On the surface, improvisation may seem to be the furthest thing from writing. It looks like acting—like a heightened, specialized, and—honestly—terrifying form of acting.
Consider the type of improv that most of us are familiar with—short-form comedy improv, like what is featured on Whose Line Is It Anyway? In this show, the cast performs in short “games,” often as characters or in settings suggested by the audience. (“You’re both cowboys—who ride kittens—on Mars! Show us what your first date would look like—now!”)
But what really draws us to watching performers create something on the spot? We may think of them as particularly clever actors—but that’s not exactly the case, because acting isn’t the primary thing they’re doing.
We’re really watching people write—on the spot.
Improv is writing—heightened. You perform with no script, no plot, no pre-set ideas. You’re given the smallest spark to build from, and you have to create character traits, dialogue, theme, and action—right then, with immediate audience feedback.
Studying or performing improv is a fantastic way to strengthen your writing. I was lucky enough to perform as part of a professional improv comedy troupe for two years, and I improved massively as a writer thanks to the lessons I learned on stage. I became more positive, more creative, more productive, and—more importantly—vastly more confident.
Here, I’ll be focusing on the benefits gained from comedic short-form improv. While it’s tempting to think this advice is helpful only for comic writers, improv hones the skills needed for any type of writing—from business copywriting to horror screenwriting. (I primarily write drama and fantasy fiction, and all my comedy improv skills have carried over.)
It’s also the easiest form to study in two important ways: as it’s the most popular form of improv, you have the best option of finding a class or workshop near you. If you can’t find one, you can absolutely study it yourself—simply gathering some friends and playing improv games in your own living room works fantastically. (Your friends or classmates will serve as a built-in audience!)
Based on my personal experience, here are the seven most important things improv will teach you about your writing!
1. Ruthlessly “kill your darlings”
For more than a century, from sources ranging from Stephen King to William Faulkner, writers have been given this advice. But however often we’re told to “kill our darlings”—and however right we know it usually is—it’s often one of the hardest rules to follow.
We’re typically (and understandably) hesitant to delete our favorite block of text, to give up on a line of a dialogue or a scene that we’re immensely proud of or deeply connected to. The longer we put it off, the harder it becomes; we grow more attached as we mull over how much it would hurt to remove that line, or that character, or even the ending we originally had in mind.
We can take our time deciding, dragging out the murder until it is especially painful—or until we’ve convinced ourselves to spare our darling’s life after all.
In improv, you don’t have that time; you have to act, and you have to act now.
When your scene partner goes in a different direction than you expected and the brilliant one-liner you had planned is no longer relevant, you don’t have the option to try and desperately “make it work.” You have to kill your idea, mourn it for a nanosecond (if that), and instantly move on.
You have to be constantly analyzing what’s working, in the moment, and be entirely willing to give it up if it’s not. It’s nearly impossible to convince yourself that your “darling” joke is worth keeping alive if the audience isn’t laughing; you have to acknowledge its failure, briefly and imperceptibly, and then come up with a new idea that does work.
Once you’ve trained yourself to kill ideas that need to be abandoned (for whatever reason), it’ll get easier and easier to do. You’ll become an expert in searching for what actually works, versus what you want to work.
Plus, you’ll start to see that you can come up with something else when you have to. It’ll be far easier to learn to kill your darlings when you know that you can replace them with better ones.
2. Slay negativity by using “Yes, and!”
Our self-critics may feel impossible to silence. We can be incredibly harsh on ourselves; this can be great when editing (if it doesn’t go too far—you do have to kill those darlings, after all)—not so great when we’re trying to churn out the first draft.
We may attack our ideas as soon as we have them, or want to rip up our manuscript before we’re past the rough draft stage. It’s great to have a keen eye for what works—but if you find yourself doubting everything you write, or never following through on any idea, you may need a boost of positivity.
Luckily, positivity is what improv is all about.
The first rule of improv is the all-important “Yes, and!” which encourages you to accept the basic setup of the scene, as well as the ideas of others. The positivity doesn’t stop there; the “and!” in the rule encourages you to utilize your creativity in order to expand on an idea’s potential.
If your scene partner announces that you’re at the Grand Canyon, you don’t tell them you’re actually at a mall. (If the idea ends up not working, the scene should change naturally—the point is to not shoot down an idea before it’s tried.)
In improv (as in writing), everything relies on your imagination. If your partner suggests an idea (“We’re at the Grand Canyon!”) and you only agree (“Sure!”), the scene stops there. You’re putting all the pressure on someone else to come up with the moment, to create—to write.
“Yes, and!” reminds you to not only accept an idea, but to then add information to it. If your partner says you’re at the Grand Canyon, you can’t only say “yes” to the suggestion—you have to build on it. (“I know—and I’m terrified of heights!”)
Practicing this sort of acceptance and grace encourages you to have an open mind towards your writing ideas and to see their potential—even early in the drafting stages, well before they’re “perfected.”
The brain likes to be trained. When you train yourself to be more positive, you’ll find it easier to approach your own creativity and brainstorming sessions with an open, accepting attitude.
You’ll also become practiced in taking an idea as far as it can possibly go. (“Yes, a blog on urban vegetable gardening on a budget is a great idea—and I can even write some recipes for it to make the blog more useful!”)
Doing this consistently helps you see the possibility in your ideas, even if you have initial doubts about them. Once you get used to doing “Yes, and!” with the suggestions of others, it becomes far easier to see the potential in your own ideas—and to silence that negativity inside, once and for all.
3. Figure out what your audience expects—and then surprise them
When my comedy troupe went to the audience for suggestions (“Name a place/career/relationship!”), two things never failed.
If we asked them to name a historical figure, the first two answers yelled out would be “Abraham Lincoln” and “Napoleon.”
If we asked them to name a medical problem or psychological trait, the first two answers would be “narcolepsy” or “being a nymphomaniac.”
Every. Single. Time.
While repeated suggestions may get frustrating, as a writer, they’ll quickly teach you the value of asking your audience questions and getting their feedback.
You learn what the majority of your audience is aware of, which makes it much easier to learn how to relate to them. If you need to reference a historical figure to make a point, you can be sure that Abraham Lincoln is someone nearly everyone is familiar with.
Perhaps more importantly, you’ll learn what your audience is expecting, and by extension, how to surprise them. You’ll learn what your readers will think is coming in your writing: “I bet his blind date is a nymphomaniac! I bet if they time travel, they’ll meet Napoleon! This article on transparency in business will probably mention Honest Abe!”
Improv will help you to know what your audience expects—and will force you to give them something compellingly original. If you’re coming up with the exact same ideas on stage that anyone in the audience could suggest, why would they bother going to you to be entertained or informed?
Writing is all about crafting unique observations and helping people to see things in an interesting way. Nothing will teach you what is truly unique faster than consistently asking an audience what their first thoughts and associations are.
4. Make the ordinary extraordinary
In improv, as in writing, taking the easy way out can be incredibly tempting.
If you ask your audience to name a career, and one person shouts out “proctologist” while another shouts out “cashier,” the audience will expect you to go for the former. They may even be rooting for it.
And it may seem like a good idea. Chances are, a good portion of the audience started giggling at the mere mention of “proctologist.” You know that all you’ll have to do is mime snapping a glove on your hand, or tell your scene partner to bend over, and you’ll get laughs.
But they’ll be easy, expected laughs. Laughs the audience could have gotten from anyone. The skit won’t stand out to them, you won’t stand out to them, and your writing won’t stand out to them. You’re making them laugh due to a cliche, not your skill.
If you decide to go with “cashier,” the audience won’t immediately know where you’re going. They won’t know how you’ll make it funny—and when you do make them laugh, it’ll move them much more deeply than if you had gone with easy, expected jokes.
This works in all genres, not just comedy. Norman Bates is terrifying precisely because he seems so unthreatening—he stands out to us because Hitchcock made him terrifying. Bilbo Baggins is inspiring because he doesn’t seem like a hero—Tolkien made us see his courage and his strength.
You want your writing to have impact. If you go with what is most expected—if the copy on your website looks like every other landing page in your industry, if your heroine is the same person in every book on the shelf, if your interview asks the same questions dozens of other journalists have asked already—your work will be lost in a sea of identical words.
You need to say something unique if you want your audience to notice your product, your service, or your art.
Being unique is never easy, but improv will train you to accept challenges, and create something great and memorable as a result.
5. Develop a razor-sharp sense of pacing
It’s easy to get lost in your own world when you’re writing. You may enjoy waxing poetic about the scenery in your short story, or picking at an argument in your editorial line by line by line.
You’re deeply invested, and therefore deeply interested, which can make it incredibly difficult to tell when your readers will lose their interest.
In improv, there’s never a doubt when the audience has tuned out. The whole room drags, you get sucked out of the moment—you can feel the scene dying. You’ll know the instant your pacing (the speed in which a story, scene, or idea is moved forward) is off.
You’ll know when an audience’s patience wanes, when they’ve had enough of an introduction, when a joke has grown stale, or when they’re ready for a scene to end. Their boredom is all but unbearable, and you’ll be forced to win back their interest as quickly as possible.
Before long, you pick up a strong instinct—you can tell an audience is restless before they even realize that they are. There’s a shift in the room, something hard to describe, but instantly noticeable. You have to immediately adjust the speed of your delivery to match the audience’s patience.
It sharpens your awareness of pacing in all areas; you’ll feel far more connected to any potential audience, and you’ll know how to keep their interest.
Since improv is, essentially, writing, you’ll train yourself to know when any piece of writing is dragging. You’ll get the same feeling of “I’m losing them”—even when you’re alone in your office with nothing but your pen and paper.
Improv trains you to be aware of your audience at all times, while also focusing on your work and creating in the moment. This awareness will improve your pacing, and keep your readers eager for every word.
6. Defeat writer’s block
That blank, white page. That terrifying cursor, blinking at the top-left corner of an empty screen.
The only thing more horrifying to a writer is the inability to make either one of those things go away. When writer’s block hits, it can feel insurmountable, and almost impossible to push through.
In improv, a “block” is not an option. You have to say something. You have to create.
This urgency is the big benefit of performing improv regularly—whether it’s before an audience, in a class, or at a gathering in your living room. You have to show up, and once you do, you have to contribute.
When I was in my troupe, it didn’t matter if I was burnt out. It didn’t matter if I was feeling sad or off. It didn’t matter if I wasn’t in the mood. It didn’t matter if I felt uninspired.
I couldn’t sit around and wait for the muse, for inspiration, to strike. Instead, I had to find inspiration—and I had to do it right then.
When you’re faced with an audience staring at you expectantly, you learn how to dig deep until you find ideas, however buried they may be. If you do that repeatedly, you’ll learn that those ideas are always there—and there’s nothing more inspiring than that.
Improv teaches you that creativity is a skill you have to consistently, actively work at. You learn how to make creation a habit—not some idealized mood you have to sit around and wait for.
More importantly, it’ll show you that you are always capable of writing, even when you don’t feel like you are. Once you learn to write on stage on demand, you’ll be able to write anywhere on demand.
When you sit down at your desk, you’ll show up and be as creatively present as you are when you’re in front of an audience. You’ll know how to access that core creativity that’s always there, just waiting for you to access it.
Once you’ve learned how to hunt down the muse, you’ll never be at her mercy again.
7. Increase your confidence
Many people are terrified of improv, performers and non-performers alike.
The fear is not at all invalid; improv is scary. You’re out there on stage (or performing with/in front of your partners) with no script, no plan, no safety net.
There’s only you and the words you create—now.
While it may make for a tense (okay, horrifying) experience, while it may feel impossible, once you do it, you feel invincible.
There’s nothing that will raise your confidence as a writer quite as intensely as improv. Once you see what you can create under such intense pressure, with no time to plot or research or get inspired, any writing project will seem possible.
You’ll also get used to negative or harsh feedback. The audience didn’t like your joke? You can’t sit and dwell on it—you have to instantly learn from it and move on.
You’ll learn that when an idea is a failure, it doesn’t mean that you’re a failure. You may bore them with one line and have them eating out of your hand 10 seconds later. You’ll also find that you can gain creative insight from anything—some of my most valuable lessons came from performing in total train-wrecks.
Once you conquer improv, you’ll be ready to face any creative challenge.
At its core, improv is writing.
After studying it, you’ll be more driven, more confident, more creative, and more in tune with your audience. You’ll be aware of when something isn’t working, when a change of pace is needed, and what your readers will expect.
You’ll bring a sense of positivity, spontaneity, and connectedness to your writing. You’ll trust your imagination, and you’ll be able to write consistently—banishing writer’s block.
Whether you get on stage, join a class, or start a group that meets in your basement every week, performing improv will make you a stronger, more capable writer. (And who knows, maybe you’ll discover a love for performing as well!)
Improv is all about putting faith in your creativity and your ability to write on the spot; mastering that makes anything else less intimidating.
Once you’ve written on stage, you’ll realize that anything is possible.
Photo credit: carloscastilla, Gajus-Images, yobro10, nupix