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.
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Monday's post will be on the Joys of Rewriting. Hope you'll be back for that.