How to get more for your effort when writing.
Today I’m going to talk about improvisation, often called improv for short. It’s an element of the creative process that’s unplanned and spontaneous. In the case of writing, it’s something that comes up as you’re telling the story and (hopefully) enhances it.
I talked a little before about pantsing, which is still a rather silly and distasteful term, where instead of meticulously planning, the writer has a set objective and just freely writes to get to that objective. What I’m talking about today is a more specific form of pantsing and, it’s important to note, is not something that all authors need to do. A lot of the recommended “drills” I hear about for authors (and never do) have to do with learning to be spontaneous. My experience has been that not all writers use it and for some it can actually be more hinderance than help.
I’ll start by talking about how it can be a hinderance. Mostly it’s a hinderance to planners—people that make sure every detail of their story is meticulously thought out prior to it going on paper. When I talked about writer’s block, I mentioned that sometimes the reason you don’t know where to go from a particular point is because you wrote yourself into a dead end. For planners, that only happens if you tried to do something spontaneous. Here’s a few guidelines for planners on how you can do little things to be spontaneous, that won’t put you in a dead end. Don’t do those stupid drills I keep reading about. You’ll hurt yourself.
Improv for a planner should be simple things to start—things that a pantser does all the time and, I’d suspect, most writers do without a problem. When new characters come into my story, planned or otherwise, I usually know nothing about their appearance. I have to make that up as I go. It’s a simple process and, even if you heavily plan out things like that, switching it into surprise mode is something you can do that’ll help stretch those creative muscles without writing you into a corner. Descriptions of locations fall into the same category. Try to find things that do not affect the plot.
The next stop is to find ways that it can affect the plot. Something small and insignificant. For example, Tess’ ability to mimic voices was something added for the fun of it, mostly because I wanted a way to tease Simon. No sooner did I come up with that idea then I realized there was something I could do later in the story that would be fun. The plot remained unchanged, I only had to make a minor adjustment later and viola! Instant color.
Let’s take a look at something hypothetical. Since most of my work has to do with the wolf folk, the vykati, I’ll use one of them. Red fur is something that’s unique to the royal family, but red hair is not. Historically, wolves with red fur will always have white hair. Red hair is something that usually comes from the vykati of the Vharkil Mountains. So let’s give a vykati red hair and let’s make her a villain. I very literally have been making this up as I go along. So later in the story when they’re in Ritayai and they’re seeking her out, they discover her because her hair color stands out there. They would have discovered her either way, but here I took an opportunity to use something subtle and insignificant and turn it into a major plot point.
…in under five minutes.
Once those muscles have been stretched a little, you can do even larger things through improv. The next higher level involves taking elements of the story, either developed or spontaneous, and finding creative ways to weave them into the story. In Fugitive’s Trust, Sajani and Gregor are presented in several different situations that involve combat. Both are portrayed as young and capable. In the process of developing the characters, it’s mentioned that Gregor’s father taught him some basics to protect himself and it’s mentioned that Sajani’s mother taught her some combat-oriented skills. I can’t say this was a spontaneous addition because it wasn’t. It was planned. What did end up being spontaneous is how that effects things in the future. In What Once Was Eden, Sajani and Gregor spend a good amount of time walking with the caravan. Their personalities aren’t sedentary. They’re both really active youth. It’s not in their character to just ride or walk along. Gregor is a very obedient person and Sajani is starting to follow his lead, so causing trouble isn’t really a possibility. I need something legal and mostly safe… well, not deadly anyway, to pass the time. They both know sword fighting. Can they get something to practice with? Yes. There’re guards in the caravan and they most likely would be doing drills, so wooden practice swords are there. If they weren’t, since it’s a merchant caravan, it’d be pretty easy to have them as part of the merchandise.
Ok, so here’s something that happened prior. It was sort of spontaneous. It’s known that people in the caravan like to place small bets to pass the time. So what’s going to happen when they find out these two are sparring? There’ll probably be bets. Eventually they convince the pair to do something challenging. Since Sajani is beating Gregor fairly easily, it’s not much of a bet. What if she fences left-handed? Yes, that would seem like a challenge at first. The story goes from there. When the book comes out, read through that section and realize that the entire thing was an improv, not from thin air, but from things that happened previously in the story. All I was doing was thinking them through.
You can see from these examples that improv is a great way to give depth to your story and can be used to create unique and memorable situations that might not have been planned.
Along those lines, let me ask a quick question of those that might play tabletop roleplaying games. You all have those stories that you repeat to each other time and again (even though you all know the story) and that you tell at every convention or new group you go to. How many of those stories are of events that were planned out? None. I’d be willing to bet none of them were. Most involve a die roll and well, if you can plan those out, you’re wasting your time in RPGs. You need to head to Vegas.
Once you’ve stretched yourself to this level, you’ll find that things do come a lot easier, “writer’s block” stops happening and life becomes all rainbows and unicorn poop.
Well, one out of three is true anyway.
It’s at this point that some of those drills you’ve heard about where you write from a prompt for two minutes or other insanity actually becomes fun. You’ll also discover, you don’t need those drills anymore anyway.
I hope you enjoyed this week’s journal. I’m told these will be moving to a new location shortly. I’m not sure if I’ll want to post them at four sites or not, but they’re going to be integrated into RP Games’ website. I’ll be allowed to post them, so no hate mail, but I’m not sure I’m excited about doing four posts, since one won’t be on Post Birby’s list.
I try to keep these lighthearted and open. There’s too much angst and “author-aterian” junk out there for writers. Feel free to share the links and the love.
May you keep on running and never look back.