The Unusual Thing

Recently, I’ve been trying my hand at long-form improv twith guidance from the experts at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade (NYC division).

As a student in script analysis, I remember learning that a good opening scene would encapsulate the entire story. The conflict, the stakes, the tone—it was all there from the curtain, if you only had the skills to decode it.

Of course, that was script analysis, not script synthesis.  As a writer, independent of medium, it is a daunting task to compose an opener that condenses the conflict into a moment and make it dramatically interesting.

When I signed up for improv classes, I never suspected they’d be such a valuable tool to address that process.

In improv, the unusual thing, that initial moment when the status quo is disrupted, becomes the story. Okay, so it’s hella difficult, but in the moment that comes from a misunderstood line, an unexpected reaction, an intriguing idea, lightning strikes—what the hell is happening?  The game is afoot, and if you’re smart enough, the scene is scene is practically written for you.

Example:  You dive out on stage and shout “They’re shelling us!”  In your head it’s a WWI trench scene.  Except your partner dives next to you and says, “Why do they keep throwing turtles at us?!”  Now you’re off and running.  Your opener is over.  It’s a war story, which is not the unusual thing (as it could be in a WWI coming of age story), but that animals are being used as weaponry is unexpected by everyone.

As a writer, I’m rarely struck with an opening. More often it’s an idea, or a climax.  The beginning is composed outside of the lightning and thus it bears the pressure of being composed to accomplish something.

In improv, it’s the opposite. Stepping out, there is no middle, no progression, no end. The first moment that there’s a laugh or shock, a nidus is created for all that follows—a battle against a zoo, a pet store rivalry, the Planet of the Turtles movie that should have been. It could be any of those, but the choices would be guided by the level of stakes already chosen.  People in an Armageddon behave differently than those in a small business rivalry. The beauty is largely this:  by the time the unusual thing has happened, often so many choices have already been made that the decisions are in the past, not the future. 

I would have expected that the simplicity of this process would make a scene less compelling, however in capable hands that is rarely the case. In fact, it is the opposite. It’s us amateurs, trying too hard to write a clever scene that we’re simultaneously acting out to pay attention to the seed crystal of spontaneous creation.

Of course, it might be quite difficult (and wholly unsatisfying to everyone involved) to write a novel live…