Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Principles of Improv

By Steven Pressfield | Published: June 11, 2014

There are very few books on creativity that I would take with me to a desert island. One for sure is Patricia Ryan Madson’s Improv Wisdom, first published in 2005.

My thumbworn copy

Patricia taught improvisation at Stanford to SRO classes for twenty-eight years. Her slender, highly concentrated book (shorter than The War of Art) cites thirteen maxims for aspiring comics and actors who dare to get up onstage without a net and wing it.

What is fascinating to me is that every one of these principles applies with equal power to writing, particularly fiction writing.

1. “Say yes.”

I had never heard this maxim before I read it in Patricia’s book, but it makes complete sense when you think about it. In improv, when your onstage partner throws you a line, what do you do? “Say yes,” says Patricia. Meaning go with it, build on it, take it to the next level.

When the answer to all questions is yes, you enter a new world, a world of action, possibility, and adventure.

The same principle applies to fiction writing. If a sentence or scene pops into your head, remember that it’s coming from your Big Improv Partner and that partner is your Muse, your unconscious, your better-and-smarter half. Don’t step on that impulse. Trust it. Run with it.

Did a new character suddenly appear? Someone you had not drafted into your original Dramatis Personae? Welcome her! Bring her into the family. Say yes.

2. “Don’t prepare, just show up.”

I was working on The Lion’s Gate. I had 370 hours of interviews from Israel. I began transcribing them into files (i.e., “preparing.”) I thought I was being smart. I thought I was doing the responsible, professional historian thing.

What happened? I drove myself insane.

Finally one day I said to myself, “Screw it. Start the damn thing.”

It worked.

Preparation and planning are vastly overrated in fiction writing and every other kind of creative enterprise. I don’t know George R.R. Martin but I’ll bet you a million bucks he didn’t string Game of Thrones together by painstakingly pinning 3X5 cards to a corkboard wall.

Showing up is 90% of the game. Put your ass where your heart wants to be. Sit down and tell the story. That’s improv, and it’s fiction (and non-fiction) writing too.

3. “Start anywhere.”

The professional improv actors of San Francisco’s 3 For All start each of their stories by asking for a simple suggestion from the audience. Quickly fielding a word or phrase from the chaos of shouts, Rafe, Tim, and Steve begin the scene without hesitation. They understand this vital improv principle: All starting points are equally valid.

It’s Einstein’s principle of relativity: all points in the universe are created equal. “There’s no need,” Patricia teaches, “to find the right starting place.”

My own version of this is “Start before you’re ready.” (Which is itself a steal from Patricia’s, “Don’t prepare, just show up.”)

The point is to get into the pool. Once you’re in the water, you’ll start to swim. It doesn’t matter where you dive from or jump from or cannonball from.

Another way to look at Patricia’s thirteen maxims is that they are all techniques for overcoming (or, better, sidestepping) Resistance.

“Don’t prepare” avoids the trap of procrastination, overthinking, overpreparation.

“Just show up” gets you into the room, in front of the easel.

“Say yes” prevents stalling, self-censorship, self-criticism.

“Start anywhere” overcomes the tendency to perfectionism. It keeps you from dithering on the sidelines. It gets you into the swim.

It never ceases to amaze me how similar all forms of art are. The principles that work in dance apply just as powerfully to sculpture or software design. And what works onstage in improv clicks just as beautifully on the keyboard of your Mac.

Patricia Madson’s Improv Wisdom. I will have it with me on that desert island.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

21 Responses to “Principles of Improv”

  1. Mary Doyle
    June 11, 2014 at 4:37 am

    “Writing Wednesdays” always gives me exactly what I need to hear and this is no exception. I had a new character show up a week ago and debated with myself whether he came from Resistance (to slow me down) or the Muse (to make things more interesting) – so glad I decided to “say yes” to him. Thanks for another great post Steve!

  2. Basilis
    June 11, 2014 at 5:24 am

    We never are ready in life, so why not?

    • June 12, 2014 at 9:43 pm

      Your comment is a jewel right there, Basilis!
      And yeah, Why not?

  3. Joe Tye
    June 11, 2014 at 6:26 am

    One of the most important principles included in Improv Wisdom (which I agree is indispensable) is that “it’s not my job” is never an acceptable response.

  4. June 11, 2014 at 6:42 am

    I agree how amazingly similar different art forms are. I recently bought a painting for my husband’s birthday. The artist and I chatted beforehand and we both laughed at how alike our processes were in reaching creativity. COOL!

  5. June 11, 2014 at 6:59 am

    Don’t you love the irony that the author of “good advice” about how to write and how to improvise is often the one who most needs to hear these reminders? You taught us that the demon of resistance (I refuse to give it a capital letter) hangs out in many guises. I am grateful to you for continuing to believe in this little book and sharing your enthusiasm. You are a generous man. Thank you, Steven.

    • Jeremy
      June 12, 2014 at 11:26 am

      Thank you for your wisdom.

  6. Bryanda Minix
    June 11, 2014 at 7:01 am

    I am a new subscriber. This is my first writing Wednesday, and what a wonderful introduction it has been. I love both writing and acting; they’re both storytelling. This post was well timed, as it was exactly what I needed to read. I had a melt down in front on my computer just last night, out of frustration. No more perfectionism, self criticism, and procrastination. Thank you for your help!

  7. June 11, 2014 at 8:23 am

    Steven, I came across this book independently when I was taking an Improv class. It’s really nice to hear it mentioned here (and I believe you mentioned it in one of your other books, may have been WOA) It was amazing to me how many fellows would start a scene and the next one contradict it–try to control it to what they saw the scene should mean. It always diminished the scene. Saying “yes” is turning off that second fellow who wants to water down the madness. The audience wants and loves your madness.

  8. June 11, 2014 at 9:19 am

    Thanks for a terrific book suggestion, and insightful analysis.

    The nugget for me here is your comment on sidestepping Resistance rather than setting out to overcome it. If I were a running back carrying the ball with a 250 lb. tackle headed my way, “overcoming” would never work. The only way to reach the goal would be to sidestep.

  9. Sonja
    June 11, 2014 at 9:36 am

    Beautiful! I needed to read this…I was approaching my novel from a different angle (ahem…”preparing”) by writing out copious notes, when I just really need to jump in (again) and start writing.

    You are a godsend, Steven. Thank you as always.

  10. June 11, 2014 at 11:50 am

    Hugh Laurie:“It’s a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you’re ready. I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There’s almost no such thing as ready. There’s only now. And you may as well do it now. I mean, I say that confidently as if I’m about to go bungee jumping or something – I’m not. I’m not a crazed risk taker. But I do think that, generally speaking, now is as good a time as any.”

    This just arrived on my FB page. PS I am Patricia Madson’s proud editor.

  11. June 11, 2014 at 4:38 pm

    Having grown up around the Class of 1984 at The Improvisation in Los Angeles, saying yes to writing has been ingrained in me and I am grateful for the reminder today. Truthfully, the ego is never done protecting me from fear of failure – yeah, even after all these years.

    Grateful for this blog, Steven and have shared with many other writers and artists.

  12. June 11, 2014 at 7:02 pm

    This is the fun and joy of writing – not planning it all out but walking alongside the characters as they live out their lives and you write it down or listen to them tell you their life story over tea. That’s the way I like to write.

  13. Jeremy
    June 12, 2014 at 11:25 am

    Once again you give exquisite and timely advice Mr. Pressfield. You are truly tuned into the Muse like a Jedi! Keep up the good writing, as I know your faithful readers will try on our end.

  14. June 12, 2014 at 9:39 pm

    Damn it, Pressfield. Now I’ve gone and bought another book. Improve Wisdom probably doesn’t say anything I haven’t read and written myself a zillion times, but I haven’t read it in the context of theatrical improv, which I’ve never done and now want to. (Have improved music, drawing, write-ins.)

    The emphasis on starting where you are and ignoring “Beruit” as you’ve called it is wonderful. Thanks and Yes!

  15. John Compton
    June 14, 2014 at 8:00 am

    The War of Art and Improv Wisdom have made me a Ready Freddy! Thank you!

  16. Filippos
    June 15, 2014 at 11:21 am

    would you inform , if and when , “lion’s gate” will be published in greek?

  17. June 19, 2014 at 12:53 pm

    This is a phenomenal post! It came just at the right time. The Research zombies were banging at my door, threatening to carry me way.

    “Don’t prepare” avoids the trap of procrastination, overthinking, overpreparation

    Brilliant!

  18. June 20, 2014 at 1:37 am

    Hi – came to this via The Writer Ship, and I love the sound of the Madsen book.

    I trained in theatre but am a writer and teacher of writing; I do agree that they’re all sooooo interconnected. I’ve been going on for years about, for example, how Stanislavskian intentions fit with Actioning as a rehearsal technique, and how they both fit with the writer’s eternal search for the perfect verb. But I’d never clarified the connection between improve and shitty first drafts for myself – so, thank you! Will be buying the book!

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