Improv, Relationships, and Fiction

Posted by Clayton Smith, GD Creative Non-Fiction reader for 6.2

I perform improv comedy on campus, and I’ll be the first to admit that I tend to have trouble not viewing most of the media I consume through the lens of improv. Not that comparing every book you read or movie you watch to the process of grown adults playing make-believe is a foolproof method of gauging quality, but I will argue that some of the parameters of improv are just as helpful when applied to the written word.

A key element of a good improv scene is to establish a clear relationship quickly. Any scene that begins with an undefined relationship is doomed unless that relationship becomes obvious fairly soon. If you were to begin an improv scene by walking up to the other actor and asking, “Who are you?” then you’ve given your fellow actor nothing to work with. The same can apply to writing fiction. Authors often force plot upon their characters as a task to be carried out, when the characters are in fact very capable of steering the plot themselves. By the time you know your characters and their relationships well, they’ll be the ones controlling the course of the story. Easing up on your grip and thinking about how your characters would truly react to a given situation rather than jamming them into your ideal road map of events is an approach that can yield truly unique results.

Understanding your character’s relationships with each other as well as with their fears and desires will do more for the course of your plot than any level of deliberate planning could. Sure, some authors have mastered the art of crafting elaborate universes and plopping their characters in like puzzle pieces to fulfill the inevitable action that they’ve dreamt up. However, as undergraduate students looking to improve our fiction writing skills, it can be invaluable to simply zoom in during the drafting process. Start with just two characters and dig to the core of their relationship before moving on. Maybe there are two friends walking home from the movies when a thief stops them and wants their wallets. So what? Well, maybe one of them took karate until 8th grade but is generally the shyer of the two. Maybe the other is more confident and assertive within the friendship, but more uncoordinated. Who takes control of the situation? Hey, I don’t know, it’s your story.

You can think of writing fiction like improv on paper, in that you can discover some intriguing, unexpected results if you relinquish some control. While fastidious planning might seem like the key to well-executed fiction, it can be refreshing to think of the process more like building the airplane while you’re falling out of the sky. It’s scarier, but will probably be more interesting. And if I haven’t convinced you of the value of improv, check out this article offering 5 reasons why everyone should take a class.

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