Ever thought about performing improv? Standing in front of an eager crowd with no script, no back-up music — nothing but your wits? I’ve had heart-thumping nightmares that were less stress-inducing. I love watching improv but figured I could never perform it. Coming up with stuff off the top of your head is the opposite of what I do as a fiction writer.
See, I love control. I research and plan endlessly, creating a timeframe, an outline, character sketches, and so on. And once I get the whole story on paper, I go back to fix anything that wasn’t working in the first or seventh (or nineteenth) draft. Writing takes months, even years of revising and rewriting scenes and chapters so many times I lose count. Then I spend more hours wondering whether my plot twists and my prose are good enough. All that planning and second-guessing takes a lot of time, but having control makes me feel safe. Like my feet are planted firmly in the ground.
In improv? There’s no control, zero time to plan. It’s 100% flying by the seat of your pants. There’s no backtracking either. An improv scene exists for one brief moment and then, poof! It’s gone. You get just one chance. It doesn’t matter if you think of a better idea later. The moment’s passed. And you can’t take even a millisecond to think about that lost opportunity or you’ll miss the ones coming up.
That sounded like torture to me.
And then fate decided I should write a novel about an improv team. But it’s tough to write convincingly about something you’ve never actually experienced. So I beat back my doubt and signed up for improv classes. And I’m not going to lie — I was terrified. But the first class was pretty…okay. In fact, it was surprisingly fun. And very different.
In improv, there’s no time for worry or self-judgment. You just go. Sure, sometimes your scene flops, but you move on and get better. It can be incredibly freeing, even for — or maybe especially for — people who love control as much as I do. And sometimes everything lines up and the result is an amazing, magical gem of a scene.
For all their differences, I discovered, writing fiction and doing improv have a common goal. Both aim to create scenes that crackle with the electricity of actual, emotional encounters; scenes that successfully portray the mysteries and challenges of life in all their quirky, unpredictable, astonishing glory. The details and words of each scene must leap off the page, or out of performers’ mouths, as fresh as the ones we encounter every day in this crazy reality we call life.
So, does that freshness, I wondered, drain away as I endlessly tinker with the prose? Do my written scenes need that improv-like infusion of electricity? Perhaps instead of stepping back to observe the scene I’m writing or rewriting, I should imagine stepping in to it, as though I’m actually there, for the first time.
Yes, I still need to plan, because a novel is, after all, more complicated than a two-minute sketch. But now, after the planning, I try to take an improviser’s leap of faith as I write and let my imagination loose to bring that freshness to the page. I trust my research and my instincts to show life as it really is, but then I draw in a deep breath and just let the words fly. And often that flying results in a freshness I couldn’t achieve otherwise.