A Flexible Agenda

So you’ve got an idea!  That’s great.  Improv is all about making offers, and writing fiction involves following a stroke of inspiration from one point to the next until you’ve created a thing.  It’s fun to create things, and it helps to have a plan.  But just like a vacation that’s been scheduled down to the last minute can be stressful, adhering to a strict agenda in your creative work can be stifling.

In improv, you have to be willing to either kill or adapt your ideas based on the offers of your scene partner and the needs of the story.  For example, during my grad show at Dad’s Garage, I was in a two person scene inspired by the word camping.  My scene partner lay down on the floor like he was in a sleeping bag and closed his eyes.  Assuming I was his girlfriend, I knelt close beside him.

“Morning sunshine,” I said.

“Good morning, Mom!” he replied.

And just like that, I became his mother.  I had to let my idea go and adapt to this new role he had assigned me.

In improv, the main negotiation you have to do is with your scene partner.  Everything is happening quickly, live on stage, and you’ve got to align your ideas with your partner’s to move the scene forward. Writing fiction, in contrast, is a much longer process, and one where you generally call the shots behind closed doors.  Still, there are a couple of ways that becoming overly invested in an agenda can hinder your writing.

First, if you’ve outlined and planned every step of your story, then you might resist making changes when the need arises.  You’ll feel this tug in your brain, a voice saying things like “this character isn’t working,” “this chapter is going nowhere,” or “these actions are unrealistic,” and part of you will fight back, “no, this is in the plan.”  But it’s important to throw things out that aren’t working, especially in the rewriting stage.  While this can be demoralizing (the file of discarded text from my novel is nearly 30,000 words and the original draft was 50,000 words), these efforts are usually rewarded.

It’s also important not to cling too tightly to your agenda when receiving feedback on your work.  Critique partners provide great support.  They help you stick to deadlines and tell you what’s working and what’s not working in your story; however, this feedback can sometimes feel like a personal attack on one’s creativity, intelligence, etc. even when it’s constructive.  You don’t have to cater to every demand a critique partner makes, but if your reaction is to always defend your choice and refuse their advice, then you’ll likely lose your critique partner and the opportunity to improve your work.

Don’t let your ego stand in the way of the story.  Adapt, evolve, thrive.

Conflict and Character Development

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.

The Unfortunate Soapmaker

Woe is the soapmaker
Who gets caught in the rain
While selling his wares.

Without an umbrella or a waterproof sack,
All of his efforts wash away
And never come back.



The Beginning (of this blog)

I used to write scripts
when I was in the 4th grade.
I used to write songs
when I was in the 7th grade.
In 9th grade I wrote a poem,
which I often laugh about now,
but the pain was real then.*

But I don’t write anymore,
For loss of time or creativity,
For fear of rejection.
Who knows?
Perhaps it’s for the best.
What’s one voice? 

I penned the above statement into a Moleskin journal in May 2003 just after my sophomore year of college.  It documents the beginning or near beginning of a ten year period of my life, which I spent productively but not necessarily embracing my creative passions and to some extent trying to hide them.

I don’t think I ever lost my creativity, although at one point in high school, I reread all of my writing from middle school while I was home sick with a fever, and I convinced myself that I had already peaked as a writer.

There was an issue with time as I spent most of it studying for classes in college, and in graduate school, I was focused on my research projects and the writing that I needed to do related to those.

If I’m really honest with myself, though, I know that fear of rejection was holding me back.  Instead of pursuing writing, I studied subjects where I could master the skills to find the objectively “right” answer, thereby testing my ability to retain information and problem solve while protecting my vulnerable self that would have withered under criticism of my creative works.

I’m stronger now in many ways than I was then.  I am more convinced of the importance of my voice because it’s the only one that I have and now is the time that I have to use it.  Even if I am the only one amused by my writing, it will be worthwhile to have written. Although I undervalued my personal happiness when I was 20, sometime over the last ten years I’ve figured out that making myself happy is of the utmost importance because the only person I have to spend the rest of my life with is me.

*As I recall, the poem was about my break up with my first boyfriend.  Hopefully, I will unearth it so that I can feature it in a Flashback post.