Jenny Ryan is a writer, improv actress, and young adult librarian in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. You can follow her improv at The No-No's, as well as her improv novel, You Were Going to Be Fantastic. You can also follow her on Twitter. She divides her time between making people laugh and making people laugh. She's here today to talk about how writing fiction is like improv comedy.
"Don’t Think!": How Writing Fiction is Like Performing Improv Comedy
By Jenny Ryan
I’m writing a novel. I think.
It’s hard to say exactly what I’m writing. I know who I’m writing: Katie lives in Toronto. She hates her job. She wants to be an artist but she’s never had the guts. Her sister is a homeless alcoholic, and that stresses Katie out. She’s started fighting with her best friend, and she might fall in love with Eoin. Their first date is either going to be at a gallery or supper at his place, but I’m still waiting on the results of the poll.
Wait. The poll?
Yeah. See, almost everything that happens to Katie, from where to go on dates to whether to answer the phone, is dictated by readers. I end each chapter with two scenarios, post it online and then give readers one week to vote for their favourite. The scenario with the most votes wins, and that’s my next chapter.
So why write like this? Well, I’m kind of used to storytelling this way. I’m a writer, but I’m also an improv actor. I spend Friday nights on stage, making up skits. Turns out I’ve learned a lot about writing from those crazy Friday nights!
Know Your Character!
One of the first things I learned in improv is that the goal isn’t to make up a story, it’s to embody a character. Who are you? A tired teacher? A rambunctious kid? A forlorn wife? The idea is that if you are confident in who you are, then what you’re doing will naturally follow.
Soon I began to see how this rule of improv worked for my current writing project. Once I understood who Katie was I was able to open up her story and let other people tell me what to have her do next. The story will work if she rings true, no matter what scenario the readers pick for her.
Accept Ideas Even If You Think They’re Terrible!
One rule of improv is that you must agree with everything. If you walk on stage, having just committed in your heart to portraying a curmudgeon, and your fellow actor says, “Hey, Joe, ready to go dancing?” you have to say “Yes!” And then you must be a curmudgeon who loves dancing.
The same is true for my current project. Every chapter ends with two possible choices, and I can never predict which one will win. One of my first chapters ended with Katie deciding between going to her mother’s house or going home to stalk exes on Facebook. I was sure people would go for the Facebook option, and that was good, because I had already decided I wanted to write about Katie’s feelings about her ex-boyfriend. But the readers chose her mother’s place, and suddenly I had to write a whole new side to the story that I hadn’t planned to tell.
The result was I had to give up control and follow my character into another dimension of her life I hadn’t considered exploring. Even though it wasn’t what I’d been wanting to write, in the end it made for a stronger chapter than the Facebook one would have been, just as Joe the curmudgeon who loves dancing would make a really great, really unexpected, scene.
When I first started improv I over-thought. I took long pauses, worrying about what to say or do to advance the story or get an audience reaction. My scenes were terrible. I soon discovered that I was crippling myself by thinking too hard about what was happening on stage. I knew I had to stop thinking about what I was doing on stage, and just start being on stage. Sometimes it took a preshow beer to loosen me up, but once I’d turned my inner critic off my scenes were vastly improved.
While lots of writers suggest that you just sit down and let the stories pour out of you, most writers would not recommend you write a chapter, toss it to the Internet, and then let it go. Because I write one chapter a week, there is no editing process, there is no rewriting, and there is no hesitation. I can’t have the luxury of thinking about what I’m doing, because there simply isn’t time. I just have to “be on stage”.
Up until now most of my fiction was written the way most people write: alone, with a group of trusted readers who nursed it along. Only when it had been edited, rewritten, and obsessed over was it shared with the world. For the past 6 years I’ve been honing my improv skills and I see they translate well to writing: Know your character! Accept Ideas! Don’t think! Be Fearless! And a beer or two while you’re writing doesn’t hurt, either!
Special thanks to Jenny for sharing her thoughts with everyone. Please visit her improv novel and play along!