Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Improv Rule

Thanks to all of you who commented on yesterday’s post. I was so heartened to see how that scripture spoke to you. Becky and Bonnie, thanks mucho for the tips on the online Bibles.

Recently I read Blink, the nonfiction title by Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point. Both are fascinating books. I was struck by a passage in Blink in which he talks about the spontaneity of improvisation theater. Gladwell tells of a comedy group in New York who creates a thirty-minute play on the spot, based on ideas called from the audience.

The tagline for Blink is “The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.” Gladwell says improv theater is a “wonderful example of the kind of thinking that Blink is about. It involves people making very sophisticated decisions on the spur of the moment.”

On the surface, he says, improv seems “random and chaotic,” but it really isn’t at all. Every week the cast of the group gets together to practice. Why? Because their art is governed by a series of rules, and everyone must abide by these rules and become very good at appearing to be spontaneous within these rules.

Gladwell explains that one of the most important improv rules is “the idea of agreement, the notion that a very simple way to create a story is to have characters accept everything that happens to them.” In this way a scene can be built. “Bad improvisers block action” while good improvisers “develop action.” He runs a few lines from an improv scene in which a crazy doctor suggests amputating someone’s leg just because he’s “having trouble with it.” The patient tells the doctor he “can’t do that.” The scene goes nowhere because the patient character has blocked the suggestion course of action. Run the scene again, with the patient accepting the amputation, and a wild and zany story is built.

I reacted to this idea with a nonplused shake of my head. It seemed totally backward to me. After all, isn’t an author’s story created by conflict? Character A wants something, and character B blocks it. Yet this is exactly opposite of what the improvisers do. Now maybe this rule applies more to comedy, I don’t know. But as I pondered this apparent dichotomy and what it could mean for my writing, a crack of light appeared from a new thought, not quite complete. Sort of like a door was opening in my mind to some major aha, but I had yet to push it open. I’m not sure I’ve opened it completely yet.

Apparently it has to do with plotting a book. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know I have major problems with that. Ideas don’t flesh out for me easily. Usually because I reject an idea the minute it pops into my head as “not good enough” or “boring” or “I’ve already done that” or “not twisty enough” or something.

What if, next time around, I rejected the rejection response? What if I acted like a member of a comedy improv group and simply ran with whatever ideas surfaced from my subconscious? The “idea of agreement.” Block nothing. Accept a premise, accept the compounding ideas that follow, and see how far I can go in creating a story.

I don’t know how well this will work until I try it. (Which will be very soon. After I finish this book—the 6th in my 7-book contract—I must create new ideas to sell for my next contract.) But I am going to try it.

Y'all have thoughts about this? I'd love to hear 'em.


Stuart said...

Interesting way of putting it. :) Sounds a lot like what SoTP authors do when writing, just accepting & moving on where the character's response to events leads. Though maybe not quite that loose, since you can apply it to the orginal plot creation process even for structured plotters. :)

It is definetly something that can take you on a wild ride.

D. Gudger said...

Not blocking sounds like a great idea for free writing. I get stuck alot in my plot (I've been stuck for nearly a year and am working on revising what I do have)... may be a chance to learn about characters too.

William G. said...

I've never thought about it in detail, but that's pretty much how I piece a story together. In fact, when I start a new project from scratch, I typically have only the ending or climax in mind, and then I start building characters and conflict that will take me from beginning to that end point. The only ideas I reject are the ones that don't put my story closer to that end point. It results in huge first drafts, but it gives me some strong leeway when editing and rewriting. The final draft of my current WIP is shaping up to only a little more than half the size of my first draft. It may not be the best way but hey, I'm still learning.

Love the blog, by the way. Awesome advice here.

Anonymous said...

In my creativity workshops, I call this "the angel's advocate." The devil's advocate always tell you what's wrong with something. The angel's advocate tells you to look for what is right about something. When brainstorming with yourself or others, don't reject ideas immediately. Look for what is right; let it play in your imagination awhile.

Robin, an SOTP writer who is big on brainstorming and keep a "rolling plot" journal

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

I'm probably not the best one to comment since I am definitely not a free writer--let's see where the characters go. To me that requires a lot of expended writing energy I am not willing to waste. I'd rather put the time into thinking first.

However, I don't see that the method is so far from the concept of brainstorming. In the brainstorming phase of planning, there is no such thing as a bad idea. All are in and often one leads to another which leads to a better until the best emerges.

The other thing to keep in mind, besides the fact that these are comedians, is that they are putting together something for a half an hour. I think it would be much harder to sustain that for the length of a book.

For example, suppose your protag did say, OK, Doc, off with the leg. You may have some interesting situations arise, but does having your protag deal with a sudden disability add to where you're going or detract?

I'm still of the mindset that the author, after all is the one who makes such decisions.

I also think there are as many possibilities that can result from the "Don't take my leg" as there are from the, "Ok, Doc." At least for the novelist. The patient could find a new doc who has some knowledge or expertise that allows for a life - or leg - saving procedure. The first doc could be exposed as someone doing unnecessary procedures. The patient could actually die because of his choice. None of that would work for a 30 min. spot between two actors. But novelists aren't limited like that.


Unknown said...

I suppose this is pretty much what I do at the plotting stage. I'm in the camp of plotting roughly before I begin, so one of the things that helps me is taking a situation such as heroine has something bad guy wants. Does he try to get it from her or forget about it? Each one of those answers leads to a different path, and subsequent paths branch off each of those, leaving me with a bunch of ideas that look something like a tree branch.

The hard part is figuring out which path will work best and how many of these ideas can I combine for complexity. I try to run out each idea to its end and pick what I think will work best before I start writing.

Great topic, Brandilyn. I hadn't really thought about it in these terms before.

Lynette Sowell said...

That's interesting. I do remember being taught somewhere that sometimes the FIRST idea that comes to mind is often too similar, too easy, too obvious, possibly cliche even. But maybe go with that idea, making the answer a, "Yes, AND--" then a twist happens? I don't know. I'm still trying to figure it all out. LOL. :) Interesting thought, though.

Unknown said...

This might possibly be the weasels way out, but if you're worried about getting in too deep into the novel before you know where it's going ... how about going the first third and then see how it feels? (Or am I the only one here who writes his novels with act breaks?)

On the other hand, big-time ABA novelist Reed Arvin told a local group of mystery writers that he does not know how his novels are going to end until he gets there. In fact, his method is to put the hero in a spot where there is only one solution to his problem - and then take that solution away.

And it seems to work for him.

(One of these days, I hope to have the nerve to try it for myself.)


AJY said...

I just attended a Fiction class taught by John Olson. He talked about giving equal time to each, the Right side (creativity) and Left side (analytical) of the brain. During Right side -brainstorming sessions, only brainstorm ideas. Then switch to the Left side - analysis. During this time only analyze ideas, no creativity here. Then, go back to the brainstorm/creative side. Mr. Olson taught it much better than I can explain it! He said it works for plot and character development.

Alternating b/t the two has helped me develop ideas. So far it's been more fun than the way I used to think about ideas. I bet the improv actors love the freedom to just go with it.

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

Wow, that leg scenario opens up a lot of possibilities...patient mixup...the person loosing the leg gets their appendix taken out instead, luckily they catch the other surgery before the person looses his leg. The doctor is so remorseful that an 'innocent person' almost suffered just so he could get a new Porche, that he tries to kill himself by jumping out a window but an awning breaks his fall and he bounces onto a mugger trying to rob someone in front of the hospital....PS they find the appendix was actually bad and about to cause a problem.

I love SOTP plotting. You never knw where your going till you get there!

Dineen A. Miller said...

Hey Brandilyn,
This made me think of the joint blog I'm doing with my three crit partners. We each created a character and did a characterization at the beginning of the blog. Then we alternate writing scenes, which include all the characters. It's like a round robin. The think is, we have to accept what the person before has done with our character and continue on. It's been more exciting and stretching than I ever imagined. If you're interested, the addy is