By Chris Mandeville
Nothing banishes a writer’s critical inner editor like improv writing. Just like improvisational acting, improv writing is off-the-cuff, unplanned, uncorrected artistic expression, and it can be a powerful tool for sparking inspiration, enhancing creativity, and boosting productivity by shutting up that pesky inner critic.
I learned about improv writing from a group that meets at a bookstore each week to improv write together. Their process is that the leader provides a prompt to the group, then each writer immediately and independently—without any prep or planning—dashes off something inspired by that prompt. There is a time limit and a requirement that everyone reads their work aloud when the time is up. The one strict rule: no criticism. That’s right—no critique of any kind.
The time limit and requirement to read your work are essential. Together they force you to write something, anything. The prohibition against critique is also key: it gives you permission to write something awful, as long as you write something. This forces you to push past insecurities, make decisions, and ignore the inner critic. Since you must get something on the page quickly, you have to make yourself write. And since your words won’t be critiqued, it’s safe to let go and write with abandon. With practice, the uninhibited writing you do in improv can spill over into your regular writing life and keep your inner critic silent when you’re rough-drafting.
Like me, author Brandy Vallance tried her hand at improv writing by joining an improv group in her area. When she began, she had no idea that it would be the “perfect way” to stretch her imagination.
For Vallance, a key benefit of improv writing is that it allows her to get into her character’s skin:
“One of our jobs as writers is to know our characters intimately—why they act and feel the way the do. When I stepped outside my own box with improv writing, something clicked for me. ‘Stream of consciousness’ writing allowed me to really know and feel my characters in a way I never had before. I write historical romance, and during one particular improv session, I was asked to write my character into the modern world. The gold that came out of that session really surprised me! It gave me a perspective on my character I never would have had otherwise.”
Another benefit of improv writing is that it invites you to step outside your regular writing confines and try something new, which can light a creative spark. In Vallance’s words:
“We’re so used to following the rules of writing and staying in our own boxes, it can be stifling to creativity. Improv is the perfect way to dive into the deep end of the creative ocean and play. In my experience, the words that result from improv writing are a pleasant and welcome surprise.” Brandy Vallance – The Covered Deep
The process of improv writing is a reward in itself, especially when the habits learned spill over into your regular writing. But sometimes improv writing can result in something more. Angel Smits, a long-time improv writing group leader and participant, has written entire first drafts of novels during improv sessions by methodically writing scene after scene based on the prompts provided.
So not only can improv writing be incredibly freeing and fun, but it can actually produce good ideas and good writing more often than you’d guess!
While improv writing in a group can be awesome, groups don’t appeal to everyone and aren’t always practical. But the good news is that you don’t need a group for improv writing to work.
Author Kevin Ikenberry had a novel grow from a prompt that popped into his head while he was sitting at his desk working on a non-writing task. For reasons unknown to him, he leaned over and wrote in his notebook “I remember being born with great clarity.” He had no idea where those words came from, but they resonated with him. So he treated that line as an improv prompt and began writing, using those initial words as the jumping off point. That free-write eventually developed into an 8000-word short story, then into a 40,000-word novella. Finally it grew into Sleeper Protocol – a finalist for the Colorado Book Award in Genre Fiction. The original free-write material is present in Chapter One, but interestingly the single line “prompt” that began it all was edited out of the final manuscript.
“Never be afraid of what the muse throws at you. Exploring random thoughts is like mining. Sometimes there’s a lot of dirt, and occasionally, there’s treasure. You don’t know until you start digging.” Kevin Ikenberry – Sleeper Protocol
Will you give improv writing a try? I hope so! It may take a while to get the hang of it, but I encourage you to keep at it until you’re able to bypass your inner censor and spew words straight from the creative center of your subconscious mind. Once you’ve mastered this kind of “vomit writing,” you can carry over this valuable skill to any creative writing endeavor.
If you’d like to try your hand at improv, below is a list of prompts to get you started. Happy writing!
Chris Mandeville writes science fiction and fantasy, as well as nonfiction for writers. Her books include Seeds: a post-apocalyptic adventure and 52 Ways to Get Unstuck: Exercises to Break Through Writer’s Block. You can find out more about Chris at chrismandeville.com
Selected Writing Prompts provided by Chris Mandeville
- The dark never fails to…
- She’d once been pretty
- Her eyes shone like spots of phosphorous in the gloom
- She hoped he’d forgive her
- Incorporate the words corpsified and humming into your scene
- Include two of these words: hemoglobin, farfetched, dunes, yogurt
- Your character finds a letter written by her mother who died ten years before
- Your character is committed
- Your character finds a box of scorched human hair
- Your character has five minutes to grab everything s/he wants from a store
- Your character finds a secret compartment in the back of a cabinet
- What if trees had consciousness?
- Were there monkeys?
- Sometimes I am, and sometimes I ain’t
- I wish you had known
- They do it with mirrors (Neil Gaiman, Smoke and Mirrors)
- Life had come for him (Neil Gunn, The Silver Darlings)
- Her hair was black and generous, with thick curls circling her face, a face I could never quite coax into view (Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees)
- They were coming with small dreams or big dreams or none at all (Ray Bradbury, The Martial Chronicles)
- “Killing isn’t like smoking – you can stop” (Basic Instinct)
- “The face of war has never changed” (Star Trek)
- “Our hidden sins poison the air that others breathe” (Journal d’un curé de campagne)
- “Stay close to any sounds that make you glad you are alive.” (Hafiz)
- “Sometimes good things fall apart, so better things can fall together.” (Marilyn Monroe)
- Listen carefully; this won’t be easy for you to hear
- Finally, there it was, right in front of her
- The night, lit by lightning and ripped by thunder…
- Her voice reached down through me – tender, sweet and low
- It is no shame to tell the truth
- That’s what happens when you invite something wild into your home
- I blame myself…
- There were fourteen potions on the shelf – their labels were all missing
- Some toxins will not drain except by tears
- Some people seem more naked when they’re dressed
- Cupid missed
- The garter and bouquet, but not the veil
- I’d never have said this if not to you
- He dreams about the smiles she suppressed
- The prisoner doesn’t care who makes his bail
- It was less than a second, maybe half a second, but it changed everything
- We climbed to the top for a view of the two moons, not expecting to meet someone, especially someone like that, all the way up there
- Never underestimate the lives of old men sitting on park benches
- Death was in the air
- There it was, as peaceful and mysterious as s/he remembered: the Rift, the place where it all began
- Back then we didn’t know what they were trying to get away from
- They don’t need sleep
- One interesting thing about success is that we think we know what it means
- The worst loneliness is…
- In the end, it doesn’t matter