Monday, November 28, 2011

Improv for Writers, Part 3 of 3:Speed Writer--a Lesson Plan for a Writers' Conference

I sometimes like to imagine giving a class at a SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference. I have a long list of things I’d like to teach, and one of them is Improv for writers. Here’s my lesson plan for that class.

1. Hand out the information from my two previous blog posts on Improv: “How Improv Can Help You Write Better, Faster, and More Creatively“ and “Mind Games: Five Solitaire Games for Fiction Writers,” as well as recommendations for further reading. In each hand out, include an index card with the name of a well-known children’s book character, like Harry Potter or Clifford the big red dog: a different name on each card. There should be a note on it about not showing your card to the other people in the class. Also hand out several small pieces of paper that might be used later for suggestions. (Each handout should be attached with a paper clip. Bring a hat for scenes-from-a-hat type games. Also bring in a well-known children’s book, like The Cat in the Hat or Guess How Much I Love You, and a box that can be opened and closed.)

2. If there isn’t a space at the front of the room, ask everyone to help me make a space.

3. Ask “What is Improv?” Explain that Improv requires players to come up with ideas and scenes on the spot and that following the rules of Improv can help writers not only come up with lots of ideas fast but write faster and better. Explain that the most important words in Improv are “Yes, and . . .” Explain how this affects a story, that it lets the story move forward. Explain that we will be playing several Improv games that deal with voice, emotion, character, raising the stakes, coming up with story ideas, revision, and if we have enough time, using all your senses. There’s a lot to learn from Improv, and it takes most people months or years to hone the craft. We’ll do our best to cram as much as we can into the time we have.

The Games

(Remember to finish each game on a high note, so the excitement doesn’t wane.)

1. It’s How You Say It (3-5 minutes)

This game is all about voice. Ask for three volunteers to come to the front of the class. Tell them they’re going to read from the children’s book you brought with you, but they’re going to change the way they read it according to the emotions or characteristics I call out.  Here are some of the things you can try: angry, shy, surfer dude, bored, nervous, confused, in song, mafia hit man, giggling, suspicious, and overjoyed.  Ask the audience for suggestions too. After the game, ask what was the most fun. Was it an unexpected voice for reading that particular story? A surprising voice is usually more fun.  

2. I Gotta Feeling (20 seconds or less per person so it’s under 10 minutes, I hope)

This game is about embracing emotions. It’s like the first game but with adlibbing, and it’s for everyone. A box gets passed around a room along with a reaction to what’s in the box (the box is actually empty, but players can make up what they find in the box). Tell the players they must react to what’s in the box based on the kind of reaction I will give them. They need to pay attention, because the reaction can change at any time and I could ask for the box to be passed at any time. Pass the box around and call out reactions, like anger, angrier, angriest, indifferent, delighted, overjoyed, confused, perplexed, distraught, like, love, passion, bored, more bored, bored out of your mind, sarcastic, very sarcastic, scared, terrified, with apprehension, anxious, hopeful, jealous, proud, sleepily, reverently, and so on. After the game, ask which reaction the group thought was best. Why was it best? Was it very specific? Was it heightened? It’s usually best to vary the level of the emotions in your writing between five and nine with an occasional ten. That lets the tens stick out.

3. Character Conference (10-15 minutes)

This game is about creating characters. Ask for one volunteer, preferably someone who’s read a lot of children’s books. Everyone else should look at the index card they got with the name of a well-known children’s book character. They should stand until the volunteer correctly guesses who they are. Then they can sit down. The volunteer has to mingle at the character conference and try to figure out who everyone else is by asking questions. Everyone else needs to be their character without saying his or her name, the title of their book, or the names of other characters. They should try to feed hints to the volunteer without giving things away. If the volunteer gets stuck and a person playing a character isn’t helpful, other characters can mingle with that character until it’s obvious who that character is.  

4. What Could Possibly Go Wrong? (5-10 minutes)

This game is about story middles and raising the stakes. Ask for three to five volunteers. Ask everyone else for an activity. One person plays the main character and is given a goal related to the activity (like write a great novel, win a race, buy a toy, and so on). When I clap, the main character has to say, “What could possibly go wrong?” One of the other characters then needs to step in and raise the stakes by presenting obstacles related to the goal (make it clear that it has to be related to the goal and not some random obstacle) or by giving a reason why the thing the main character wants is now something he truly needs. The main character has to work to overcome these obstacles. This illustrates how to raise the stakes and how this increases tension and audience interest. Point out Murphy’s Law for fiction writers: If anything can go wrong (for your main character), it should.

5. The Untold Story (10-15 minutes)

This is about using old stories to create something new. Before doing this game, explain that Improv can be used to change an existing story and make it something new by changing the who, what, why, where, when, or how of the original story. The how is about how the story is told, like the style or the genre. Ask for a genre, like paranormal romance, murder mystery, Doctor Seuss, Star Wars, or evening news. Have each person write down on a scrap of paper something they associate with that genre, like if it’s mystery, the word could be detective or gun. Collect the pieces of paper and put them in a hat. Next have the group pick a well-known fairy tale. Ask for one volunteer who’s a really good storyteller. Take two more volunteers. The first volunteer has to narrate the untold story of the fairy tale in the chosen style or genre. The other two have to act out what the narrator says and come up with their own dialogue. The narrator in turn has to incorporate what the characters are saying and doing into the story. Every once in a while the narrator says, “That’s what everyone thinks happened, but what really happened is the character said . . .” The chosen character reaches into the hat and says a line that incorporates whatever is written on the piece of paper that character draws out. All players should try to make sense of and incorporate whatever it is into the story. When the game is over, ask how many variations of Romeo and Juliet the group knows. And what about Cinderella? What’s changed in those variations? Is it the who, what, where, or how? What other changes can they think of to either of those classics that haven’t been done yet?

6. Work for Hire (about 5 minutes)

This game is a fun game about being flexible and open to revision. Only do it if you have extra time, which isn’t likely. Everyone in the class has to pretend they each have a chance to get hired to write the next book in the hugely successful Happy, Happy Princess series, but they need to prove they can work with an editor. Point at one player and ask him to pitch his story idea for a Happy, Happy Princess book. After about 30 seconds say, “Stop right there. That’s good, but we’re thinking of taking Happy, Happy Princess in a new direction.” Make suggestions for a possible change (different character traits, different setting, different actions, different genres. and so on). “Give me what you got.” After the first person is finished, ask, “Anyone else?” After that person gives me her pitch, I switch the suggestion again. It could be something like “Comic books are really popular, so we want you to give Happy, Happy Princess a superpower” or “We’ve decided to kill off this character, but keep it happy” or “This story needs a werewolf” or “We think we could get a Star Wars tie in, so stick Yoda or Darth Vader into the story.”  This game ends after someone gives a really great pitch.

7. Story Settings (about 10 minutes)

This game reminds writers to think of the five senses when they write. It’s more educational than fun, but it could be a good way to wind things down. Have everyone walk around the room. Call out settings, and have the other writers react as if they’re in that setting. They need to react with all their senses: sound, sight, touch, taste, smell. Their reaction should be apparent in the way they walk, their posture, how they hold their noses, the way they move their hands, and of course the expressions on their faces. Among the settings to use are a crime investigation scene, a beach on the hottest day of summer, a garden in Wonderland, a kindergarten classroom, a funeral, and a space ship.  When the game is over, ask what people heard, saw, touched, tasted and smelled. How can they use this game in their own writing?


Improv can teach writers a lot, but perhaps the most important thing it teaches is how to overcome fear. There's no time for fear when you're performing Improv.

When Tina Fey began working at Saturday Night Live, Lorne Michaels told her, "Don't worry that it's going to be crap, because it's definitely going to be crap." Isn't that freeing? No one expects you to get the first draft perfect, so don't even try. Just have fun.

You have to take a leap of faith in yourself. Pick a genre and a starting point, create your characters, give your main character a goal, and raise the stakes. Don't ask yourself if it's crap, because it's definitely going to be crap. Just accept it and let your imagination go wild. Remember, you do have one advantage over an Improv actor: you can always edit your story later.

Improv opens up your choices in all areas of writing. You can always rewind and do a scene again and again until it's just the way you want it. Sometimes writers are paralyzed by having too many options. Don't be. Pretend it's Improv. Give yourself 30 seconds. Make a choice, take a leap, and find out where it takes you. 

And now, three books on Improv:

101 Improv Games for Children and Adults--just what the title says, this book has lots of fun games of varying difficulty and for varying group sizes.

The Ultimate Improv Book: A Complete Guide to Comedy Improvisation--this book is mostly for those who wish to teach Improv in a high school setting, but it does include some fun games and a lot of information on the skills required to do Improv well.

Truth in Comedy--this book was written by some of the people who originated Improv as it exists today. It gets to the heart of what makes Improv great, and it’s fun to read.

I hope you've enjoyed this series on Improv for writers. Please feel free to use the comments section below to let me know your thoughts or ask any questions. And if you're a conference organizer and you're interested in having me teach a class, drop me an email. I'd love to hear from you.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Interview with the amazing Jo Ramsey

 What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Oh...that's a hard question to answer! I loved to read, and almost every book was my favorite at one time or another. Charlotte's Web was one of my favorites in elementary school.

 What was your favorite book when you were a teenager?

As a teen, I had a favorite series, not just one book. I loved the series The Dark Is Rising, by Susan Cooper. Those books are the reason I got into writing YA urban fantasy.

 Cool. When did you discover that you knew how to tell a good story?

I've always enjoyed my own stories, even though when I was young they probably weren't all that good. I started making up stories when I was about two or three, and I would tell them to my parents, my friends, and even my stuffed animals. Whoever I could get to listen. Fortunately, a lot of the adults in my life liked my stories and encouraged me, though they might have been just humoring me.

 How old were you when you started writing fiction?

The first fictional piece I remember writing was a story about a girl named Maria who was sent to live with her uncle. I was five.

 Wow! Did someone encourage you to write?

As I said, a lot of people in my life encouraged me. The biggest encouragement when I was very young came from my kindergarten teacher. I already knew how to read when I started school, and I picked up writing pretty quickly, so she wasn't quite sure what to do with me. As part of my language arts program, to give her time to work with the other students, she started asking me to read some of the books in the classroom and draw pictures about them. Then she started asking me to write stories about the pictures I drew. I loved being able to write stories as part of school.

 Did you always want to be a writer?

Yes. Even when I was two or three, I knew I wanted my stories to be in books someday.

 Why do you choose to write fantasy?

I don't write exclusively fantasy, but definitely the majority of my stuff is urban fantasy/paranormal. When I was a kid, I really wanted to get out of my own life. Reading books like the ones by Susan Cooper, Dianna Wynne Jones, and other authors who wrote fantasy were a wonderful escape for me, and when I started writing seriously (when I was about eleven), I wrote stories that took me out of my own life and into some pretty fantastic situations.

I still have a soft spot for stories about "typical" kids who end up in very unusual situations. Like having to save the universe from being vaporized.

 Why do you write for this particular age group?

I started writing for teenagers when I was a teen myself, and I guess I never really matured past that point.

 Tell me about your book. What inspired this particular story?

I have two new releases.

Cluing In came out November 9, and is a contemporary YA novel about Jamey Mandel, a 16-year-old boy who breaks up with his girlfriend Tina when she starts pressuring him for sex. A few weeks later, rumors circulate that Tina is pregnant by her new boyfriend, and she comes to Jamey for help. Jamey turns her away. A few days later, Tina takes her own life, and Jamey blames himself.

I created the character of Jamey when I was in college; he was a baby then, in a story about two teen parents. Somewhere along the line, I wrote a story about Jamey as a teenager. When I polished it up to submit, I was told there were too many subplots, but the one thing that stood out in my mind was a minor mention that a girl Jamey had once dated was pregnant. I scrapped most of the other subplots and that became the main focus of the novel. (Not to worry...the other subplots are going to become their own novels, at my editor's request.)

The other new release, From the Ashes, is book five in my urban fantasy series Reality Shift. Shanna Bailey and Jonah Leighton are two teenagers who use energy healing and channeling (communicating with higher-level beings) to banish demons, send malevolent dead spirits to "the other side," and prevent the universe from being vaporized. In this book, Shanna and Jonah find a "psychic" who isn't what she seems, and who is the next potential portal for the entity that will destroy the universe. Meanwhile, Shanna is getting used to life in her foster home, and is trying to cope with her former next-door neighbor Ken Gallant, who now wants to be her boyfriend.

The series was inspired by some conversations a friend and I had a number of years ago, about things like demons and dead spirits. My friend practiced energy healing, channeling, and yoga, and those became part of the story; Jonah is based on him. Some of the struggles Shanna goes through are from my life.

 Tell me about your writing process. Do you outline? How do you edit, and is there a lot of editing? How do you get feedback? Are you a member of a critique group?

I don't really outline. I do jot down brief notes about where I think the story's going to go, especially if I'm working on a book in one of my series. Sometimes the story ends up somewhere completely different, though. I write fairly clean first drafts, so my editing process is pretty quick. I highlight all my "crutch words", the words and phrases I tend to overuse, and do a first pass where I eliminate as many of those as I can, fix typos, and fix any plot holes or other content issues that I find. Then I do a second pass where I fix anything I've missed the first time. Usually after that, the manuscript is ready to submit. I'm not a member of a critique group and I don't have any beta readers; I don't usually get any feedback until my editor at whichever publishing company I've sent it to sees the manuscript.

 If readers could take away just one thing from your story, what do you want it to be?
That no matter what has happened in their lives, they can still grow and change, they can get help and get past it, and they can go on to do great things.

Cluing In is available from Featherweight Press,

From the Ashes, along with the rest of the Reality Shift series, is available from Jupiter Gardens Press,

To find out more about Jo and her books, please visit her website,

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Improv for Writers, Part 2 of 3--Mind Games: Five Solitaire Games for Fiction Writers

Last week I talked about my love of Improv and how I use Improv to do everything from coming up with story ideas to raising the stakes to editing. This week, I’d like to give you five Improv games you can play on your own.

It might seem like a strange idea. Improv, after all, is performed in groups; whereas writing is usually a solitary activity. But really when you’re writing fiction, you can have as many people to play Improv games with as you like. You just have to make them up.

Each character should behave like an Improv actor, responding to everything with “yes, and.” This keeps the story moving forward. Try to explore each idea you choose as fully as you can. And if you drop something in early, try to remember to pick it up before the end.

And now, here it is:

Five Games Based on Improv 
Writers Can Play On Their Own

1. Word Association (1-3 minutes)

Technically this is more of a warm up exercise than a game, but it does help you explore ideas or themes in a way that will let you come up with related stories.

Think of something, anything, and then think of all the things you associate with it. Rattle them off as they come to you, whether they make sense or not. You can record them, type them, or just write them down by hand on a piece of paper. (If you like to doodle, you can sketch ideas as well.) If you have someone else who can work with you, they could offer the original suggestion for you to brainstorm. Or if you have an idea of something you’d like to write, you can just start with one word associated with that thing.

For example, let’s say you want to write a YA. YAs are about teenagers, and teenagers go to high school. Your note might look something like this:

The words you come up with can help feed you ideas for the other games, so it’s usually a good way to start. In Improv, all players will come up with their own word lists. Sometimes they’ll actually talk about a topic instead of just listing words. However you do it, this is a good way to start.

2. Who, What, Why, Where, When, How (3-5 minutes)

Every story has to answer these questions. Who are your characters? What are they doing? Why are they doing it? Where are they? When is this scene taking place in regard to the action? (This isn’t about a time period, because something like the Ice Age, Victorian times, or in the future is really more of a where then a when. The when is before, during, or after the action.) How is this story shown? (For example, is it shown as a fairy tale, a romance, or a detective story, or all three at once?)

There are many different kinds of Improv games that are based on taking a scenario with assumptions and replacing a who, what, why, where, when or how with a different who, what, why, where, when or how.

One of these games, for example is Fairy Tale Court. Pick a fairy tale, take two or more characters from it, and come up with a scenario that would explain why one is suing the other. This is all about changing the what. Instead of doing what these characters would normally be doing in the fairy tale, they’re dealing with a lawsuit. You might think this is a where thing, but the court setting is just an extension of the what (the lawsuit).

For a more adaptable game, start with a story that has assumptions about all six. Do a one-minute word-association game related to that story, so you have all of your assumptions before you. Now change one of those assumptions to something very different.  

Let’s use Cinderella as an example. Cinderella has Cinderella as the who, going to the prince’s ball at the castle as the what, falling in love with the prince as the why, Cinderella’s house as the where (for this part of the story), during as the when, and fairy tale for how the story is told. Write each of these down in a separate column. Now below each item, write a different who, what, why, where, when or how. Don’t think too long about each thing you write down. Whatever comes to you first, no matter how crazy it might seem.  

Here’s a chart I wrote for Cinderella:


Go to the Castle
Fall in Love with the Prince
Cinderella’s house
Fairy tale
Ugly Sister
Fairy Godmother

Sue fairy
Get job
Teach class
Get therapy
Sell cosmetics
Become famous
Make pie
Watch TV
Buy car
Hire maid
Protest Prince
Run for Office

Research article
Murder king
Line Dance
Steal painting
Cater party
Hurt stepsisters
Deliver pizza
Sing Karaoke
Go to bathroom
Mock prince
High school
A corporation
Victorian times
The future
On a beach
Video game

Love Letters
Sports Commentary
Court TV

You don’t have to fill out a complete chart, just enough to give you some original ideas. As you can see, there’s no end to the number of variations you can create from just one story.

Writers do this all the time, which is why there are so many variations of some stories. Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Ella Enchanted, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Pygmalion, My Fair Lady, She’s All That, A Cinderella Story, Another Cinderella Story, Ever After, and Just Ella are all variations of Cinderella. You can probably think of some more.

This game might be a little overwhelming at first, but it shouldn’t be. Just trust your instincts, no matter how crazy the idea you come up with seems to be. The thing to remember is that whatever you choose to change should be used consistently and in a way that makes sense within the context of your new story. Don’t just drop the change in and forget about it. Explore it fully. If you can’t trust yourself to come up with original changes, ask someone for a suggestion, like a type of person to replace the who or an activity to replace the what.

Once you’ve picked something, ask yourself, “What if?” Taking one idea at random, what if Cinderella was a robot? What if she was built to cook and clean, and what if she wanted something more? What if her fairy godmother was a nerdy guy who fixed her to make her beautiful so she could live her dream? It’s such a fun and interesting idea to explore.

3. Do It in Style (5-15 minutes)

Technically this is just about changing the how (as in how the story is told) of any story, but it can be very helpful for writers to experiment with different styles, so I’m including it as its own game.

Start with a very simple short story. This could be a well-known fairy tale, an ancient myth, a news item, a movie or book plot you’re very familiar with, a Shakespearean play, a Bible story, or even something interesting that happened to you recently. It should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Now write it in a genre different from the one it was originally.

I’ve done this with students in an English class, and they loved it. Some of the genres a writer can use are children’s book, Dr. Seuss (easier than it sounds,  because you can just make up words if you can’t find a rhyme), spy thriller, romance novel, love letter, complaint letter, job application, horror, high fantasy, steampunk, Biblical, Shakespearean, or newspaper article. If there’s a popular movie or TV show character or celebrity with a particular way of behaving or talking, you can use that too. How would the characters on Jersey Shore act out the story of Cinderella? It could be fun to find out.

Doing it in style helps writers work on voice, which many believe is the single most important quality of every story. As the saying goes, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”  

4. Raising the Stakes (3 minutes)

Raising the stakes is an important part of longer Improv games, because it keeps the audience engaged. It can also determine whether your reader will put your book down or feel compelled to keep reading from beginning to end.

In Improv, this game might simply involve having one player playing a character with a goal, while all the other players are required to step in, present an obstacle, and then leave. Or it could require two players to raise each other’s need to achieve their own goals while presenting each other with obstacles. Or raising the stakes could simply be an element of another Improv game.

To play this game as a writer, start by creating a character and giving that character something he or she wants. Now write a list of the reasons that character wants this thing, what it will mean if the character doesn’t get it, and what it will mean if the character does. One part of raising the stakes is about raising the character’s desire, so put these reasons in order from least important to most important.

For example, at first your character might want to pass a test just so he doesn’t fail the class. To raise the stakes, he might later find out that if he doesn’t pass the test, he’ll have to repeat tenth grade. Then he might start thinking about how this will affect his relationship with his girlfriend. Will she break up with him? Each stage here raises the stakes from a simple want to a deep need.  

Next, create a list of the kind of things that might get in his or her way. I like to call this Murphy’s Law for Writers, which I sum up as, “If anything can go wrong (for your main character), it should.” These obstacles have to come out of what it is the character wants, not random, outside obstacles. They can come from the character himself (internal conflict), other characters, or the environment. One of the best obstacles is time itself, because if the main character doesn’t achieve his or her goal by a certain time, it will never happen.  He has to pass the class tomorrow morning, because he won’t get a second chance.

Create other characters to make him need to reach his goal more or to provide obstacles to reaching his goal. For example, his girlfriend could tell him she couldn’t date him anymore if he’s held back a year. That would increase his need to reach his goal. Meanwhile, his best friend invites him to a party at his house, which tempts the main character away from studying for the test, thereby creating an obstacle. An environmental obstacle could be that the main character’s computer breaks down, so he can’t use it to study. Keep raising the stakes and keep having your main character do everything possible to achieve the goal until the question of whether or not your main character gets what he wants is answered. Your audience will be riveted, because your audience will need to know the answer to that question.

Goal: pass test

Raising Desire
Can stop studying
Will prove he’s smart
Parents are pestering him
Needs to pass to move up to 11th grade
Parents will be disappointed if he fails
Needs to be in same class as girlfriend
Needs to keep girlfriend
Needs to keep his friends

Party at friend’s house
Broken computer
Homework he still has to do
The book is boring
He’s too tired to study
Girlfriend wants him to go to party
Parents refuse to help
Teacher won’t allow a makeup test

You don’t need to use all the things on your lists, but it’s a good idea to explore as many of them as fully as you can. (It can be really funny, though, if you do use everything on both lists and use them very quickly.) Try to raise the stakes physically and specifically, as well as internally and through dialogue. The more dimensions you can give the conflict, the more real it will be for the reader. And the more real it is, the more engaged your reader will be.

5. Rewind (1-3 minutes per rewind)

In Improv this game involves rewinding the last thing you said and saying something else. As writers, we shouldn’t just settle for the first thing we think of. What if the next thing you could have come up with would have been so much better? You won’t know unless you try. So do your story and yourself a favor and rewind.  

This is a great game to play while you’re editing.

If you have a scene you’re not absolutely delighted with, rewind it and take it in a different direction. I often use this for dialogue, but it can also be a good way to raise the stakes. I like to use the comments section in Word for this. If what I come up with is better, I’ll replace the old scene in the document but keep the original scene in the comments section. Don’t be afraid to change anything and everything. Giving you more options can only give you a better, stronger story.

It will also save you from annoying the audience by missing something obvious. Ever watch an action film and think, “Why hasn’t anyone called the cops? There’s a guy running through midtown shooting. Surely at least one person has dialed 911 by now”? If the writer of that movie had gone through all the options, he would have an explanation as to why no one called the police or he would have had the police arrive at the scene.  Explore as many logical possibilities that you can think of, because you don’t, your audience will.     

This is just a small fraction of the number of ways you can use Improv in your writing. 

Next week we’re going to look at Improv games that can work at writers’ workshops, classes, and the like. See you then!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Improv for Writers, Part 1 of 3: How Improv Can Help You Write Faster, Better, and More Creatively

What's Improv?

Improv, for those who don't know, is improvisational theater. It's usually funny, although that isn't a requirement. Most of the cast of Saturday Night Live started out doing Improv. That includes people like John Belushi, Mike Myers, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler.

Improv actors are able to write dialogue on the spot. Steve Carell, who played Dunder-Mifflin Regional Manager Michael Scott on The Office, started out in Improv, which allowed him to ad lib many of his lines on that show. Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report also credits Improv as a major influence on his work. Drew Carey and most of the cast of the Drew Carey Show knew Improv and were able to show off their skills in several episodes. One of my favorites is an episode where they rewind a scene so that the actor who last spoke has to come up with and deliver an alternate line.  They really got to show off their creativity.

What can Improv do for writers?

Studying Improv can teach writers to think on their toes, trust their instincts, and change everything and anything at a moment's notice. In Improv there's no time for doubt. You just do it. What you come up with might be rubbish, but that's okay. Just rewind and come up with an alternate line, character, scene, or whatever. And if that's still rubbish, rewind and come up with another alternative, again and again until you find something you're happy with. It works for Tina Fey, who won a Mark Twain Award for humor and several Emmy Awards. It works for Steve Carell and Stephen Colbert. It can work for you too.

Here are some specific skills writers can learn from Improv:

Look at old things in new ways

Every story has a who (characters), what (actions), why (motivations), where (setting), when (before, during, or after), and how (style, narrative voice, or genre). Many Improv games are about taking one of these elements out and replacing it with something else. For example, if you take the who out of Cinderella and replace with a different who, you could have Cinderfella, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Pygmalion, or My Fair Lady, to name just a few. Break down any old fairy tale, Shakespeare play, Biblical story, ancient myth, or other very old (pre-1900s) classic to its parts and change one element to come up with a completely new story. Rick Riordan took Greek Myths and changed the where to modern-day America to create the Percy Jackson series. It's amazing what changing just one thing can do.

Move the story forward

The two most important words to remember in Improv are "yes, and." What this means is that when someone offers you a suggestion, you take that suggestion and add something to it. The answer can never be “no,” and it can never be “yes, but.” It also can't be a simple yes. You always have to add something. You always have to be moving the story forward.

For example, if a fellow Improv actor gives you the suggestion "let's go to the movies," your answer shouldn't be "no, I'd rather stay home" or "yes, but let's go get ice cream first" or just a simple "that's a great idea." Instead it should be something like "there's a great new thriller I'd like to see."

Dig deep

In most Improv games that are performed on stage, the audience is asked to provide a suggestion, such as a genre, an occupation, a situation, a personality type, or even something as specific as a fairytale. The scene must be based on whatever suggestions you take from the audience. It's important to use the audience's suggestions as fully as possible. You can't just use or mention the suggestion once and then go off to something completely different. If, for example, you're playing Fairy Tale Court and the audience suggests Cinderella as your fairy tale, you can't just call the defendant Cinderella and ignore her cleaning, glass slippers, fairy godmother, pumpkin coach, and so on. Whatever you make your story about, dig deep. Try to explore it as fully as you can.  

Avoid a sagging middle by raising the stakes

In longer Improv games, it's important to keep raising the stakes. It keeps your audience engaged and interested—same thing as in writing.

There are two ways to raise the stakes. The first is by the main character wanting whatever it is he wants even more. The second is by giving him more obstacles.

These obstacles can be internal or external but they have to come out of whatever it is the character wants. They can’t just be random obstacles thrown at the main character. If, for example, your main character wants to ask a girl out for a date, the obstacle shouldn't be that first he has to get past a thug who's threatening to break both his legs if he doesn't pay back the money he owes. It can be that he's shy, his best friend confesses he's attracted to the girl, the girl has an overprotective dad who never likes any of his daughter's boyfriends, and a million other things that have something to do with the idea of a boy asking a girl out for a date.  

Don't underestimate your story--let it shine

Another thing writers can learn from Improv is that it helps to play things big. For example, if you ask for a character type, and the audience gives you “angry,” your character shouldn't be passive aggressive. If your character is supposed to be angry, he should be very angry. I wouldn't recommend playing everything at eleven on a scale of one to ten. (Yes, that's a deliberate This Is Spinal Tap reference, because that's Improv too.) That would probably be going overboard and it might turn off the audience. Plus, everything played at eleven make the volume irrelevant, because there's nothing to compare it to. A performance ranging between five and nine (with an occasional, brief ten or eleven) would probably be a good idea.

Trust your instincts

Most Improv games are only a few minutes long, and some can be even shorter. There's no time for doubt, so you just have to go with whatever pops into your head first. It might not make sense, but if you stick with it, you'll see there's a reason why that thing popped in your head.

In the very early years of Improv at one performance, an actor brought back a certain idea based on a suggestion long after it was offered. The audience loved it. The group asked themselves what this should be called, and someone suggested, “What about Harold?” So a “Harold” is when someone brings back an idea much later in the sketch or even in another sketch.  

There's a lesson in this for writers: if you dropped something in your story early on, there's probably a reason you did. You might not know what that reason is yet, but trust your instincts. Don't just drop something into your story, think “Well, that doesn't make any sense,” and then just forget about it. Readers will love it when you bring that stuff back. Consider it foreshadowing. That thing you dropped in might not have made much sense in the beginning, but when you bring it back, it will make perfect sense. That's a first-rate Harold. 

And if you bring something in only near the end, see if you can introduce it in the beginning. The foreshadowing will turn it from something sneaky into something brilliant. I call this a reverse Harold. You can't do this in real Improv, but as a writer you can get away with some things actors performing live in front of an audience can't. It might be cheating, but don't worry. I won't tell. 

Don't be afraid to change everything and anything

When you get to something that seems weak or ineffective--whether it's a character, piece of dialogue, or a scene--press rewind. Then rewrite that thing in a different way, or even two or three different ways. The more choices you have, the better it will be. 

Leave the audience wanting more

It's usually best to end an Improv game at a high point, because anything else after it will be downhill. The suggestion should be fully explored and whatever conflicts or questions the audience might have should be resolved in a satisfying way. Then the story should end. This is also true for the end of your story.  Leave the reader feeling satisfied but wanting more.

Now look at your own writing and ask yourself, "What can Improv do for you?"

Next week, I'll be sharing with you five Improv games you can play on your own. See you then!

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Gluten-casein-sugar-free chocolate cake recipe

Today is my son's birthday. Yesterday I mentioned on Twitter that I was making a gluten-casein-sugar-free birthday cake for him, and I received a few requests for the recipe. So I'm taking a break from my usual posts on writing and publishing to give it to you. 

My son is autistic and on a gluten-casein free diet, while I'm on a sugar-free diet, so it's a weird recipe we can all enjoy. I had to improvise it myself. I know it doesn't taste as good as the real thing, but if you're in a similar situation, I hope this recipe works out for you too. If not, you could try adapting it to your tastes. Enjoy!



·         1 1/2 cups gluten-free baking mix (I use Arrowhead Mills all-purpose baking mix)
·         1 1/4 teaspoons stevia powder extract (I use SweetLeaf stevia extract)
·         1/4 teaspoon salt
·         1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
·         3/4 teaspoon baking soda
·         1 cup unsweetened vanilla Almond Breeze (if you have a tree-nut allergy, replace Almond Breeze with unsweetened vanilla soy milk)
·         2/3 cup vegetable oil (I use Hollywood expeller pressed safflower oil)
·         3 eggs

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease and lightly flour baking pan (with gluten-free baking mix).  Mix all the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. Mix in the Almond Breeze, oil, and eggs. Make sure it’s all blended well. (At this stage I like to taste it to see if it needs more stevia or salt, and I add whatever I think it needs more of.) Pour cake batter into baking pan, and place in the center of the oven on a baking rack to bake. After about 25 minutes, poke the middle of the cake with a toothpick. If the toothpick comes out clean, the cake is ready to come out of the oven. If not, give it another five minutes and check again. 

The batter is also great for making chocolate pancakes. Unfortunately, I don’t have a recipe for gluten-casein-sugar-free frosting yet.

Hope it works out for you. Enjoy!