Top 10 Improv Rules For Writers

I’ve been taking Improv classes at Bad Dog Theatre here in Toronto for about two years, and it has helped me enormously with both writing and editing, because it has really helped to clarify my understanding of what a good scene is, what scenes need, where and how they can go wrong, and what this whole thing we try to do when we tell stories is about.

So the following are the ten most useful rules for writers that I have picked up from Improv, with some explanation of how to translate them from the collaborative, performance-based world of Improv to the more solitary, workmanlike-business of putting yourself in front of a computer, a typewriter, or a blank page and creating stories and characters that audiences will enjoy.

(Unless otherwise indicated, these are pretty well-known ideas within the Improv community. But of course I have all of my teachers – Jess Bryson, Gavin Williams, Colin Munch, Craig Anderson, Anders Yates, Nicole Passmore, and Shanda Bezic – to thank for helping me understand what they mean. Otherwise, they come from Keith Johnstone’s ‘Impro’, Mick Napier’s ‘Improvise’, or the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB)’s ‘Comedy Improvisation Manual’, with a few nods to Robert McKee’s ‘Story.’)

1.     The Day of Days: Today – the day on which your story or scene takes place – is not just any day. Today is the day on which something unusual happens. But it need not be something wildly unusual, like an asteroid hurtling toward the earth. It can just be an unusual level of candour between two characters, a revelation, a decision to turn left instead of right. Whatever it is, it has unpredictable consequences, and it sets your scene and story in motion.

2.     Every scene needs a Platform (the normal situation) and a Tilt, a Turn, or a First Unusual Thing (UCB’s term). Basically, we don’t tell stories about normal life, where things go to script or the way we expect. We tell stories about when things go off in unexpected directions. But before that can happen, we have to know what the normal situation is for your characters. (This can be established very quickly, because we are all familiar with a wide variety of normal life situations.) Then, when it veers off in a surprising direction, we know that the turn, or tilt has happened.

(Robert McKee says a scene can only turn on actiondoing something unexpected – or revelationsharing some unexpected information.)

3.     There are 5 basic elements of a scene: Where (setting), Who (characters), What (the situation or problem), Stakes (what it means to these characters; what they stand to gain or lose from each other in this interaction), and some kind of Ending (which may or may not resolve the tensions in the scene; it may leave them hanging there to be built on or concluded by future scenes). To me, the most useful notion here for writers is that of stakes. If you have a scene that is not working, that is vague, that lacks tension, go back and figure out what these people want, what they stand to gain or lose, and bring that into focus. 

4.     There are 4 special types of scenes: Scenes that deal with Truth (scenes in which something is confessed or revealed), History (scenes that reveal why a person or a relationship is the way he/she/it is), Metaphor (scenes in which characters communicate indirectly with each other, such that the scene is all about its subtext), or Philosophy (scenes that reveal a character’s view of life). Not every scene will be one of these, but these can advance the plot and deepen the themes and relationships in ways that make the stakes clear to the reader/audience.

5.     All human interactions are coloured by STATUS. Humans quickly figure out where they stand in terms of status in every situation – who has more or less physical or social power, or prestige. Humans are status-conscious animals. We can’t help but play status games with each other (playing high status – bragging, boasting, dominating others, condescending to others, etc. – or playing low status: belittling ourselves, being self-effacing, deferring to others, building others up, etc.). In different situations, and with different people, these strategies help us to get what we want from each other, often covertly. So status frequently plays into the subtext of a given interaction. (See Keith Johnstone)

For an excellent example of this dynamic in a dramatic film, see Bennett Miller’s ‘Foxcatcher’. Nearly every scene can be read very clearly through the lens of status.  Steve Carell’s John DuPont is the highest status character in almost every situation, except when his mother is present, when he is reduced to near zero. Mark Ruffalo’s character also has a way of diminishing DuPont – politely, not maliciously – but it quite literally drives DuPont crazy.

6.     Things people do and don’t talk about: In general, people don’t talk about what they are presently doing. When you are washing dishes, you don’t talk about washing dishes – you talk about something else: your day at work, some problem you are having with a family member, etc. People also don’t tend to talk about or say things that both interlocutors already know. They may, however, use their knowledge of each other to preface comments: “When we were at university together, you were a real a jerk to me!” – which is a more realistic way of sneaking in exposition about characters. And people often don’t talk about what they are really talking about: they use metaphors or other strategies to talk about things indirectly, which is what gives a scene subtext.

(Robert McKee says only in certain parts of Southern California do people casually share their childhood traumas and deepest, darkest secrets. He calls these ‘California Scenes’ and cautions writers to avoid them. For most people, sharing deeply personal information is a high-stakes affair that we avoid as often and for as long as we can.)

7.     Avoid having characters gossip about other characters we aren’t going to meet, or talk about past/future events that we’re not going to see. Keep the dialogue, and the scene, focused on the present and this relationship between these characters. What’s really happening between these two? What is at stake between them right now, which is another way of saying: what do they want from each other, and what are the consequences if they don’t get it?

8.     Hone your Third Eye – meaning – ask yourself what the audience wants or expects to see. For example, who’s the bad guy in this scene? Does the audience want to see him/her triumph or be punished? Why? What themes, story forms, or patterns does the scene tap into? Is there something from earlier in the story that should come back to resonate in the present scene? How would a story like this typically end? Can you work out some surprising or interesting variation on that expectation? - because all audiences love to be surprised. Just don't cheat by unfairly withholding information or manipulating the situation for a phoney or contrived surprise. (See Robert McKee)

9.     Scenes need conflict (or tension), but not all conflict needs to be fighting – that is, interpersonal conflict between characters. Empathy, agreement, and external sources of conflict, pressure and tension can produce more interesting scenes than just interpersonal conflict. Anger quickly gets boring because is escalates and then there is nowhere to go with it. In a flirtation scene, the tension is often positive – we enjoy seeing people make and respond to romantic advances; it's a kind of dance. The stakes in a scene about two excited, revved up characters can be about how these two are going to have increasing levels of fun (props to Jess Bryson for this example). Tension doesn’t always have to be negative.

10. Storytelling depends on an oscillation between tension and release. Audiences can’t tolerate endlessly building tension, except in certain genres (suspense, thriller) where this is the whole point, and even in these we get little breaks from it. The ways of giving the audience a break are: in comedy, laughter; in drama, it is often subplots, with lower stakes – or just different stakes – where we can take a breather from the higher tension and stakes of the main plot. (See Robert McKee)

BONUS! Since 10 is an arbitrary number, and since there is just so much good stuff for writers in Improv training, here are FOUR more useful tips.

11. Avoid stranger scenes. This is not a hard and fast rule, just something to be careful about. As we saw above, what makes scenes interesting – much of the time – is tension and subtext. Having your characters know each other gives you so much more to draw on to create tension and subtext, because they have a history together. Strangers generally interact in instrumental ways (transactions: buying things, providing services, etc.) and since they have no history, the only real avenues for subtext are things like sexual tension, rudeness, and status games (placing yourself above or below others). Characters that already know each other have all these plus a history together, so there is a lot more to build on.

12. The first rule in Improv – arguably less useful in writing – is ‘Say Yes’. This is used to build up the world and the characters in which the scene or story takes place, because the performers are making it all up on stage without a script or plan, so they have to get onto the same page first. Once that has happened, the next most important rule – and this is more useful for writing – is: If this is true, what else is true? Basically this means using a mix of logic and creativity to flesh out your characters and take them to the logical extreme of the situation in which they find themselves, or to add another element (a different location? a new character? a plot twist?) to raise the tension even higher. Audiences are smart. They don’t like to be cheated. And they spot cheating and fakeness right away, because they are asking themselves the same question: If this is true (what I already know about the character), what else is true (how would this person naturally behave in this situation, and where would this story logically go)? So, the more natural and logical your story is, and the more the audience feels like they know your characters, the more they will buy into your story, because they will see that the choices your characters are making and the situations they are getting into flow naturally from who they are.

13. Steer clear of Crazytown (UCB). Although we don’t generally tell stories about everyday life as it is normally lived, we also don’t want to go off into outer space. Or, rather, even when we are in outer space, we still expect characters to behave logically and naturally. (Which is not to stay rationally, because humans are often not rational, but consistent with what we already know about the characters.) We want to have the feeling of, ‘Yes, I believe that this kind of person in this kind of situation would behave the way the storyteller is having them behave.’ But if your story is full of kooky, eccentric people doing kooky eccentric things, we quickly get into what the Upright Citizens Brigade calls ‘Crazytown’ – a world in which no one is ‘normal’, and the audience is disoriented. The audience needs a surrogate – a character who stands in for them and reacts as a ‘normal’ person would, even in the most extreme situations – otherwise they lose their grounding in the reality of your story.

Even in something like Star Wars, you have robots and sasquatches and wizards walking around – it’s a pretty strange world – but then you also have Han Solo, a regular sceptical guy, like us, with no special powers, who makes us comfortable by looking at all this craziness around him and sort of saying to us with a wink, ‘Are you getting this? Can you believe this?’ And we do believe it, because he’s there reacting the way we would.

14. Go two or three steps away from your first idea. This one needs to be adapted a little, but the basic idea is that Improv starts with a suggestion, usually from the audience. The audience may not have seen a lot of Improv, so if you ask them for a location, they might gravitate toward zany or unusual places like ‘the zoo’, or – if you ask them for a relationship – they tend to go to extremely common ones like ‘co-workers’, which typically produces an office scene. This is not a good or a bad thing – it is up to the performers to decide what to do with these suggestions. One trick is to free-associate and go a few steps away from the initial suggestion. Maybe the zoo is a metaphorical zoo, like the Tokyo subway. Or maybe the co-workers are not in an office but on an oil rig or some other location that’s realistic, but that we don’t usually see.

The way this applies to writing, I think, is that when we are creating on the fly we naturally tend to gravitate to the most obvious thing, which is often a stereotype or cliché. So writers can also stop themselves from using just the easiest ideas that are at hand by free-associating, exploring the terrain around the idea, and going a few steps away. 

I hope these few tips have been helpful, and would love to hear (in the comments below, or email, or on Twitter @PDWalter) how they apply to the challenges you face in your own writing!

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Ready to take the plunge and try some Improv classes yourself? Try the Bad Dog Academy for a wide range of classes for students of all levels, including (for the commitment-phobic) several drop-ins each week!