I thought the class labeled public speaking would be a slightly lame echo chamber of advice I’d gotten almost all of my academic career. “Eye contact, stop fidgeting, be concise.” At most, I thought I’d make a friend or two. (Something, as a new student, I figured I could use.)
Instead, we spent the majority of the time doing slightly ridiculous improv exercises. They fixed my writer’s block and taught me more about writing tad presenting than I thought a long-winded collaborative story about polar bear empires and lizard people in the Bermuda Triangle could.
Here’s why your next activity should be stupid improv with your writer friends or solo.
The first and most important thing about improv is saying “yes, and.” Starting improv with others means that you may have a different direction for the story than they do, but you have to go with them. If you’re surfing, but your partner assumes you’re riding a skateboard, guess what? You’re on that skateboard.
Since casual improv is more easygoing, there’s no pressure to reject an idea. With writing, you want to make the most of your time by sticking to your outline and where you need a story to go, and after this, I think it’s not always the way to go.
A huge part of improv is not thinking too much. Say the first thing that comes to mind at any given moment. I used to be the type of person to really let ideas simmer before outlining, but ever since I started being a little more careless with where I let my drafts go, I’ve found my word counts going up and myself enjoying writing more.
With most solo or group improv exercises, there’s a specific point referred to as “the game.” For me, that’s the point where the plot finds itself. There’s room for ridiculousness and twists after (always more twists), but here’s your plot, theme, motif.
One of the exercises we did was a story where each person said one word. The story was about the dangers of eating mac and cheese on Wednesday mornings. Collaboration was key — there was no guarantee you’d get to be the clever person who changed the game because if the person before you said “mac,” you shouldn’t have had to think twice before blurting out “and.”
This, as a writer, was about flow. It was about letting the story have it’s time, about not cramming every trope, every event, every interaction. I learned more about pacing and limiting works in that nonsensical improv exercise than in years of consuming writing content.
I also want to talk about dialogue, which is one of the clearest benefits of improv. So, improv has to be balanced. There is no good improv where one character wields the power, where they get to call the shots.
Along those lines come deadballs, which is where the ‘yes, and’ rule is broken, and ideas a re rejected. The balance in improv, in my opinion, is a great way to build up equally powered and healthy relationship dynamics, where all characters get equal room to speak. It’s entertaining, it’s refreshing, it’s wonderful when there’s banter and balance.
All this being said, I honestly don’t know if it’s actually viable for all of us to go off and join an improv group (especially with COVID still running rampant through much of the world), but there’s a lot of improv you can do solo!
Solo improv has become an integral part of my writing routine — where I get to stand up and talk to myself and be just a little bit weird before I plant my ass in a chair and crank out a few thousand words.
One of my favorites is called Character Gauntlet. You set a timer and monologue as a character for fifteen seconds. At the end, you switch characters. For me, it generally starts with characters from my work-in-progress and moves to people I make up on the spot.
I try to last this one for roughly three minutes, but honestly, even a minute of switching through four is great. It’s important to stop at the time limit you’ve set for yourself (at least for me) because changing perspectives abruptly is a great way to shift from daydreaming into the writing mindset.
Here’s a list of solo improv exercises with some being rhythm-based (poets, this one’s for you), and I highly recommend trying them.
Writing aside, that class created inside jokes and a sense of familiarity (especially after we threw in eye contact and body language) with complete strangers. Improv is great for self-confidence, public speaking skills .it lets you be your silliest self. Improv is funny when you’re not trying to be.
Writing aside, improv made me a better and more social person, and I think it’s truly one of the be
Middleditch and Schwartz and Who’s Line is it Anyway? are great improv shows, both for entertainment and learning.
Improv is a truly wonderful medium that I will continue to explore, and I hope you will try it out too.
is a high school student in New Jersey. She likes (in no particular order) books, music, science, history, running, and (of course) writing and is always up to learn something new! Find her on Instagram at @writing_stoot.