Monday, March 25, 2013

Yes, and...

One of the classes I’m taking during my Hollywood experience is the basic level improvisation course at The Groundlings. This troupe is renowned for launching the careers of many famous comedians, including Lisa Kudrow, Will Ferrell, and Melissa McCarthy. Although reaching the comic mastery those people have achieved would be a dream, my reason for participating is simpler. I think the class will provide great tools for use in my writing and acting.

For those who’ve never seen improv, particularly live, you’re missing out. It’s astounding—and almost unbelievable—that these performers can take a single suggestion from an audience and build an entire scene or even a whole production around that word. Yesterday I saw a two-act play created on the fly in the style of a Jane Austen novel using the audience suggestion of “topiary.” The results were hysterical. I think it’s safe to say that Regency-era contrivances have never before been dependent on a hedge trimmed to look like an ailing cat.

The most important concept in improv is the requirement that you always respond “yes, and” to your scene partner. If your castmate says that you two are at the beach, then you are expected not only to accept that idea but also to build on it, perhaps by saying, “Yes, and here’s your surfboard. Let’s catch some waves.”

As children, we tended to be great at taking an idea from our playmates and building a whole recess period around it, no matter how crazy it sounded. We played. As adults, however, we’ve been conditioned to say “no” or “but” in response to something that may not fit into what we want to do or because it sounds silly. I can attest that it’s very hard to restrain yourself from saying the dreaded b-word in improv. For many of us, it’s our first impulse and has to be consciously quashed.

The problem is that “but” stops any momentum you have in the story you’re building. If your scene partner says you two are at the beach, and you say, “But we can’t be because we’re in the mountains,” the scene dies right there. You’ve completely negated the offer and told the person that you don’t like the idea and want to do it your way. This kind of negative response is called blocking.

As writers, we can suffer from the same blocking process when we’re creating. I always have that little voice in my head that wants to say “but” every time I come up with what initially seems like a brilliant brainstorm. The voice presents all the worst-case scenarios: “But you might paint yourself into a corner with this plot twist”; “But this new character might not end up being interesting”; “But this scene probably won’t work with the rest of the plot.” Often the response is more blunt: “But that’s a stupid idea.”

If I let it go too far, I find myself editing the story before I have anything written, and it can bring the entire process to a standstill. I think that’s where writer’s block comes from: we are blocking ourselves from creating because we’re dismissing everything that comes into our heads, telling ourselves something won’t work before we even give it a chance.

So I’m trying to say “yes, and” to my ideas. That’s where the magic of improv is made. You might start with a simple day at the beach and find it leads you to a mysterious encounter with a fragile object washed up on shore. It’s that serendipity I want to rediscover in my writing. Sometimes I don’t realize where my own mind can take me, and if I say “but” to inspiration, I’ll never get to those amazing destinations.


  1. Thanks, Boyd. I tell people - especially myself - that of all the people who tell you "no" the only one you can't beat is the one who looks back at you in the mirror. Don't let that person tell you "no." The reinforcement is much appreciated.

  2. Great thoughts. My daughter did improv for years, even taught it, so I knew about responding "yes, and..." but never thought of applying it to my writing. Now you have me thinking.
    Thanks for the nudge.

  3. Last night my sister and I were brainstorming out the new book (we're only on chap 5). The ideas were flowing but we weren't really getting anywhere. Now I realize I was "yes, butting" her. Thanks for the thump to the head.

  4. This is brilliant and really helps create a new paradigm for writing. Thank you for sharing. I'm thinking a "yes...and...." index card may be pinned up somewhere near my desk now!

  5. Interesting way to view the creative process. When I get ideas on a story, I write them in a file I call "Plotting Notes." Then I mull them over or build on them without rejecting them outright. If it doesn't work, at least I've given the idea a chance. I'll have to try your technique.

  6. Very good stuff Boyd, and apt analogy.
    I love improv, be it in serious acting or standup comedy, a well played improvisational act is awesome to behold. Best of all is when one does an improv act well enough that the audience automatically assumes it was played from a script, that's pinnacle acting there boyo.

  7. I know this is late but I did this as an icebreaker with one of my classes. I took one volunteer from each student group and we just did a quick "Make a statement about what's going on that starts with 'yes, and'. Your statement has to be relevant, cannot repeat what's been said, and can't have the word 'but'." It was kind of fun for them. Just a little 5 minute 'wake them up for class' thing.

    Then I knocked them back out again with the Law of Cosines.....