Finding unexpected connections between comedic improvising and fiction writing

July 8, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 8, 2013

This summer, I signed up for Improv 101, a class in improvisational comedy offered by DSI Comedy Theater in Carrboro, N.C. I had a lot of different reasons for doing so. Among them: I wanted to try something different; I wanted to do something funny; I wanted to explore my sense of humor; I wanted to meet new people; I wanted to get better at speaking off the cuff; I wanted to give a spark to my creative side.

Comedy, especially improvisational comedy, is a creative activity, of course. But something that surprised me was just how much the techniques our teacher, Brandon Holmes, taught us have in common with what I might have learned in a fiction writing class.

The fundamental tenet of improvisational comedy is “Yes, and —” which characterizes the improvisational comedian’s ideal response. For instance, if one character, or actor, or comedian, were to say, “You owe me five bucks for the bet you lost to me last week,” an excellent response might be “Yes, and I also promised to clean out your grandmother’s basement,” or “Yes, and I also owe my bookie $5,000 because of that big bet I put on Winnipeg to win the Super Bowl.”

The point of “Yes, and —” is to keep a scene flowing and developing. A lot of the humor in improvisational comedy comes not from specific jokes made by the performers but from the additional details and twists that appear when “Yes, and —” adds layers to the scene. 

“Yes, and —” initially seemed to have little in common with any of the principles of fiction writing. But later it occurred to me that “Yes, and —” is the improv comedy equivalent of ratcheting up tension. (Only the point in improv is to increase the potential for humor, not dramatic tension.)

A lot of the other guidelines Brandon taught us in Improv 101 correspond more directly to fiction-writing tips. He encouraged us to make choices and create details about the characters and the scene.

For instance: We should give a name to the other person (or people) in the scene. We should state the relationships of the characters. Our character should have some sort of goal — say, to take a road trip or to get out of doing a task. Conceive of an emotion or feeling the character is experiencing, such as joy, pain or hunger.

Brandon also encouraged us to think up details about the environment in which the scene is taking place. Are the characters interacting in a cave, with stalagmites, stalactites and dripping water? a haunted house, with cobwebs and eerie paintings? a grocery store, with aisles and displays full of produce and other foodstuffs?

These are all details that can drive and guide and shape a improvised scene. And these are all items that a novelist or short story writer might conceive and elaborate upon in various scenes throughout her narrative.

I love finding connections between seemingly disparate things. And even though I knew both improvisational comedy and fiction writing to be creative endeavors, I didn’t realize how much these two activities can parallel one another.

Color me pleasantly surprised!

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