, as an editor, I’m not going to tell you that everything you write is going to be good enough for publication. But it is good enough for you to spend time writing it. Every thing you write is one step towards becoming a better author, even if those pages live in a drawer or only twelve people read your book and ten leave horrible reviews. You are enough, whether you are published or not. Even if you count a scene or an entire manuscript as a failure, you are not a failure. You accomplished something. You wrote something no one else could.

Everyone falls and everyone fails. The difference between an unpublished writer and a published one is grit—perseverance and resilience despite mistakes.

When you think you’ve messed up, work with it. When you’re knocked down, get back up again. I’m rooting for you.

Psst: be sure to read Elizabeth’s post from last week, too!

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