Improv and Writing

November is National Novel Writing Month. It is a whirlwind of writing activity, a panic-filled frenzy of early morning/late night typing, and truly a fun time.

NaNoWriMo is a yearly event that takes place throughout November. In 30 days, your mission is to write a novel of no less than 50,000 words. That is the only caveat. How you approach it is up to you, how quickly you get there and what style you choose- all yours. It’s a creative blank slate. I highly suggest you check it out, especially if you’ve ever felt you had a story inside you and you need an extra kick in the ass to make it happen.

Maybe a dozen years ago, I found out about this and attempted to complete it, to no avail. I got a few days into it, lost a bunch of writing when my computer died, and called it quits. I ended up building an improv show, Novel Concept, out of the endeavor, but I set aside any further attempts until just last year. When all was said and done, I ended November 2017 with a 85,000 word novel that was actually not half bad. I know it needs editing and may never get published and blah-blah-blah, but it’s an accomplishment nonetheless. I’m planning on revisiting NaNoWriMo again this year.

When I was gearing up for things last year, I found myself poring over my old improv notes and finding that much of what makes improv (dramatic and otherwise) really work is also applicable to writing. So, I decided to write up my notes in a way specifically focused on writing, to give over to the NaNoWriMo forums. It was really more of an exercise for myself, but I thought it could possibly be helpful to others.

Anyhow, it ended up being a considerable amount of notes, some of which I’m going to go ahead and share here. I’ll certainly update this with further blog entries down the line, but here’s a bit for you to chew on. Hope you dig it.

(from my original NaNoWriMo post…)

This is all kinds of random stuff, and it may not necessarily track how this has been derived from improv. I’ve rewritten a number of notes I’ve given over the years to specifically focus on writing, as opposed to improv/acting. Hope it all makes sense. If you have any questions on any of it, let me know. I’m really writing down a lot of this so that I remember it for myself, as November gets rolling and I find myself struggling. 🙂 I hope this is helpful to you, and if you find yourself using any of it, I’d love to hear it.


Show, don’t tell
Show, don’t tell. An ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words.
Action begets action, words beget words, so get to the activity as quickly as you can, and not just talking around what’s coming next.

Don’t ask to make someone a drink, make it for them. The process of “asking” slows down the action and says nothing about your relationship to them. Don’t work up to activities, don’t hem and haw, do the activity.

Actions and emotions are primal offers, not your brain trying to suss out a storyline. Choose action/emotion over mere words wherever you can.

When your characters do instead of talk, you open up the possibility that their actions will have an effect on them.
Telling someone you love them is meaningless without backup of action. Actions speak louder than words. How can you show that you love someone, without ever saying the actual words?

Start your scenes in physical activity of some kind.
When a character moves, they should move with purpose.

Have your characters do an activity, and talk about literally anything other than that activity. Dig a hole with an attitude. Don’t discuss the process of digging. But let the attitude the digging inform the subtext of the conversation they’re having. Simply use the attitude surrounding the activity to express the emotions. Do not use the character’s words. Show the emotion, relationship, attitude, everything- without the characters speaking.

Get to action!
Write scenes where every line of dialogue must be accompanied by some sort of movement. If a character has done the same movement twice in a row, they must do something new.

Knowing is always stronger than not knowing. Make a decision. Shit or get off the pot.

Spend time doing something other than what you are talking about. Do NOT begin a scene talking about what you are doing. Doing that is planning the scene and telling us not what it’s going to be about, but what activity you are going to be doing. WHO you are and WHAT the scene is about are determined by HOW you do what you do.

Action, but not talking- evoke emotion in the “how”
Emotion has a better chance of emerging and expressing itself in silence.

Near activity (almost eating a sandwich, but not) is a useful reaction. It builds tension, which is released when the activity is finally done. Then the activity has more meaning (e.g., eating the sandwich finally, while telling your girlfriend you’re breaking up with her).

Playing with levels of your voice can drastically change how your words are perceived. If you are whispering something you would otherwise scream, it means there is a tension waiting to be released.

Doorways create instant drama. Lingering at an entrance is a huge gift to a scene- it’s just on the cusp of something– going or staying- and can create drama without any effort at all. Simply having that doorway (or other obstacle) there and an “in or out” focus in the scene can create a delicious tension.

Near-touch/reaction are incredibly important. Sometimes characters will almost say something or almost touch, and it says even more than if they actually spoke.

Silence can be hugely powerful. Choosing moments of silence will always have meaning, as will starting or ending a scene with silence. Silence is an absence of words, but never absence of meaning.

The most telling moments often happen between the lines. Trust silence to do some work.
When an important offer is made, leave some silence around it, to emphasize it. Don’t rush through. Your extra words are going to lessen the effect, not enhance it. If one character says to another, “I love you,” and the other does not immediately reply… that means something very different than if the other character responded “I love you, too” right back. Creating a bubble of silence around a moment makes it important.

Someone who doesn’t say what they’re thinking, and says everything is alright all the time is someone the audience expects to explode at some point.

You can create great moments of tension through silence, through subtext, and through how a character touches or does not touch someone.

This is a bit manipulative to the reader, but when you have many scenes are done that are emotionally heavy, the reader loves a light-hearted scene even more than they otherwise would. The break/release of tension is immense, and much better to read than simply trying to a “funny scene” down their throat. The balance/juxtaposition of the comic relief amongst the dramatic scenes is very useful. A scene that would, on its own, be only, say, a 5 out of 10 funny, is suddenly a 9 out of 10, because the reader has been brought so emotionally low by the preceding scene.


Character journey/protagonist
The protagonist is one who suffers for a worthwhile cause.
The journey must have importance to the protagonist and consequences of failure.
Choosing a path that is difficult or that costs them much personally- this creates someone to root for.
Our protagonists should appear to the reader as they’d like to see their strongest selves, so they can relate.

Surface level questions lead to lame journeys. Will he finish the report in time? is less interesting than Will he turn in his lover for embezzling?
The underlying reasons for a want/journey should be more compelling than the superficial physics of the activity.

Journeys/questions that rest on the shoulders of the protagonist are the strongest, because it places the movement of the story in the hands of the character, not outside themselves. To do otherwise may turn the protagonist into a prop to be moved about by the other characters.
We want to watch our protagonists take action; we don’t want to watch action happen to them.

A character is not defined by what he is able to do, but by what he is unable to do. That’s why Hamlet is 4 hours long.

In the best works, characters are changed. Giving your character different facets makes it easier to find places for change and evolution.
Being changed happens incrementally. Small things, small stimuli, will make the difference, so a large change can slowly build throughout the scene. Even a 180 degree change in your character will make sense if your reader has seen the character be affected throughout.
Change comes out of the context of a scene, not out of nowhere or “just because”. You cannot launch a rocket without first building a launchpad.

Character layers/balance
Balance- characters who are high-status (say, Mr. Burns on the Simpsons) need something about them that balances that out (an inability to deal with technology). People who are low-status need something that builds them up. (Homer is an idiot, but his love for his family makes him a good father). High status characters need something to humanize them, and low status characters need something to aggrandize them.

Find the opposites in your characters. Real people are more layered than “so and so is a drunk/slut/goody-two-shoes/religious type/nerd/jock”. Find something that is far removed from the outward appearance, and add that into the character, and you will have a multi-dimensional person. Every real person, even those who actually are like a caricature in real life, have a deep inner life of their own.

An objectively “evil” character is not as interesting as an “evil” character who thinks he is “good”. A “henpecking wife” isn’t as interesting as a wife who “mothers” her husband because she is the oldest in her family, and had to “mother” all her siblings, and “henpecking” is how she shows her love.
No character is just good or evil. They are people, with motivations for doing good/bad things.

When developing a character, use caricature to your advantage. It is like focusing a microscope. First you focus too far, and then you slowly pull back until the image is clear. With characters, start grand, larger than life. Then remove, piece by piece, those things that make the character seem cartoonish. Once you have gotten to the point where the character feels like someone you’ve seen before in real life, you have a character worth working with. Vibrant, interesting, but not so far removed from reality that they are just a cartoon. We only see snippets of the larger-than-life parts, and it is more of a seasoning on a three-dimensional character.

It’s more powerful, if you are going to use dirty language, to mix things up. If a priest suddenly cusses, it’s powerful and intentional. If a foul-mouthed drunk says the Lord’s Prayer, it is powerful. It creates moments that are “out of character”, which makes them more interesting than simply playing exactly the same all the time.

If a character is drunk, on meds, crazy, stoned- it makes everything they say irrelevant, because, “oh, it’s just Joe. He’s drunk again.” That makes them completely useless. They are furniture. The way to balance this is to create the yin to that yang. A useful tool is to make that character obliged to say something damned important, wise, revelatory- not just being the drunk in the corner- that’s a major cop-out; do better.

Catch-phrases or stuff your character always does- these are best treated as spice to a scene, or it will get old fast.

Weird voices/mannerisms are not characters.

Realistic characters
You are enough. All your characters are you, with a thin veil. You, but under different circumstances.
Don’t try to avoid your own personality; embrace it. Use it to help motivate and inform you main character. That’s who you’re going to spend your most time with!

Characters are built off of every life experience you’ve ever had, every emotion you’ve ever had, and everything you’ve ever seen.

The further away from yourself your character is, ironically, the more realism you can lend to them.
For instance, if you could never see yourself being an evil dictator, the evil dictator that you write would be influenced by the specific kind of layered, realistic person that you are, rather than some comic-book version.

Write down different character archetypes and note which ones are so far removed from yourself that you simply cannot identify with them. Now, writing backwards, step from where the character is now to where you are now, or where you have ever been (for instance, if you’ve ever been in life been just on the cusp of losing your job, apartment, etc.- you can see how you could personally have ended up as a homeless person).

LeCoq- movement to character
Character physicality can lead to characters. There is a nice shorthand you can use. In acting, the Le Coq school drama focuses on how characters move- what “leads” them around the world. Head, Heart, Hips, Legs. Decide what you want your character to be like, and play with each of these to devise how they move.
The shorthand of it goes like so: head (intellect), heart (compassion), hips (sex), legs (religion). Characters walk and are led by different body parts, demonstrating their character focus. It’s more complex than that, of course, and it can be in different percentages (30% head, 70% hips) to develop a more complex character.

When you have a big emotional change in your life, new pressures, your body is changed by it. It cannot be helped. Like the “freshman 15”, or that extra weight lots of freshman put on when they endure the life change that is entering college life.
This can even be seen in relationships. Relationships create “baggage”, and you are always affected by it.

Character facets
We are different people around different people. Show off your facets. The person I am around my spouse is different than the person I am around my work colleagues. When those two facets come together, things get interesting.

Facets of a character are like facets of a diamond. Looking at one is fine, but two-dimensional. All together, they make up something beautiful.
To get the full picture of a diamond that is your character, you can’t just show individual facets. You have to connect each one to the adjacent ones, so it makes sense as a whole object.
If you show one facet of the character that is completely unrelated to everything else (say, a loving mother and religious woman in one facet, and a dominatrix in another), then you are doing the same thing as launching the rocket without building your launchpad first. It makes no sense to the reader, and is jarring for the sake of being jarring.

Tricks and tools
Don’t get hung up on names forever. Names can have a million connotations- “John” could just as easily be John F. Kennedy, John Wilkes Booth, John the Baptist, or Jack the Ripper. Pick a name and stick with it. The weirdness of your name is not worth the trouble. It’s never about the name, anyway.

People watching homework: go out in public with a friend. Watch pairs of other people, decide what their story is, based solely on what you have seen. Compare notes with your friend.

Drama shows people playing out of character, so limiting your character by what you think your character would do leads to very dull scenes indeed.

Your character is what other people say about you and what you say, as well, so use that to explore character as well.

Your characters should be selfish. They should always want to know, “what’s in it for me?” Give them something to specifically want. Let the reader know about their motivations, even if it seems like they’re a side character. It will enliven your work.

If a character spends their entire time in service to someone else, they are never doing anything for themselves whatsoever. Your characters should be selfish, should look to get theirs.

More notes to come… this is just the start.

Read Improv and Writing, Part 2, here!

Tony Rielage
Artistic Director
Theatre Momentum

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