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Improv 101 (And What It's Teaching Me About Writing) - Part 1

A few weeks ago, I started taking improv classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade in NYC. There are a lot of forms of improv out there, from short-form (think Whose Line Is It Anyway?) to long-form, which is more about scenes as opposed to quick one-liners.  Long-form is what UCB focuses on, and over the past several classes, I've picked up on a few improv rules that, weirdly, apply so well to writing, too.

So, for my next few posts, I'm going to break down a few rules of long form improv (that I am learning in my 101 class) and talk about how these also work as rules for writing.

So, for this week, the first thing our teacher impressed on us was something to the effect of:

Don't force the humor. Trying for the joke will never be as funny as the humor that comes from honesty.

So, I've realized that in an improv 101 class, everyone immediately wants to be funny. That makes sense, obviously, since improv is generally humorous. But people tend to go for obvious, over-done jokes. Sure they get a few laughs. But as our teacher pointed out, we all got way more laughs when we didn't try so hard, when we just stayed true to the humanity of the scenes. It was the honesty, in the long run, that produced the most humorous moments.

But how does this apply to writing?

Whether you are writing a funny scene, a romantic scene, a scary scene, or whatever - this rule totally applies to writing.  Trying too hard to force the emotion or feeling you want will never feel as authentic and natural and powerful as a scene where your characters are being true to themselves and their emotions.

So the trick in improv is not to think about being funny, not to go for obvious jokes at the expense of your realistic, truthful character.

And that works with writing, too.  When writing a scene, try not to think too much about what you want the scene to be. Expel those thoughts of, "is this sexy enough?" or "is this dark enough?" and instead think more about your characters. Do them justice! Write their reactions and their feelings as honestly and realistically as you can without thinking too much about the tone or emotion you're wanting.

Chances are, that honest scene is going to be far more powerful than one where all of your focus was on the tone and not the people you are writing about. Forcing an emotional will never give you an authentic moment.

So there's your little dose of Improv 101 wisdom. I'll be taking notes in my upcoming classes and relay them back to you soon! Whoever knew that taking this class would double as a way to get awesome writing tips? Two birds, one class!

Kody Keplilnger

Kody is the NYT bestselling author of The DUFF, Shut Out, and A Midsummer's Nightmare, all from Little Brown/Poppy, as well as Lying Out Loud, Run, and the middle grade novel The Swift Boys and Me, from Scholastic. Born and raised in Kentucky, she now lives in NYC.

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  1. I think that a lot of being able to write a good character is getting into the mind of the character, feeling what they feel, pretending to be them. It's acting in it's truest form. I'd tell anyone who is struggling to create in-depth, believable characters to take an acting course.

  2. I'm sure you'll probably totally hit on this one, too, but the improv rule I find myself using most in writing is "Yes, and." How do I keep this scene/conversation/etc. moving forward? The characters keep pushing the ball on their own.

    I'll be delighted to read these posts! An actress friend suggested improv to me a while ago for my writing, and I've done a couple seminar sessions that made a big difference even in a single morning.


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Item Reviewed: Improv 101 (And What It's Teaching Me About Writing) - Part 1 Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kody Keplinger