How I use principles of improvisation to guide my writing

I studied improvisation for a few years at Second City. The phrase “studying improvisation” isn’t quite right though, because when you’re learning how to improvise on stage, you’re doing it, not studying it. Sure you watch talented improvisers to inspire you, just like you read talented authors to wow you, but there is a point where you’ve just got to get up and go.

I had some really good times as an improviser, including doing the Harold on the UCB stage in New York City. I still have good times as an improviser – in my marriage, in the kitchen, in my real-world jobby job.

Here are some things I tell myself as I go:

Improvisation is about saying yes

You’ve probably heard this before. A scene can’t go anywhere if your partner is saying “no” to what you’re putting out there. A popular example:

“Happy Birthday, Aunt Miranda!”

“It’s not my birthday and I’m not your aunt.”

And, scene.

I find the same to be true as a writer. If I can’t say yes to what I’m inventing, then nothing happens. So, I just have to go with what my brain is putting out there. Resistance is futile. That’s what revisions are for later.

Improvisation is about moving forward

Okay, so we’ve established that a niece is wishing her aunt a happy birthday. That’s good for one line. Now we need to know why it’s important. Is it because the cake is laced with poison? Is this Aunt Miranda’s first birthday as a woman? Are they living in a post-apocalyptic world, making this birthday wish the one gesture of hope either has known all year?

Move it along, I tell myself, move it along. The audience is waiting.

Improvisation is about paying attention

It’s in the details. Part of the delight of playing on stage with talented improvisers is that someone is bound to pick up on a throw-away detail you forgot all about which turns out to make the whole scene totally memorable. I find this – remembering closely – to be the hardest thing when working on my novel. It’s slightly more doable in short stories.

Improvisation is about heightening

Photo of an installation at the Art Institute in Chicago

Installation at the Art Institute of Chicago

It’s not just Aunt Miranda’s birthday. It’s probably her last because of her degenerative heart condition. That’s why we’re all here on this yacht, spending her retirement on gilded desserts and Prosecco.

Right? Right.

When I shared the very first draft of my novel with my cousin, who reads a lot of scripts, he pretty much said to me, Who cares? I had successfully thought all of the feeling out of my writing at that point. Now I know there have to be heightened emotional stakes.

All of this isn’t to say I’ve mastered writing, of course. But I do find myself moving along, having the most fun and, I think, writing the best stuff when I channel the improviser in me.