After attending the SCBWI-MI Humor Conference in Detroit, and a few years (25 to be exact) performing and training improvisational comedy, I thought I would share some improv writing tips. Because just like writing, with practice and a few fun techniques, you can hone your funny writing bone.
Improv, unlike stand-up where you perform a memorized routine, is the spur-of-the-moment, spontaneous, fly-by-the-seat of your pants performing without a script or safety net. The list of famous improv actors who are also writers is incredibly long, from Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Jimmy Fallon, to Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, and the list goes on and on and on.
But improv, simply put, is living in the moment while thinking quickly and creatively. Which is pretty much exactly what we do when we write – we make it up as we go along.
By following the basic improv rules, yes, there are rules (darn!), you can learn how to incorporate humor and add necessary mirth and magic to your writing. These rules will teach you how to be authentic, spontaneous, take chances and have fun with your words. So, if you feel your sense of humor is a little rusty, whether it’s because you are questioning your ability to find the funny or because you hold back, let improv help you find your true humorous self, while adding some hilarity to your writing.
Be in the moment
This is the first rule of improv – being in the moment.
With your fingers on the keyboard ready to fly, or with pen in hand, you must be there and focused. You cannot be thinking about the dreaded laundry, or every other chore that’s calling your name, or about what to do in the next chapter, or at the end of the book. You must be in that scene. If you are truly in the moment it will begin to enhance your power of creating. It will help you figure out location, details, emotion and feeling. You’ll be able to see things that can be turned into comedy. Humor comes from observation. What are the other characters saying? What would they do that’s unexpected, out of the ordinary, or odd? Take a chance, put it in your story. Humor comes from surprise elements, and from the craziness and absurdity of everyday life. Onstage, if we are not completely focused our scenes would fall flat. If we aren’t listening to each other, the wonderful will pass us by. Be in the moment in your writing and in life – listen, notice, be there, observe.
Say yes, and…
In a scene, you need to be agreeable, and say ‘yes’ to get your scene moving forward. The word ‘no’ initially sends up a block, and can leave your characters stunned with nowhere to go. The word ‘yes’ opens up so many possibilities to keep the momentum going. Then, by adding the word ‘and…’ it’s an unlimited way to build on the scene you’re writing, it allows you to add new information and ideas. It helps with the flow of what’s happening. Take some of the denying and negativity out for humor’s sake. As your writing moves along it can, will, and should change. There does have to be conflict, but this is after you’ve established the scene. With ‘Yes and-ing’ you’re taking something that’s going in one direction and changing it, which can lead you to a punchline.
I can’t believe it’s this cold. Yes, and we should have never moved to Alaska.
I can’t believe it’s this cold. Yes, and I told you to leave the freezer door open, now we’re stuck.
I can’t believe it’s this cold. Yes, and we probably shouldn’t be swimming in January.
The ‘yes and-ing’ adds opportunity for action to begin, enhances your options, and gives you so many more places to go.
To keep things exciting and fun, you have to have physical movement, otherwise all of your characters are just a bunch of talking heads (not the band). You must have your characters do things, change, discover, learn, explore. The more action they take, the more possibility for finding humor. Break out in a dance, a song, have them go bowling, or something extreme that doesn’t make sense. Onstage, if we just stand there talking our scene becomes flat and boring – same with writing. Of course, we must have dialogue, but remember people do move and talk at the same time. It will make your scene exciting.
Just like in life we are always using objects. What’s in their hand? What are they looking for? What have they lost? What just fell from the sky, off the wall, out of the car? Where did that lamp come from? Why is it so ugly? Does it have magical powers and who put it there? The washing machine is dancing and nobody can stop it. You get the idea, objects add interest.
Show Don’t Tell
To be creative in our writing, we need to show movement. If we stood onstage describing everything, there would be no fun, no humor, no energy, no verve, no zing. For example, if I’m in a scene, (and remember in improv we fake having objects), and I say to the other players, “I have an ice cream cone. Now, I’m licking my ice cream cone. My ice cream cone is dripping. This is good ice cream.” Watching that scene would be borrrrrinnng! It would be much better if I said, “This is so creamy and delicious, mmmm, best ice cream I’ve ever had (while acting like I was licking the cone frantically).” It works the same for writing, to make your scenes captivating you have to show your audience what’s happening. Of course, there are moments of telling, but showing engages your reader.
A few last notes on improv-ing your writing…
- Listen and hear. In improv and in life we need to listen. Start by making it a habit. Really hear what is going on around you. Don’t give people blank stares, while your mind is wandering. If we pay attention, it’s truly amazing how many zany things are happening all around us.
- Make a funny file, and when you hear or see something that’s witty or amusing jot it down, or take a picture.
- Dedicate yourself to the craft of learning humor writing, and practice it.
- Improv is storytelling – live (better than dead). If you get stuck, think of yourself in a scene. Who are you with? What’s happening? What’s odd? Where are you? Think of bold and unusual things, and justify tying them together. The funny comes from taking two different elements and having them work together to make your writing stand out. But, take your time. Do not freak out if nothing is happening. Humor is a process. Step back, breathe, and move on. You can always go back and work it out later. Your humorous situations can come through dialogue, action, opposites or oddities.
- Read more humor, watch more comedies and comedians. Turn off the bad news – we don’t want our children to watch it because it can affect them – it does the same to us. Except for the old silent movies, sadness rarely enhances humor.
- Children love to laugh, and gravitate to books with humor. But know that you don’t have to be funny to write humor, however, you should be happy, agreeable, kind, unpretentious, expressive, open, and be able to laugh at yourself first and foremost. You cannot be rigid, cold, (not temperature wise), or self-absorbed, and you must leave your ego at the door. Humor is fun, not forced or mean. It is in the truth of the moment, and can truly become a part of your everyday attitude and lifestyle. Remember it can be observational, action oriented, interesting, quirky, odd, opposite, slapstick, self-deprecating, witty and intelligent. We are all funny beings, but somewhere along the line we stuff the funny deep down, and we say, “Stay” and it does. Be true to your writing and use your imagination. Be childlike. Children, say what’s on their mind, it’s not pre-planned, it is honest, surprising and spontaneous. So, treat yourself kindly, be silly, be different, take chances, let go, get inspired, go different places, take a comedy class, follow the rules, and then break them. There is no failure, only learning. Now go laugh, have fun, and write by the seat of your pants!
Some exercises and games to get your funny bone limbered up and start improv-ing your writing:
- Time Yourself – If you want to write as if you are improvising, this exercise will help. Get a timer and set it for 3-5 minutes. Then write fast and furiously, don’t stop, don’t edit, don’t judge, and don’t worry how bad your writing may or may not be. Just write. Then when you have something, you can go back and re-write. Too much time in writing is spent being critical of ourselves. Get it on paper without judgement. This exercise is all about your brain working fast and spontaneously. It will enhance your quick-thinking and creativity. Onstage, you can’t stop mid-scene and question if what you are doing is right or wrong, you must move forward. So, let your imagination run wild.
- Think characters – What type of different people can you incorporate into your story? From doctors to donut makers, you get to decide. Be sure to give them distinct characteristics. Do they smirk or smile? Do they feel bloated or itchy? Do they wear orange? Do not be afraid to add the questionable or offbeat. Then write a complete description of them, so that you can really get to know them.
- Hotel Ringer – Get yourself one of the hotel bells they have at the front desks (a couple of bucks on eBay). When you are writing along and get stumped, hit the bell. When you hit it, you have to go back and completely change the last half of the sentence you just wrote. Due this a number of times in your writing. It’s guaranteed to start freeing some of your creative genius. Example: He was so scared the dog would bite him. DING. He was so scared he would fall into the hole. DING. He was so scared that he ate a bug. DING. He was so scared he ripped his pants. DING. He was so scared he would be a car salesman. DING. He was so scared he filled his lunchbox with candy. DING. He was so scared he tried to fly.
- Questions Only – Try this exercise by writing a scene using only questions. No statements and no repeating. Just write freely while using questions only, and you cannot ask, “Do you think I should do this?” While writing with questions make sure to move your scene forward. This will also help you expand your vision and form new plot lines.
- Pet Peeve Rant – Give yourself a topic on something that really bothers you (e.g. nose pickers, slow drivers in the fast lane, interrupting, etc.) and then set a timer for one – two minutes. During that time completely rant about your topic without stopping. Grow by giving yourself different topics of things that bother you that you aren’t really familiar with, and set the timer for a longer amount of time. You’ll find funny things coming out of your mouth as you desperately try to continue ranting, which forces originality and cleverness (aka humor).
Karen Bell-Brege is the author of 11 books, with two coming out this year. Her children’s books are filled with humor – especially her picture book, MONSTERS FIRST DAY AT SCHOOL. Her school presentations are one-of-a-kind as she believes in learning through laughter. She also speaks on the importance of humor and improv. She studied at Second City, Chicago, and with the late Paul Sills. Her husband, Darrin is also an improv performer, hilarious, and the illustrator of their books, and he presents at schools with her. Karen truly believes that laughing through life is the only way to live (and write).
Learn more at www.karenanddarrin.com
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Darrin Brege is our Featured Illustrator this quarter. He created our blog banner above, and you can read his interview here: http://scbwimithemitten.blogspot.com/2018/07/featured-illustrator-darrin-brege.html
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