Sopan Deb on Taking Writing Lessons from Improv
"There are no mundane details."
The following first appeared in Lit Hub’s The Craft of Writing newsletter—sign up here.
I took my first improv class at the Magnet Theater in Manhattan a little more than a decade ago. I was a recent college graduate with little money and having recently been dumped, sad. And since I had read that many comedians were sad underneath their jokes, I thought pursuing comedy would be the right fit for me.
In my first scene, I think my teacher Rick put my scene partner and me in a gym. Or it might’ve been a restaurant. Or an office. Who knows at this point? Improv is extremely ephemeral, so scene specifics matter a lot less than how you feel, and more importantly, how the audience feels. I do remember feeling silly, nervous, and free, which was really the entire point of taking the class.
What I didn’t realize until I got older is that taking improv classes for years is what trained me to write my memoir, Missed Translations, and then my debut novel, Keya Das’s Second Act. If you are an aspiring writer, and you don’t have the resources to move your life around for an MFA, take improv classes or join a local improv group. Trust me: You get a writing education as much as you get one about comedy. And you laugh a lot more while doing it.
There are two big misconceptions about improv. One is that you have to be funny. The second is that you have to be quick. This was fed by many of us growing up watching the instant wit of the performers on Whose Line Is It Anyway?But most improv isn’t like that. One of the first things Rick taught me was that improv is about honesty and the “yes and” approach. If I’m playing a doctor in a scene, and I tell my partner that she has cancer, it doesn’t make sense for my partner to start doing the Macarena; that wouldn’t be an honest response, and you lose the audience. Yes and-ing means agreeing with the choices being made on stage and then building on them; if I establish that I’m a doctor in the scene, and my partner says, “No, you’re actually a carpenter,” that’s not it. Again, you lose the audience.
After performing hundreds of improv scenes, and watching hundreds more, those concepts are ingrained in my mind. When writing Keya Das’s Second Act, I kept asking myself: Is this character being honest in reacting this way? And if there was a particularly difficult plot point to resolve, rather than thinking of reasons it wouldn’t work, my mind was conditioned to build upon it, rather than giving up. In essence, I yes and-ed myself. (Frankly, writing a novel is a triumphant act of yes and-ing.)
Taking improv trains your mind to see several things where you might previously have seen one. Say you have a glass of water on your table as you read this. Improv teaches you to see a glass of water. A glass half full. A glass half empty. A glass factory. Thirst. Recycling. Aquaman. Madman Across The Water (the Elton John album). And so forth and so on. This kind of thinking is helpful in every profession, but when it comes to writing, it helps you come up with creative solutions to writer’s block.
Just like with a novel, a good improv show is about telling a compelling story. A date gone wrong. A promotion gone awry. The camping trip with an uninvited bear. The only difference is that the comedians on stage don’t know the story they’re telling until it unfolds. But even to that, taking improv encouraged me to write without an outline in mind. With Keya Das’s Second Act, I just began to write and got to know the characters as I went, much like I would in an improv show. I didn’t know where the book was going, and the story was better off for it.
It’s not just broad concepts either. There are specific maneuvers within the confines of a show that teach you how to be a better writer. A core tenet of improv is being able to execute a well-placed callback: Essentially, a comedian takes a minor detail introduced early in the show and brings it back later and elevates it, surprising the audience. It’s a nice treat for show watchers truly paying attention. Whenever I write, I’m constantly looking for ways to tie strings together. This makes you even more careful about mundane details. Because in an improv show, there are no mundane details. Everything is fair game for comedians to come back to.
The most important reason to take an improv class, of course, has nothing to do with writing. It’s about living. Improv is a place for you to be whomever you want in whatever way you want and everyone around you will accept that. There’s a therapeutic nature to it and frankly, it’s the most fun you’ll ever have in your life.
And you might become a novelist, too.
Keya Das’s Second Act by Sopan Deb is available via Simon & Schuster.