Improv and Writing pt.3

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 postĀ and our Part 2 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. šŸ™‚ I hope this is helpful to you, and if you find yourself using any of it, I’d love to hear it.

Middle start
Begin in the middle of things, even if it means beginning mid-sentence. If you need to trick yourself, choose a line of dialogue to begin with, and respond to that, as the start of the scene.

Begin in energy- frenetic energy, calm energy, but be doing something, not just standing around talking. Standing around talking will quickly pull the energy out of your scene. Moving and using your environment will always enhance it.

Conflict is the essence of drama, certainly. But, it’s best to start with some semblance of a status quo. It’s like an establishing shot in a movie. Show us what the world looks like normally, before you toss us into the conflict. This lets your reader get invested in the characters.

If you start with a status quo (even if the status quo is an awful relationship), then we can get to know the characters first, before dealing with what is different today vs. yesterday.

Today is the day something changes. The day something happens. Otherwise, why are we reading about it? Today is different than yesterday, somehow. It needn’t be something huge, and it shouldn’t come out of nowhere. Build off of what has happened so far in the scene/story

Beginning in conflict gives you only so many places to go, and is an uphill battle.

Try, as often as possible, to start with positive emotion. Get to the love, and build from there. Once we know why the characters care about each other, we can get to why they are in conflict.

An individual scene must be interesting and complete unto itself. Making your scenes self-contained will make it easier to handle nuggets of story, even if the central question of the novel isn’t dealt with in that scene.

If you struggle for an end to a scene (or the novel), look to the beginning. Return to the staging/people/subjects/question from the opening of the scene/book.

When you start your book or your scene, you are making a sort of contract with your reader. You are establishing what is important, what question will be explored, what journey the protagonist will embark upon. When you end it, you have to answer that, punctuate it, close it out. If you are at a loss as to how to end, revisit how you began. The answer is there.

A novel is a trip- you needn’t stay on the highway the entire time. Take a break, detour to see the sights, get gas (to fuel your scene!), or to break the monotony.

Short vs. long lines, variation
The best novel is like the best mixtape: a balance of differing styles, moods, and tempo, without jumping too abruptly from one song to the next. Heavy metal can be artfully sprinkled throughout a mix of classical, jazz, and rap, and be amazing and refreshing.

Different length scenes- write short scenes, then long ones. Vary the length.
Which do like to write the most? It often is the longer scenes. Which does the reader like to read? It is often the shorter ones. Shorter scenes get to the “meat” of the scene early, which propel the scene forward with action.
Try writing a scene without a notion of how long it might be. If you don’t know how long your scene is, it adds urgency to get the important stuff out.

Counting Words- An activity for playing with character.
Each of the characters in this scene is assigned a number between 1 and 10. Each sentence that the character speaks must contain their given number of words. The difference between a speaker who says a lot and one who says little will be evident very quickly. The longer sentence speaker will seemingly be speaking nonstop, and the quiet player will seem more intelligent, and what they have to add to the conversation will see more important, since they have to choose so carefully.

Often a person who speaks a lot, ironically, has very little to say, and the opposite is also true.

Connecting characters
Always connect your characters with two other characters, or they can easily get cut off from the narrative. If your “best friend” character also has a sister, and something happens so he is no longer “the best friend”, he will still be the brother of the sister character, which will keep him tied to the story in some way.

Ancillary relationships should serve the main story in some way. Sometimes just making sure well-developed characters are connected to the protagonist’s story is all it takes.
If you have characters who seem disconnected from one another, you can use “I”, “you”, and an emotion word (e.g., “I love you.), and you will be connected to them again. If two characters are ever are disconnected again, just revisit this sort of language.

Circle of expectation. When the scene or novel opens, everything is available to you. The world is completely open and there are no decisions made. This “circle” of what a reader can expect is as wide as your imagination. As your scene or your book progresses, there are fewer and fewer options available or reasonable for any character to pursue. The more you do each scene, the potential actions narrow, because you have wrangled in possibilities, bit by bit. However! This does not mean you cannot make the most outrageous decisions within the circle. If it’s within the circle of expectation- that is, if it is reasonable to expect someone *may* pursue a given action- then it’s fair game. Go for it.

Landmarks. Tell your story quickly, in as few words as possible. This will show where there are “landmarks”, reference points for returning to the scene later, referencing it again, or building off of details in the scene. It is a bit of speed-outlining, as well, and can be used early in the writing process.

If you front-load a scene with emotion and relationship history, you can coast through the rest of the scene, and just be lazy by doing nothing but reacting. It’s like a Newton’s Cradle. If you only put in a little energy at the top (lift the ball only a short distance), then it will stop moving pretty quickly, and you’ll have to lift all over again. If you lift the ball pretty far up in the first place, you will be able to get a ton of reactions that can feed the scene.

When you start a scene, you are giving your readers a roadmap of where the scene is going. When you make those declarations, revisit them from time to time, so you don’t forget where you’re going.
The first “beat” of a scene, those opening lines- they declare what the scene is about, so instill this with as much emotion and importance as you can.

If you plow through your scenes, one after another, linearly, you will lose any sense of drama. Movies don’t just follow one plot straight through- they take detours, skip over mundane activity, and get to the action.

Plant seeds early on, and if everyone is paying attention, they will be able to reap the fruit later on. If you plant a seed, you should be responsible for its growth- pay attention to it and make sure it’s dealt with; don’t drop it.
This is often called Chekov’s Gun- if you show a gun in the first act, it must be fired by the final act.

Characters should not gossip. Don’t simply talk about people who aren’t in the room. Love the one you’re with!
If you put another person between one character and another (by talking about this third character), it’s that much harder to connect the two characters who are actually in the scene. If you want to have a scene between the first character and this third character, then write that scene!

Characters shouldn’t spend too much time reminiscing or living in the future. Be in the present!

Don’t have one character reiterate something we’ve already seen to another character. Skip past that part and jump to the reactions. Jump to the end of the story the reader already knows, so you can get on with the larger story.

Don’t puke, shit, or fuck in your scenes. Anything that can be described with dirty words, just show the aftermath, or that’s all that people will be able to focus on. Just like meetings, nothing actually gets accomplished during the actual activities above. It happens before or after that.

Throwing light/audience expectations
Human brains are pattern-recognition machines, so there is no need to spoon feed your readers the narrative. They will fill in the blanks as you go. The reader has a tremendous capacity to fill in gaps and mend “broken” stories. They will fill in the rationale if you commit to the moment. Respect them to be smart enough to figure it out.

This is a win-win situation. The reader builds up a story in their heads as they go. If they turn out to be correct, they will feel brilliant that they saw it coming. If they are wrong and are surprised by the direction of the narrative, they will love the surprise.

“Throwing light” is a fantastic way to achieve this. It’s simple. Let’s say your subject matter is the newest Star Wars movie. As you begin your scene, you, as author, have the caveat that you will not *directly* mention anything that could immediately be construed as “Star Wars-related”. You will not *shine* a light on the subject- no character names, places, directors, writers. You will *throw* the light around it, and only barely illuminate it. You may begin with a character saying, “I was fully prepared to have my childhood memories ruined yet again, so I’m glad it wasn’t the same as beforeā€¦” and eventually, bit by bit, you “throw” the light closer to the subject. As the subject seems more illuminated, your audience catches on to what has been discussed. They feel brilliant, or fantastically surprised. You have not spoonfed them anything, and have written the scene entirely in implication.

This is a tool that is fun to use, but cannot be used for the duration of a scene- eventually you have to speak to what the subject is. But it can be a cool tool for your toolbelt.

Implication is greater than narration. Imply history and let the rest of it come out as you go. This is also a nice tool to use if you are unfamiliar with specific procedures or environments. You can “throw light” around the subject.

Most of your favorite movies don’t walk through every detail through exposition- they let the audience infer things, and the narrative implies things- this is a more powerful method of storytelling.

If a character tells another character a story, use it to make a point in the current scene, not just to talk. It can be a useful tool to convince one character to alter their point of view or emotion. Use it to illustrate a point, further plot, or build a character’s background.

Animals in scenes can become the entire focus of the scene, so keep them to a minimum, if possible.

Questions make it tough to move a scene forward. A directed question is better than a question that only begs for information.

Each line has meaning. As Vonnegut once said- every line of a novel should further the narrative or expand a character.

Yes And
Yes And is the principle most people take from improv. It means that each piece of a scene, novel, etc- builds upon what came before it, accepting that as reality. There is not a sudden shift where characters are building a wall together and one of the bricks they are using is not a brick, but a puppy! The world you build is plenty- build off of it piece by piece, and you may get somewhere you didn’t even expect. Raise the stakes within the world you’re given.

The push/pull effect is a powerful tool to illustrate complicated character emotions. This is when you say one thing and do the opposite. If one character is hugging another strongly, and saying, “I should go”, but only holding the hug longer- this is push/pull.

Laws of Physics
Each action has an equal and opposite reaction. This is true of language as well as actual movement. Never let an action happen without consequence, or a word be said without reaction.

An object at rest will tend to stay at rest, and object in motion will tend to stay in motion, unless acted upon by an outside force. If you simply keep the energy of the scene as it is at the start, your characters will not change what they are doing. They either have to affect one another (kinetic energy/emotions), or release potential energy from the environment.

There is a conservation of energy in a scene. The energy of a closed system (your scene) cannot be created or destroyed, only changed, redirected. If you start a scene with a given energy, you will need to introduce something outside it (or release energy from the environment) to change its course. And if you build the environment and the character relations, there’s always a place for energy to come from.

Using object energy will always get you out of a rut in a scene.

So much of communication is not in the words. 70% of communication is in how someone looks, 20% from how they sound, and only 10% from the words themselves.

Compelled and convinced. A character should not move (or stop moving) until they are compelled to do so by another character, an internal realization, something.

If a character is leaving, they should leave, and only stop if something compels them to stay.

People are “magnetic”. They have an orientation, a point of view. One character cannot change someone else’s polarity, they can only reorient their own poles. You do this by changing tactics, trying new ways of approaching the situation, until you either convince/compel the person to your point of view, or they convince you of theirs.

Keep your character’s shit! When a character start with an activity, they must keep doing it, unless the scene compels them otherwise. If they start with a specific POV, don’t change it unless another character convinces you otherwise.

Radioactive environment
Important objects contain/release stories, emotion, and history. When characters interact with them, they release this energy, which affects the direction of the story. This “energy” is like radioactivity- it can affect you simply being near it. For example, when you have shown that there is a wedding album on a shelf in the living room of a married couple, you open up the possibility that it may be taken down and looked at. If the couple is fighting, looking at the wedding album may mend that argument. If the husband dies, the wife may look at that same album and release all the emotions wrapped up in her marriage. If she brings home a new suitor and the wedding album is still on the shelf, it always carries those emotions with it.

When a character touches an object, it gains a piece of them, just like you are altered by everyone you have ever come into contact with in your life, and how two pieces of metal touching one another will pick up atoms from one another.

When you release energy from an object, it can be private, or it can be public. Private energy can be even more intense for a character than anything else. And if you have shown that an object holds some energy, some emotion, then you are able to simply reference it, and your readers will know what you are talking about.

How you touch a person speaks volumes, especially in how they react. If one person hugs someone warmly for a long time and the other person limply responds with a depressed look on their face, you automatically know something about their relationship.

People in a strong relationship with one another will touch each other in some way, shape, or form. The more intimate the relationship, the more specific the touch. A couple holding hands by the pinky is something specific- a ritual shared by two people with an intimate relationship.

Human beings touch one another; it’s part of therapy, it’s how babies bond with their parents. You cannot ignore this.
Intentionally NOT touching can be a powerful tool to display a connection, or lack thereof between two characters.

Stage picture/body language
When you describe a scene, you are creating a “stage picture”- a tableau of characters in a space, in relation to one another. Take a look at online pictures of public events. The way people interact with one another, where things are laid out in the space around them- this gives an automatic sense of who each person is to one another, and to the space around them.

Symmetrical stage pictures imply formality; asymmetrical ones- informality.

Reaction shots- treat a line of dialogue as though it is an actual physical thing- I love you is a big kiss. I hate you is a smack in the face. Write your characters as though they are specifically reacting to that physical interaction, not just to the words themselves.

Watch an unfamiliar television show with the sound off (or in a foreign language), and see if you can tell what the characters are doing, just from their body language.


More notes to come… this is just the start.

Tony Rielage
Artistic Director
Theatre Momentum

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