Have you ever done an improv exercise as part of a camp or icebreaker? If you did, you probably thought it was either 1. hilarious, energizing, and fun OR 2. ridiculously hard, stressful, and embarrassing. Well, that’s improv for you. As a rule, improvisation training involves intense scenarios, fast-paced responses, and a lot of strained brain cells – which is exactly why it’s so good for your writing.
As writers, it’s easy to get stuck into patterns of thinking (and writing). At the same time, we struggle not to make our stories too predictable. Well, improvisation is all about thinking on your feet, finding unusual solutions, and looking for opportunities (Think “The Art of the Unexpected“).
5 Improv Exercises for Improving Your Writing
If you’ve ever seen an improv troupe like Whose Line Is It Anyway?, you’ve probably seen most if not all of these games. While you might get more out of them working with other people (more surprises), these are all exercises that you can apply to your writing and thinking to improve creativity and flexibility.
5. Backwards Scene
For this, actors start a scene with the last line and work backwards. Try to do the same with a story: instead of trying to find the end from the beginning, try to find the beginning from the end. Although it might make you cross-eyed, it can definitely loosen up how you think of your plot.
4. Change of Company
Change of company is a game where the actors have to change characters in the middle of the scene without changing the scene. I’d probably use this on a new story rather than one I’d been working on (or separate from the actual text). Pick your characters and start the plot. After a bit, change the characters but continue the same plot. Rinse and Repeat.
How do the differences in characters affect their actions? How do the changes affect the plot? If you want to practice character-driven plots, this is the exercise for you.
Like Change of Company, this game has the actors start a scene with specific characterization and circumstances given to them. Then after a little while, a different actor (the director) stops the scene and tells them to do it in a different style, in a different setting, with a different motivation/emotion, etc.
This can get a little complicated from a writing perspective, but it can be pretty fun at the same time. How would your characters act in space rather than New York City? What would your story be like as film noir?
Interrogation is a change of pace from the last two. It’s a game where two actors question a third about an absurd crime (suggested by the audience). In this situation, it’s not the characters or writing method that are so strange as it is the scenario. Like trying to keep a straight face when confronted with something ridiculous, trying to consider motivation and write dialogue in a bizarre situation can be a bit of a challenge.
If you’re trying to work on your comedic writing, this is a good exercise to choose. Some of the best comedy comes from acting serious about something that’s completely ludicrous.
1. Quick Change / The Bell Game
This game relies on a specific signal (a bell ringing, a buzzer, someone yelling, “Quick change!” etc.). The actors start a scene, and every time they hear that signal they have to change what they just said. Or they have to go back and do the last part of the scene in a new way.
This is a fantastic brainstorming exercise for a continuing plot. You can use post-its, an outline – whatever. The main point is to take up the story from wherever you left off and plan 1 way for the story to go. Then, set it aside and plan another. And another. You can give yourself a time limit or aim for a certain number of stories.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably noticed a pattern: 1. set aside your first response and try an alternative OR 2. try to think of serious options for unusual circumstances. Each exercise pushes thinking patterns in different ways, but the end goal is to be more flexible and more creative – to think of options you wouldn’t have thought of before (and there are plenty of other games to try).
I’m not saying you’ll become a great improv artist (odds are against it) or even that you’ll be able to use whatever you write as part of these exercises (it’s possible); however, practicing the thinking patterns of improv is like ballet stretches for your brain: maybe, you can’t put your foot behind your head now, but if you work at it, who knows?