Using Improvisation as a Writing Tool

When I was a teen, I studied acting at a local community theater. One summer I took a class in Improvisation. The techniques I learned that summer continue to help me write, especially when I’m on a deadline.
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s say you hear about a call for submissions. Whether it’s for essays in an anthology, novellas or full-length novels, you need to act fast to have a chance. Here are some tools I borrowed from my acting days that might help:

  • Start with a tag line. In my teen improv class, we practiced our skills by drawing randomly from a basket. On each slip of paper there was a “tag line,” or set-up, which could also be a lot like the “one or two sentence pitch” novelists develop. Try making a tag line that includes the following: Character in (location, time) desperately wants (goal), but (obstacles) stand in the way. Character struggles to overcome (obstacles) by (some kind of action) to win the (goal).
  • Don’t think too much. Sit down and type in a stream-of-consciousness way for 20 minutes. BE the character. Let the character say how he/she feels, what’s frustrating, identify the main obstacles. Add in at least one complication of the main obstacle and describe how this character intends to attack and ultimately overcome. Let the character journal sit for a day or two.
  • Reread what you wrote. Tweak the details and add supporting characters if you wish.
  • Write a scene. Note that this may or may not be the opening to the piece. I want you to start with a scene so that you won’t succumb to the urge to write a lot of narrative or flashback. Remember to use lots of CSD (concrete sensory details) and try to incorporate as many of the Eleven Elements of a Scene as you can.
  • Compare your scene first to the tag line, then to the journal. Take a look at how these are different, how they are the same. Write out a short synopsis (again using tag line formula above) of around 150 words, be sure to include the ending, not a cliffhanger. See which parts of the journal you can use in the scene (hint: most likely to be strong emotions).
  • Rewrite the Scene. Revise your scene using the tag line and journal to guide and intensify the story.

Using this method, see if you can come up with a viable story. I’d love to hear how the process works (or not) for you.

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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