Thursday, 12 January 2012

Improvising Is More Than Making Things Up As You Go Along

If I told you to go up in front of an audience and speak for two minutes about something off the top of your head, and make it interesting, could you?

What if I said the same thing, but this time added the proviso that you can’t use the word ‘the’?

A strange thing will happen as you struggle to get the words out without breaking my arbitrary rule. The audience, even though they don’t know why you’re speaking so weirdly, will recognise that you are struggling against something and it will catch their interest.

And an even stranger thing happens if I let the audience in on what it is you’re trying to do. They will join in the game with you, laughing at your weird story, going ooh when you nearly make a mistake.

The point is, when you are struggling against an obstacle, what you do to get round that obstacle becomes interesting. The same action with no obstacle takes a lot more effort to get the same result.

Difficulty stimulates the brain to be more creative. And difficulty is what makes improvisation engaging.

Whether you’re a plotter of a pantser, at some point you will have to make up what happens in a story. You may have a rough idea what’s going on, or no idea, but the nitty gritty of a scene, who says what and to whom, that all has to come from somewhere. And it has to hold the reader’s interest.

The romantic notion of writing, and of most art forms, is that you go into some kind of trance state, a frenzied period of activity takes place, and when you recover your sense, creation has occurred. Sadly, this is not usually the case.

Two men sit in a jail cell. And... start writing.

Writing from nothing is hard. You can do it, of course, but improvising in general is very tricky thing to pull off. Lots of people can ramble incoherently for extended periods of time, but making it worthwhile is hard. And the less you know about the characters and situations, the harder it is.

When actors improvise, they try to know as much about the character they’re playing (and most of them are still awful at it). And they just have to play the one person. A writer has to be each of his characters.

As a writer, it might feel like a more creative endeavour to go in blind and see where the muse takes you, but generally it won’t take you very far. Improvising a scene doesn’t mean no structure. In fact it usually helps to have much more structure. If you know your characters and the predicament they’re in, the stuff you come up with will be markedly more interesting, both for you and for the reader.

Two brothers are in a room with the police battering down the door. The elder brother has killed a man but if he is caught this time he will go to prison for good. The younger brother has  managed to extricate himself from his families criminal past and is on the verge of going to university, and a better life. If the younger brother takes the fall for the murder there’s a good chance he will get a lesser sentence as a minor. They only have a few minutes to discuss it before the police break down the door. And.. start writing.

Even though the situation is much more precise in this example, what happens, what positions they take, what they say to each other, is all unknown. And the more details you provide, as long as they make the situation more difficult to deal with, the more interesting and engaging the improvisation will be.

It’s important to bear in mind that just providing details isn’t enough. The situation has to be awkward, risky, unsolvable, in some way not a simple and easy thing to do. Dramatic will not in itself provide you with enough to work from.

A man comes in and finds his wife in bed with another man—obviously you can come up with something, but the situation is too generic to be helpful to the process. Predictable, inconsequential, mundane behaviour doesn’t interest people if you can’t lift it above the banal.

A man come home to find his wife filming a couple having sex in the bedroom—there’s a conversation I’d like to hear.

Taking a moment to tinker with the way a scene is set up, to heighten a situation, can make the scene play much better in your head, and make it that much better on the page.

If you want a scene to feel fresh and original and to come from the heart of your own creativity, take a moment to look at the scene itself, the rough framework. Where is the setting, who are the characters, what makes the general set up difficult for them? And then tighten the screws. Make it more awkward, more risky, higher stakes, more unexpected, fewer options. And only then set your imagination free.

If you found this post interesting please give it a retweet. Cheers.
Monday's post will be on the Joys of Rewriting. Hope you'll be back for that.


Matthew MacNish said...

Good stuff, as usual, thanks Mood.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Now I'm getting some ideas!

Michael Offutt, Visitor from the Future said...

Robin Williams was the king of improvisation especially when he was high on cocaine.

Komal said...

So helpful - I have been stuck on such an issue so this is great timing :) Merci

Jason Runnels said...

I'm not on Facebook, but LIKE!

Jamie (Mithril Wisdom) said...

Very good tips. I need to have a pop at improv writing to writing prompts - something to get me back into action.

Rena J. Traxel said...

I love the beginning stages of a story because it's a problem to be solved, that is, how is this idea going to be turned into a story that will make people want to read it. The key is to have idea of where you want to go and lots of conflict. Great post! And the Macgyver photo made me giggle.

mooderino said...


@Alex-better late than never.

@Michael-he was never on cocaine when he was hyper. It used to have a sedating effect on him.

@Komal-you're very welcome.

@Jason-you can like, just don't poke.

Sophia Chang said...

You write some of the most helpful writing posts out there - I never miss any of them and that says a lot among the morass of writing posts (and the nearly 400 blogs I subscribe to).

Rebecca Bradley said...

I really like this post Moody. Look at the scene then tighten the screws. You've definitely given me something to think about when I sit down and start writing later today. I'm doing the first draft and I find this the hardest part. Rewrites are easier because the framework is already there.

Thanks for another great post!

Rachna Chhabria said...

I really liked this post a lot and the advice on how to make a scene original and fresh is wonderful.

LD Masterson said...

Thanks, Moody. I have a whole collection of your posts that I refer back to. This goes in that folder.

Ciara said...

This is a great post. It's a great idea and so true.

mooderino said...

@Jamie-all writing is basically improv, even if it's all planned out.

@Rena-I think you can also make what seems to be a fairly mundane scene (some stories require them) more engaging by following that same structure. Conflict doesn't alkways have to be extreme.

@Sophie-thanks, nice of you to say.

@Rachna-thanks very much.

@LD-nice. Hope they help.


Alexis Bass Writes said...

So true. Improving in writing can be fun, but at the end of the day structure wins. :)

Alexis Bass Writes said...

*Improvising. haha IMPROVING is almost always necessary. (Typos are my friends).

mooderino said...

@Alexis-you still have to improvise within a structure to produce a story. And yes, improving is definitely necessary.

E. M. LaBonte said...

Thanks for the post! Great input and helpful suggestions.

Kelly Hashway said...

Great post! I was at a conference last April and a very wise agent said (quoting someone else) that a writer needs to chase our character up a tree, throw rocks him, and then help him down. It's a similar premise, I think.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

Have you seen the demotivational poster featuring MacGuyver? He's fat and can't fix his own broken down truck.

mooderino said...

@EM-my pleasure.

@Kelly-Yes, that's pretty much the long and short of it. Also, set the tree on fire.

@Michael-I think I did see it. I assumed it was Richard Dean Anderson in real life. Actors are pretty useless at everything.

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