By: Joelle Charbonneau
Writers are always asking themselves “What happens next?” What happens next with the mystery? The love story? The grandfather’s Elvis impersonating career?
Coming up with an idea for a story isn’t the hardest part about being a writer. Answering the question “What’s next?” is. Moving the characters and the story forward in a compelling way takes work. It takes confidence and it takes a lot of thought.
I’m currently in the process of completing my third manuscript of this calendar year and I’ll tell you right now that making myself sit in front of the screen isn’t the hard part. It’s coming up with the next moment in the book—the next hook—the next whatever. Perhaps it would be easier if I outlined because then I’d have more than a foggy, barely formed thought as to where the story is going. Only, I can’t. I’ve tried. Trust me when I say that I wish outlining worked for me. But it doesn’t. As much as I love the idea of knowing exactly what happens next when I start typing, my writing is more like performing an Improv show. I need to type one moment before I can tell what the next moment is going to be. I can’t decide what’s next until I know what comes before.
Perhaps it isn’t so strange that I am an improvisational writer. All that training as a stage performer had to pay off at some point, right? The best Improv performers follow certain rules which apply not only to creating a story on stage, but also creating a story on the page. I’ve listed a few below that help me while I’m writing. I hope they help you to.
5 Rules of Improv (and writing)
1) Be willing to try anything
To succeed, one must be willing to fail. Not only fail, but fail in spectacular fashion. In Improv, a performer never knows where the scene is going. Performing is a risk. Just like writing is a risk. When you sit down and start typing you risk writing something silly, stupid, or foolish. And guess what? Sometimes you will. Sometimes the risks won’t pay off, but the more you try, the more successes you will have. In Improv there are no mistakes – only opportunities. Sometimes the most off the wall ideas in Improv are the ones that lead to brilliance. You have to risk making mistakes and see where they take you.
2) Stay in the moment
When doing improvisation, no one worries about what happened five minutes ago. You have to focus on what is happening NOW. The only way to figure out what happens next is to discover what is occurring at this moment then follow that path in order to arrive at the next moment.
3) Action beat inaction
Don’t just talk about doing something. Do it! Make a choice. That choice will move the story forward. The more specific the choice the better. The more specific the choice the more committed your character will be. Other characters will then respond with more conviction to those choices and the story will build from there.
Trust yourself enough to take the risks required. In Improv, you have to trust your instincts and the people around you otherwise the story falls apart. In writing, you don’t have a teammate to perform with. You are alone at the computer, which makes that trust all the more important. If you don’t trust yourself to tell the story, how can you expect your reader to show up and trust that the story will be engaging?
Trust your instincts when it says to veer away from a preconceived idea or outline. Trust your gut when it leads you through a dark, windy road that doesn’t seem like it will ever end. Learning to trust yourself will teach you that the number ideas and ways to tell a story are infinite. Only by trusting and experimenting will you find the one that works best for you.
The most important rule of Improv is the principle of “Yes….And?” In an Improv scene, a performer starts with an idea. “Hey, you stole my ferret.” To move the scene forward, the other performer must agree with that idea and then add to it. If they disagree by saying, “I don’t have your ferret” the scene ends. However, by saying, “It’s only fair since you ran over my cat,” the scene continues.
“Yes and” implies acceptance. It also acknowledges the reality of the moment and gives us permission to create the future. “Yes and” inspires us to discover what happens next.
So, No matter how silly something you wrote is, don’t immediately discard it. Agree with it. See where it goes. Trust yourself. Stay in the moment. Try anything that pops into your head, especially if it is filled with action. (Notice that I just pulled in the first four rules!) Eventually those moments become scenes. Those scenes becomes chapters until the story reaches The End.