Improv and Writing pt.2

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. See our Part 1 post…

This is a continuation of a previous post on Improv and Writing.

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.

Our brains look for a prudent, no-risk course of action, which is boring as hell. Safe is not the place of good writing. Risk is. Chase the risk.

We don’t read to see life as it is. We go to see life as we wish it would be. To see characters do the things we don’t have the guts to do, but, if we could imagine the perfect version of ourselves, we would do.

Actions have circumstances. Live in the consequences of your actions; don’t run from them. Embrace the adventure.
If a character wins in a scene, they should savor it! Celebrate! Don’t rehash the past, don’t mitigate the success.
If your character doesn’t wanna do it, do the activity anyway. And sulk, cheer, bitch- feel.

Leaving a scene is fine- it can sometimes be a huge gift to the scene. It gives the other characters a chance to advance the scene without a character, which the reader sees. We are different people around others than we are alone.

Strong words lead to stronger choices. Love > Like
Don’t mitigate or ameliorate circumstances. Run toward the biggest emotional choice.

Something will happen after this scene, and happened before it. Context is huge.
Using only descriptions of the physical activity, write a scene in which the circumstances of what happened before and what is going to happen after can be gleaned ONLY from the activity. For example, a doctor stepping out of a door, taking off gloves, shaking their head, writing notes, looking sad and depressed, then composing themselves before exiting out another door = a surgery has gone wrong, the patient has died, and the doctor has to go tell the patient’s family. This can be an even more powerful tool than simply telling what has happened before or what will happen after.

Random Important Details
Choose random physical details and make them important- this can be a powerful way to discover details within a scene, and allow yourself to be surprised, rather than simply narrating the scene.

Details in support of Relationship
Specifics are your friends. They flesh out a three-dimensional world for you to work in, call back, and give you interesting stuff to play with. Build a bigger playground.

Specific details also make it easier to remember everything for future use. If you can create a three-dimensional world, the next time you step into it, you will easily be able to bring your reader back to the same place, emotion, or relationship with very little said.

If you’re looking for a source for details of scenes, always look to your real life. Specifics that feed your scenes from something personal and real to the writer will ring true; everything else can seem like merely an *indication* of emotion. Heightened, fake. Aliens mimicking what they think real human emotions look like.

Scenic rhythm
A scene has a musical nature to it- it closes in a similar fashion to how it opened- an overture and a reprise. The ending should have a musical feel, as though the notes were *meant* to be there. They needn’t be predictable, but should “sound” like the musical close. When you hear a knock of “Shave-and-a-haircut-” (tap, tap-tap, tap-TAP), you expect “Two bits!” (tap-TAP!) as the reply. When you hear the opening 9 notes of Bach’s Toccata in D, if you don’t hear the 9th note, your brain will feel as though something is left unfulfilled. Look for that musical resolve.

Scene endings/edits should come at a major energy shift-
Scenes should be ended at a major energy shift. It may be the “end” of a scene, or just a time to move on. Ask yourself, has the important stuff been said? Can more be said, or should it? Sometimes it’s great to cut a scene before everything has been said, so it can be brought back later. This may come with a laugh, or a “musical” movement within the energy of a scene. It may not be a real “end”, per se.

If you remove the silence, you have a weaker piece of music.

Emotional vulnerability is of immense importance. Characters should all be emotionally affected by one another. They can never be “bulletproof”. Superman is only interesting because Kryptonite exists. If you are always bulletproof, I don’t care, because NOTHING can hurt you. You aren’t ironic or witty- you are impervious. Yawn.

If you are struggling on how to make characters vulnerable, you can achieve it by touching. Two character touching one another, they cannot help but be changed. Think of different kinds of touch, and what they mean, and what intimacy and vulnerability they evoke.

Apathetic characters = nothing. If a character doesn’t care, your reader sure won’t. If your apathy *hides* something else, it is useful. Otherwise, it’s a waste of words.
Don’t negotiate, negate, or be apathetic. Don’t be the kid who gets shot in cops and robbers and doesn’t die. Die the best death you can, with gusto.

Get shot. Be vulnerable. When you get shot with an emotional arrow, let the audience see it land.

Being caught off-guard is the essence of theatre (writing). If characters stay off-balance, scenes will be riskier and emotionally stronger. Make your characters uncomfortable/off-balance. Push their buttons.

Choose to have your characters be awkward, lovey, intrigued- somehow *drastically* affected by their scene partners- this can be a powerful way to begin a scene.

Starting in emotion
An emotional state is a fine thing to begin a scene with. Start in emotion, and build from there. Lots of the scene will automatically build from there, if you have an emotional connection to cling to.

Anger/Love are opposite sides of the same coin. You cannot truly hate someone you don’t have a strong emotional connection to. If you don’t care about them, why would you be mad?
Think of it this way. If you (or someone you know) have ever been broken up with in a BAD breakup, you may say that you HATE the person who broke up with you. But if you’d never met them, would you HATE them when you first met them? Would they be just simply evil? Not likely. But because you opened yourself up to them, showed them your deepest self, and they broke the trust or used your vulnerability to stomp on your emotions- that creates a deeper emotion. You may say you HATE a politician or someone on television. But that is not the same as the bile you would feel towards an ex who has done you wrong.

It’s all about the love. Even hate. Indifference should only be a mask.

Build an environment to live in- it will give you something to do when you can’t think of what to say next.
You don’t need much to “build” it. 3 objects is plenty to build an environment. Start with that, build your world.

Sitting in a void will suck the life out of your scene, but having space to move in will enrich it and provide energy to it.

The environment is another character in your scene. Let it have its say.

Thinking about using the environment is a very useful restriction to get you out of your head and make you write characters more instinctually.

Use the space as a metaphor for character relationships. How far away from each other do they stay? Is there always an object between them? Are they always at different heights/levels? What is their status, compared to one another?

Public vs. Private space
Background characters (e.g., in an office, supermarket, train) can affect how a pair of characters interact, simply by being present. An argument you’d have in your private home is very different when it’s in the supermarket.

Entrances and exits into/out of a scene can be extraordinarily powerful. If there are three people in a scene, two of them may (should) act differently (think of an elevator) when the third character is there than when they’re gone.
If there are only two characters, leaving one person alone in the room gives them an opportunity to be explore that space by themselves, illustrating their character by themselves. Build up the room, and this becomes very easy to handle.

Realism in spaces
Writing a kitchen? Make it yours. You know where everything is. Writing a bathroom? Yours. Anything that you are intimately familiar with, or that you have ever lived in, you should use as the basis for where things are in your spaces. If it is a space you could not possibly be familiar with, map it onto a space you are familiar with. For instance, if you’re writing about a space shuttle, map it onto riding around in a van. The catacombs under Dracula’s castle? The subway, your basement. Start with the familiar, and those details will help make the imagined place seem that much more real.

When you are writing important objects, choose items that have a real life significance to you- this will instill them with truthful emotion.
To help you with this, imagine that there is a fire in your house. You can only take a single item. What is it?
Now, you have 3 minutes, and can grab 3 things. What are they?
5 minutes. 10 minutes. What items do you take?
(Caveat to this- all your regular important stuff is stipulated is safe, in a fireproof box, so ignore things like your computer or your insurance information or mundane things like that)
These items, or something like- this should be the sort of stuff that your characters have as important items to them.

Home base
When you make spaces, it’s great to explore them in depth, the first time you visit them. This helps to establish a “home base” for a character, and it make it easier to revisit it down the line. Making that space something familiar to you, the writer, will make it even easier to work with and return to, without having to revisit a million notes.

Entering spaces
You enter spaces differently, so be aware of that. Your house is a familiar space, but a friend’s house is different. Simply the activity of entering a space will show to your reader whether or not this is somewhere you should be, shouldn’t be, always are, or if you’re unfamiliar with it entirely.

Feed your brain
Feed your brain! Read things utterly unrelated to your novel, to writing, to authors. Read lots of non-fiction. Read trivia blogs. Get caught up in Wikipedia or stumbleupon. Watch documentaries or TED talks. This will help you immensely in getting out of your head, since you will have a vast repertoire of subjects to discuss.

What are you passionate about, outside of writing or reading? If you’re just reworking characters or stories you read elsewhere or watched on some show or movie, you’re wasting time. This is simply regurgitation, not anything specifically meaningful to you. It is secondhand passion. No one wants to see that. Even if you think the thing you’re into is meaningless to everyone else, if it’s meaningful to you, it will always read better to your audience than something that was created in someone else’s head.

Learn new things- a lot. This is the most natural way to bring inspiration to the scenes you do, and to keep yourself out of your head, plotting. If you’re all doing this, you will create rich scenes with rich characters.

Rather than focus on pop culture references or references to something in the news, speak to something that interests you, the writer. When you focus on things that are timely, it will lose steam in short order, and in a year’s time, it will be meaningless- a fad.

If you start your scene with something that’s important to you, you never have to invent something to find something to care about – it’s already built in. If you are working with something that’s been manufactured to be “funny” or “interesting”, you won’t have the same emotional connection, and it will show.

Your personal knowledge, quirks, interests, friends, relatives, coworkers- these are all fodder for characters. Learn, read, do lots of stuff beyond just writing.

More notes to come… this is just the start.

Tony Rielage
Artistic Director
Theatre Momentum

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