7 Things Comedy Improv Taught Me About Writing Better Scenes

A few months ago, I tried something new. Something I’d been wanting to take a crack at. By the title of this post, you can probably guess what it was.
That’s right.
I rode a donkey.
Alright. Alright. I tried comedy improv.
Randomly, I saw a Facebook page advertising a comedy improv workshop put on by Off the Cuff, a group of super cool and super funny people who do amazing improv shows. Seriously, these guys are the best. 
I saw the page a few days before the workshop and…
I decided to do it.
Well, actually, at first I thought it would be fun to try and I kinda wished I was the kind of person that would do something like that. I hemmed and I hawed. And I talked myself out of it. 
I didn’t really have time. It would probably be intimidating. I’d make a fool of myself! It wasn’t something I needed to do. There were probably toilets I should clean (you’d think that would’ve talked me into it right there).
Then my friend, Mercedes, posted on Facebook about how she’d always wanted to do something, something new and different and scary.
And she finally did it. She shaved her head.
I was totally impressed.
And just like that, I decided to show up to the workshop Saturday morning.

This was me right before I went in to the workshop.
I was all cool and calm and collected.
That’s it. 

I’m so glad I did! All the players were incredibly warm, welcoming, and encouraging. Joey Shope and Josh W. Nicols from Spectacles Improv Engine out of Fullerton, California were there leading the workshop. They taught us fun games. They gave me loads of tips on how to improve (I reeeeally needed those tips). And they were all super patient with my mistakes and extra beginner attempts.

It was fantastic.

Oh, you know, just me and my new best friends hanging out.
No big deal. (Ack! That was so much fun! When can I do it AGAIN??)

I’d hoped to learn more about being funny since, well, yeah…I’m kinda down with the humor thing. But I also learned seven ways to improve the scenes in my writing from the workshop.

1Give the character an emotion and a want that stays the same throughout the scene.
I have a tendency to make a character really angry. And then in the next paragraph make his eyes twinkle. Or he’s suddenly laughing. Or maybe decides to start skipping. Probably as he searches for a donkey. 
Make sure your readers know how the character feels and what they want and be consistent. 
2. Amp up the emotion as the scene progresses. If they start out angry then make them angrier and angrier.
I loved this idea that whatever emotion the character is feeling at the beginning of the scene, increase it. If they start out worried. Make them grow more and more worried until they’re completely paranoid! If they start out sad. Make them more and more upset until they’re miserable. 
3. Make your character fresh and unique.
This is something we hear time and time again as writers. We need to create new and interesting characters! But it was interesting to see this put to work in a different form of storytelling. 
The audience doesn’t want to watch the same old characters, the mad, gruff principal or the tired mother or the crime-fighting police officer. No, give them a principal who’s trying to become a magician on the side, making teachers disappear accidentally or a mom who’s tired because she wasn’t up late with her baby, but was stitching together her own Frankenstein in the basement or a police officer who’s secretly Donkey Man, fighting crime with bray-very (okay, yeah, that was pretty bad). 
4. Once the audience knows what the character wants, they care.
It sounds so simple! But how many times do you critique pages or read your own work and realize you have no idea what the main character or any of the characters actually wants?
Give them something to care about, something to want, and make sure your readers know what it is. 
5. Get out of Thinktown!
Okay, I spend way too much time in Thinktown, that wretched place where you think too hard about what you’re about to say and/or write. But get out of your head! Stop letting your inner editor shoot down your best ideas! 
Sometimes my favorite lines are created at night after that infernal inner editor of mine has finally gone to bed. I write crazy things. Some get erased the next morning. Some don’t make any sense (anyone else sleep type?). But some are interesting metaphors and descriptions! That’s because I wasn’t so quick to criticize myself and I went ahead and wrote the crazy thing that popped into my head. 
BUT it’s also important to know that sometimes you won’t write a great line or scene. Sometimes you’ll try something and it won’t work. That’s okay! The important thing is to try.

If you’re always hanging around Thinktown, sitting on the corner of I Bet This Will be Lame Lane and What’s the Point of Trying Street then you’ll never ever arrive at the Hey! I Wrote Something Awesome Avenue.

6. How people sit, stand, how far apart they are in the scene says something about their relationship.
This seems so obvious, but it wasn’t something I’d thought about before. If you start out your scene with two characters sitting next to each other having a conversation versus standing on either sides of a room talking to each other, this says something about them and what’s going on between them. Use this!
7. Make the setting interesting.
This is also something we hear a fair amount. The setting can be another character. Make it different! Really think about the best place to put your characters in a scene. Don’t settle for the first idea that comes along. Maybe there’s some place new and different you can put them. Or some place that furthers your theme or amplifies the emotions of the scene.
Would you rather see a donkey wrangler doing his trying-to-catch a donkey thing in a dusty corral or say, in a creepy wax museum? See? Setting is important! 
If you ever get a chance to try comedy improv, or do something else you’ve always longed to try, jump at it! Who knows what you’ll learn!
Have you ever tried something new and gained writing insights from it? 


Erin Shakespear writes middle grade fantasy full of quirky creatures, magic, and strange adventures. With six kids, her days are also full of quirky creatures, magic, strange adventures, and…loads of diapers. She also likes to dabble at photography, sewing, and pretending she’s a grand artist. 


3 thoughts on “7 Things Comedy Improv Taught Me About Writing Better Scenes

  1. Pingback: The First Rule of Improv/Revision | Thinking Through Our Fingers

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