Improv Writing

Welcome, AWers! Are you looking for a terrific way to inspire your imagination and make writing fresh and fun again? This week’s guest post by Eldon Hughes offers a creative approach that’s worked for him, maybe it’ll give you a fresh path to follow, as well! — Mac

Guest Post by Eldon Hughes

Improv writing.

Does it work?  I hope so.  C. H. Valentino and I have written two books, so far, this way.

The first one, Poison and Wine, came out in March and is available from the usual online places. Amazon – Nook (print and iBooks coming soon.)

It wasn’t planned that way. It was just a writing exercise that became a story and then grew a world of its own. But isn’t that how the best stories work?

“It’s like taking your imagination ice skating, or inviting someone else’s brain out on a playdate.”

Along the way we get exercise in active reading, active writing voice, scene setting and effective description from within the character’s points of view (because we want our partner to understand, without saying it out right, where we think the story might be going.)

So, here’s the premise. I’m going to ask you three questions, or maybe five, or maybe just one.  I’m going to pull the questions “out of thin air.”  They might be core character questions, or wild tangents:

  1. Good or Evil?
  2. Male or Female?
  3. What’s in your pocket?
  4. Painter or cook?
  5. Himalayas or Salton Sea?

You’re going to do the same thing for me.  The answers are a kick off point for our new characters.  There are NO wrong answers.  How we answer, and how we choose to interpret and act on those answers is up to us.

Then pick a place in the world. It helps if we both have at least a little bit of familiarity with it, or quick fingers and an understanding of how to use an internet search engine like Google.

It also helps if we can literally be on the same page.  And, we can. Google Drive (including Docs) is free for personal use, as well as for non-profits and schools.  Sign up for a free Gmail account and you have Google Docs. (Along with a lot of other really cool free tools.)

One of us creates a document, uses the blue “Share” button (you’ll see it) to share that document with the other, by email address.  We both open the document, and where ever we are online, we’re typing on the same page, at the same time.  The game, dear writer, is afoot.

You write your character. I’ll write mine.  Somewhere in the first couple of graphs they are going to meet, interact, conflict, compete, maybe even come together around a central theme.  It’s up to us and our skill as writers.

Most of the same basic rules apply as in acting improvs:

  • “Yes, and” — If you write, “Have you seen my elephant?” I accept the existence of an elephant, whether in view or not.  The response might be, “Yes, and he was quite tasty, thank you”  or a more complex version of the rule — the “no, but” — “No, have you seen my mouse?”  (I accept your elephant and imply there may be a fable happening just out of sight.)
  •  “Drive the scene toward the story” — I don’t remember who said it first, but every line either moves the story along or reveals something about the character.
  •  “You look better when both writers look good.” When we’re both writing well, the story gets better as well.
  •  “Don’t ask open ended (obvious) questions,” instead let the descriptions and the character’s words and actions reveal who they are and what they are up to.

One more thing? No quitting. Set a time limit or a word count as a goal and write until “the bell rings.”  “Writers write, right?”

Eldon Hughes is a writer, storyteller and education technologist.  His website is www.ifoundaknife.com.

5 thoughts on “Improv Writing

  1. Oh man, I LOVE improv writing. I am almost finished with IMPRO and it inspired not only a great little quirky piece I was having trouble with, but allowed me to get a little more creative with how I plot out my stuff.

    I am totally looking forward to what happens with this, it’ll be great!

  2. Matthew –

    When it flows between several people, it’s a rush. The weirdest/coolest thing was getting in tune with both the story and my co author, C.H.Valentino that we were typing the lines while the other was thinking them — seeing lines of dialogue or action that I knew should be next “magically” appear on the screen.

    SHAMELESS PLUG: You can see for yourself in Poison and Wine. There’s a link to the right.

    And thanks for your comment!

  3. Another variant on the process is to share a picture with a couple of people. Pull something at random from a Google Image search and just start writing. If there’s somebody in it, maybe write as one of them. If not, be the character walking into the scene.

    Take the “thinky brain” out of the writing for a bit. :)

  4. I must live under a rock – I’ve never heard of improv writing but it sounds like a blast. I’ve got a writers group that meets once a month. I wish we met more but the group leader can’t commit to more days than that. This is a great exercise I can bring to the group so we can practice writing when we’re not in session. I know there are others in my group who would like to write more.
    Thanks for sharing. :)