This is the first of what I hope will be a series of posts about the ways improv informs my writing and vice versa. Today, I discuss how hasty conflict resolution can impede character development.
For background, I started taking improv classes at Dad’s Garage in Atlanta in January 2013, and I wrote the first draft of my novel NaNoWriMo style in July 2013 (i.e. I completed a 50,000 word draft in a month). I began revising my novel that August while I was taking a class on Character Development at Dad’s. In this class, the instructor cautioned us against solving problems too quickly in our scenes, and he encouraged us to instead spend time exploring the implications of the conflict, especially for our characters. His advice helped me see that I was rushing to solve conflicts in my novel as well and that my characters were emotionally flat as a result.
So what does resolving conflict too quickly look like? For example, consider a two person scene where one person gets bitten by a poisonous snake:
Dude 1: Ah snake!
Dude 2: Eeeek!
(Snake bites Dude 1)
Dude 1: Oh no, man! I’m going to die. I just want to tell you…
Dude 2: Don’t worry. I’ve got antivenom.
(Dude 2 takes antivenom out of his back pocket and administers it to Dude 1)
Dude 1: Thanks man.
Dude 2: What were you going to tell me?
Dude 1: Never mind. We don’t have to confront our feelings. Everything is fine.
Maybe these two dudes go on to encounter a host of dangerous animals in the jungle, each one more lethal than the last, and Dude 2 has the antidote for each one. That might be funny, but a more emotionally compelling scene would be one where these two characters confront the impending death of Dude 1 and use this opportunity to explore their relationship. Perhaps Dude 1 has a deathbed confessional to make to Dude 2 (he’s secretly his father, his long lost fraternal twin, or the guy that’s always upvoting his posts on reddit). Maybe Dude 2 talks about how empty his life will be without Dude 1 since they’ve been friends since they were in cub scouts together, met online playing World of Warcraft in college, or started hiking the Appalachian Trail together a week ago. What do they mean to each other? Why is this conflict so devastating? These are the types of questions you want to answer – not just finding a solution to the snakebite issue.
I’m writing a romance novel, and the way conflict plays into these types of stories is that something is usually keeping the hero and heroine apart. In the first draft of my novel, I’d identified barriers to a romantic relationship, but I ignored them and let my characters get together right away because they were attracted to each other. Now, attraction is powerful, but as I began to revise the novel, I realized that my characters needed to respect the factors that were keeping them apart (to build suspense) and they needed to experience an emotional change that would make them willing to get together despite these factors (thus creating character arc).
There are a couple guidelines of good storytelling at play here: (1) once you’ve stated something is true, it is, and (2) actions should have consequences. For an example of the first, what if halfway through Romeo & Juliet, Shakespeare decided that the Capulets and Montagues didn’t really hate each other thus lowering the stakes on Romeo and Juliet’s relationship? Not as compelling, right? Instead, Shakespeare raises the stakes when Romeo slays Tybalt. For an example of the latter, what if Romeo wasn’t punished for this? What if it didn’t make it even harder for him and Juliet to be together? We might have had a happy ending then, but the audience would question Shakespeare’s reality.
One of the joys of writing fiction and doing improv is constructing new realities. You make the rules and you can break them, but if you don’t show respect for the boundaries of the world you’ve created, then neither will your audience. Sometimes it hurts to watch our characters suffer when they are dealing with conflict, but often we’ll get the chance to see them grow. And in the long run, their resiliency and transformation will be more emotionally satisfying than stepping in and saving them right away.