13 July 2010

Narrative: Lessons from Improv

Shortly after the Earth cooled, leaving the dinosaurs to die of frostbite, I was introduced to improvisational theatre.

Perhaps you've heard of it; maybe you've seen a troupe perform locally; perhaps you've caught the television show Whose Line is it Anyway? (also extinct, for unrelated reasons). Failing that, and if you are still reading, you probably have sufficient knowledge of the English lexicon to combine "improvisation" and "theatre" to form an accurate concept of the art form.

But unless you're reading this blog post for the second time (it could happen), you'll probably be surprised to learn that improvisational skills are key to good writing.

Not "the" key, mind you. There are many such metaphorical keys: Write what you know, create sympathetic characters, find a topic that's relevant or interesting, and make use of either talking animals (for kids) or wild sex (for adults) or both (for "Furries"-- if you don't know, don't ask). Rather, improvisation teaches the most fundamental narrative skills.

I want to give credit where it's due. I've had the good fortune to be involved with some excellent groups and fantastic instructors, who have sustained me like lembas to a hobbit. But with apologies to the aforementioned, the most astounding revelations came to me from a book called Impro by Keith Johnstone. I suppose the scholarly thing to do would be to provide some quotes from the book (I can see it on my shelf from here), but I'm too lazy-- I mean, it's a better endorsement to show that the lessons have stuck with me to the point where direct reference is unnecessary.

WARNING: If you're not a writer/storyteller/improvisor, continued reading might be a bit of a spoiler-- sort of like learning how magic tricks are done. They still look cool, but they're less, um... magical.

Still with me? Cool. In improvisational theatre, you have to make stuff up as you go. There is no editing and no time for checking references. So if I were teaching a group of students how to improvise, I would tell them that the first rule is this: Plan ahead. Things happen fast; you better have a good idea of where you're going if you want any hope of getting there.

Second rule: That 'first rule' is balderdash. Utter, complete tripe. I just wanted to see if anybody would challenge it.

Seriously, you do not look forward when improvising. That will only constrain and limit you. Conceptually, you should think of yourself as walking backwards, stumbling blindly into whatever comes along (that's called "spontaneity") and, most importantly, being constantly aware of where you've been.

It's easy to be intimidated by the vast listings on Amazon, the gargantuan indices of the Library of Congress, or the row upon row of books you see via the hidden camera that you installed at your local bookstore (shame on you). That's why some people sit down to write (I know I have) and worry that all the good books have been written. They feel constrained to avoid repetition, they seek out that one, last story that still be of vague interest to the human imagination.

That's bunk. The overwhelming majority of stories have not yet been written. It's said that an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters will eventually produce all the works of Shakespeare, but that's a terrible, terrible way to imagine the result if you're in the creative field. I say that an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters will eventually produce a twelve-volume epic of jungle-based adventures starring a guy named 'Ted' who has a missing toe and the supernatural ability to turn steak knives into kumquats. And it will be good.

This is why you walk backwards. In writing, as in improv, you can go literally anywhere. To make it work, you just need a few simple narrative skills. You have to learn to look at the past, and reincorporate the elements you previously introduced.

I'll attempt to demonstrate with a little writing exercise I call "six random words". As the (unimaginative) name implies, the exercise starts with the random selection of six words. You can use a dictionary, a friend, a web trend, a television listing, whatever. I also recommend 'constraining' yourself to apply the first two words to characters (that way you don't cherry-pick the obvious, a.k.a. the boring). Also, feel free to randomly choose word pairs if what you get looks too simple (e.g., if you land a lot of dull adjectives, pair one up with a randomly-chosen noun).

I'll take three from the dictionary, and three more from search engines as acquired by typing in random letters (deleting successive consonants, whatever it takes, so long as it's truly random). Here we go:

torment + weather (noun added)

Search Engines
Pike Place Market
zebra mussels
fabrics store (came up as "joann fabrics", but I'm taking the liberty of generalizing and excluding something which requires research)

Next step: Begin a narrative. If you were a "bad" improvisor, you would try to save some of the elements to fill out the later parts of the story ("bad" unless you were doing a non-narrative "hoop" game, where that's the explicit purpose). Don't. Use them all. At the beginning. Do not try to make them connected.

... The latest party of riders came trotting in, and Jack stepped forward to do his job. "Help you dismount, ma'am? Ready to dismount, sir?" It might have seemed dull, but it paid the bills. And Jack loved horses.

... Hank was getting sick of all the strangers who stared at him. So what if he walked down the street with a chicken under his arm? Correction, thought Hank. It's Tuesday. I'm carrying a duck.

... Jack woke up on Wednesday to see a cloudy sky. Cloudy, but without precipitation. He wanted rain, simple rain, or else a clear sky. But the weather tormented him.

... Hank came home on Wednesday to find a letter in the mail. It was from Pike Place Market.

... Slowly but surely, zebra mussels had finally made there way up the river to lake Gastagan. A new biome was about to be conquered.

... Joann pulled into the fabrics store, got out of the car, and checked her purse. The gun was ready. It was loaded. Time to move.

Before we move on with the reincorporation, I'll do a quick evaluation/analysis. Notice that the characters repeated in #3 and #4; that's fine, as long as you're not making obvious connections to a previous random element. My first thought for 'Pike Place' was to have Hank walk by it with his duck. Now, spontaneity is good, and being obvious is just fine, but in my own mind there wasn't anything new happening with the element (it was still Hank walking), so I went with the letter.

In a similar vein, it would have been easy to connect "foul" (poultry, in my mind) with "dismount" (horses, in this case) by using a rural/farm setting. That's fine later on, but in the spontaneous portion we want the elements to be separate, so I deliberately put the poultry in a more urban environment.

And now, the "hard" part. Continue the narrative, and reincorporate all of the elements.

... A police car pulled into the stables. Then another, and then a third. Jack was befuddled. What was happening?

"King County law enforcement," said an officer, coming out of his car. "We're looking for a woman with dark hair, about age thirty, who is suspected of robbing a fabric store."

"Oh, her," said Jack. "I think I know who you mean. She came alone, with a large bag. And she's about half an hour late returning with her horse."

"Curses!" cried the officer. "She's making a getaway."

"Not to worry," said Jack. "She's ridin' old Toby, and I know exactly where he'll wander off to."

With Jack's help, the fugitive was quickly arrested. Her intention being to harvest zebra mussels from lake Gastagan, she was destined for confinement as a mental patient. But for Jack, this was a golden opportunity.

"Have you considered a career in law enforcement?" asked one of the policemen. "There's an opening in Seattle for mounted officers."

"Great!" said Jack. "My cousin lives in Seattle. Where do I sign up?"

... Hank moved stealthily along the waterfront, a duck concealed beneath his trenchcoat, the warnings from Pike Place ignored. Deny him, would they? His duck would be fed! As he inched closer to the fish market, he could overhear the workers talking:

"Seems a bit quiet today."

"No clopping."

"What that?"

"No clopping. The mountie dude hasn't been by."

Hank smiled evilly. It was a dry, but cloudy day, a rarity in Seattle. Hank knew that his cousin, tormented by the discordant weather, would have called in sick. Hank intended to exploit this knowledge.

"Incoming!" cried a worker.

Something flew into the air, and Hank released his duck to intercept. But then came the unexpected.


The duck did not return.

"Luann!?" cried Hank. Unable to stop himself, he rushed forward into the market. Luann, his precious duckling, was struggling with a tiny zebra mussel caught in her throat. He managed to save her, but was denied a quick getaway.

"You're supposed to throw fish!" wailed Hank.

The Pike Place workers surrounded him, waiting for the police to arrive. "Well, yeah," said one. "But I'm a trainee. We start with mussels, now that they're coming in by the truckload."

Hank was soon arrested, and charged with duck-assisted aerial theft. He was soon committed to a mental institution, where he met and fell in love with Joann. And although he and Joann made only slow progress, Jack encountered a helpful psychologist during a visit to his cousin and was able to overcome his sensitivity to dissonant weather.

The End.

Quad erat demonstrandum. It's not a prize-winning story, but I hope it illustrates the principles. Just keep re-folding the fabric of your reality until everything touches.

A few more notes: It can be something of a cop-out to use "mental patient" characters, especially if it allows them to do things with no motivation whatsoever. However, they did have valid (if somewhat unusual) motivation relating to the random elements. In an improvisational scene, it would not have even been necessary to label them as crazy (all characters in improvisational comedy are crazy).

And if this were a less comical written work, you could go back and alter the elements (now that their place in the narrative is set) to be more conventional. For example, Joann could rob a sporting goods store for conventional netting; or she might not even commit robbery, but arouse suspicion with a large purchase. Hank could use larger birds (they throw some pretty big fish at Pike Place); he could be motivated by revenge after being fired, or he could be replaced by a group of young bird trainers who think of it as a practical joke (thus eliminating the "crazy" element). You could also do some research for the name of an actual lake in King County.

And so on.

Eventually, as a writer, you will have to look forward to where your story is going. But if you don't want your writing to go the way of the dinosaurs, or be out-competed by an infinite supply of monkeys, you have to learn to be a two-faced Janusian beast who looks backwards just as well. For therein lies the key to narrative.



Anonymous said...

Hey, Jason!

I love to do improve, but mostly with poetry. I just start with the words, "Right now," and then continue with whatever is going on in my mind at the time.

This was a very interesting improvisation story about ducks, horses, Hank, and thieves named Joann. I'm going to try out this six random word technique and see if anything can come up.

Write on!

P.S. I love the "Whose Line is it Anyway?" TV show.

Dunx said...

My particular improvisational peccadillo is roleplaying games (tabletop not computer), especially running them for my friends. I will only usually be playing one non-player character at a time, but having to invent characters, situations, dialog, and (most exhaustingly) voices for people in all these places that the players want to go is an interesting improvisational challenge.

I hadn't thought about it feeding into my writing, but of course you are right.

I will have to try that exercise, too.

Thank you.

The Burrow said...

Now I recall that at the Cafe we played Random Six a lot! I guess you introduced us to it. It is very good training.

Nowadays, if a word catches my attention, I try to give it to one of my characters, to see if it suits him or her. It is inspiring, elucidating, and helps in the foul moments when I seem to have locked myself up in a chapter (which is tormenting the writer that proceeds in accord with the true order of a narrative). Of course, this means inviting unknown paths that may compete with a project's existing framework - an unpleasant thought. But it is like with any cure: avail must justify adverse effects.

If you learned a second or third language, or encounter jargon, it is worthwile to experiment with those words as well, because their fabric can carry the additional bonus of connotations detectable only from the non-native speaker's remote position (or perhaps after dismounting the zebra mussel).


*a bad improviser, forever watchful at Pike Place Market*

Hart Johnson said...

Jason- I always love how you put things! You had me cracking up through the beginning, and then I get to the end and realize, "hey, this works"--I love this as a writing exercise!

Unknown said...

I am not very good at improv or comedy. However, this seems like an easy way to test the waters and get the creative juices flowing. Your story was hilarious. Great writing activity!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

This is a very interesting argument, Jason! I've never thought about it this way. Am tweeting... :)

Marjorie said...

I never did take on the challenge of the random six in the Cafe. I lacked the confidence to do so amoungst so many with superior gifts. You're still brilliant Jason!

Hart Johnson said...

Majororie... totally read that you lacked confidence among so many superior goof-offs. *shifty*

I didn't do more than one or two, but largely it was because of competing project. I've done a few in the fan fic challenge, but those aren't 'random'

Natasha said...

Marjorie, if you didn't do the Random Six, you missed something. I think i did them all, even one which only I churned out a story for!
They are awesome fun.

LTM said...

umm... Rayna told me to do this... *kicks the dirt.*

I humorously disagreed w/Jason over on my blog: http://leightmoore.blogspot.com/2010/07/not-night-at-improv.html

But I bet Jason's super nice. And probably a really good actor. Oh, and writer... ;p