The Who, What, and Where – Writing Lessons from Improv 101

Last night was my third night of Improv with the UCB, (aka: my weekly 3 hourlong anxiety attack). However, through the personal challenge of improv I’m having some wonderful revelations about my writing just as I did in my Shakespeare acting class a few months ago.

Surprisingly, no gifs exist of Todd’s time in improv, but I didn’t search very hard after finding this one

Everyone, especially Bojack Horseman, has an easy goof on how the “key” to improv is just saying “yes, and-” to everything to keep a scene going. Partially true. The reason for “yes, and” is to establish who the players on stage are, what they are doing, and where they are with minimal conflict so the audience can immerse quickly. Once that’s established, it’s about developing around the core absurdity or drama of the scene. In more than one instance last night our teacher mentioned in notes essentially that students in a scene had already hit the weirdness that could carry a scene and didn’t need to further complicate the zaniness.

A specific example: two people are trying to kill a fly, they recall the adage “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” in order to ensure success they fill bowls with both honey and vinegar, one of them says it’s too effective because here comes a plague of locusts.

It was already weird enough that they had this zany idea of how to catch a single fly. One of them abandoned that core absurdism too quickly with something completely surreal that caught her partner off guard and off balance.

Team work makes the dream work

Aside from picking up on where your partner is going and where you can both settle and work around, it’s an important challenge in writing to escalate within reason and patiently for smooth plot and character development. Find the core of your scene and build around it, don’t panic and have plagues of locusts fly in just because it feels “too small.”

This is a pertinent challenge given the fantasy novel I’m working on. It’s tempting to leap forward and get to the fun stuff- magic, monsters, and broader legends- but there’s something to be said for approaching my story scene by scene, finding the core of each scene, and building on and from each scenic core in plot, character, and morals.

It’s a more patient build, and it’ll make that plague of locusts-when it eventually appears- worth all the more.

TFW your characters or you and your scene partner are in sync


Author: Y. Balloo

Amateur novelist / Work in progress.

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