Just like our physical muscles need to be pushed and challenged in new ways, our brains need the same kind of workout. If we always do bicep curls, we’re going to have some fantastic biceps, but our other muscles will look pretty puny in comparison!
So I’d like to share with you one of the fundamental rules I have for writing and, indeed, for my life in general. It’s something that I learned a long time ago (but in a galaxy fairly nearby) in elementary school theatre classes:
Let me ‘splain.
I went to an arts magnet school, which basically means I was groomed to be a theatre/music/art nerd from the earliest stages. At least three times a week, we’d all shuffle in to theatre class, which was sometimes held in a hallway when the school was remodeling one year. Before we started anything else, our lovely teacher (think: Miss Honey from Matilda) would set us up for an improv game. “Just to get our minds and bodies going,” she’d say.
Our favorite game was one we called “Person, Place, and Thing.” The small group of three or four students would stand in front of the room as the other students called out a person, place, and thing. So, the group in front might get “fire fighter, bathroom, magazine.” And with these three pieces of information, the group would have to improv a story with characters and setting and some conflict that needed to be resolved. And there were only two rules:
1) Anything goes.
2) You can never say no.
So, if a story about a firefighter reading a magazine in the bathroom was going along nicely and one of the group members suddenly called out, “Oh look, here come the flying monkeys! We’d better run.” The rest of the group couldn’t ignore that. We were legally obligated by the sacred and binding terms of the improv game to say “Yes… and?” to this suggestion.
“Oh look! Flying monkeys! Let’s run!”
“Yes… and they want to take over the earth! We’ve got to get somewhere safe and find a weapon to defeat them!”
No matter how silly, we had to say YES.
Little did I know it then, but this idea continues to serve me well in my life. I can’t say I *always* abide by the sacred rules, but I try to take what life hands me and ask “yes… and?”
This has served me VERY well when it comes to writing, too. Writing is about improv in a lot of ways.
Never shut down an idea, never say “no” to something. Improv is an open space for working out things. And yes, this might lead to some pretty silly things. It might feel stupid. It might feel like you’re exposing yourself to censure or to ridicule.
But it can also lead to wonderful things. I use improv in writing to relax me. I get uptight about planning my stories. I craft detailed outlines so I know what plot points happen when. But when I’m actually doing the writing, I try to use more of a “yes… and?” approach. I have the outline in my mind. It’s kind of like my water wings. I know I won’t drown. But the water wings give me freedom to experiment a bit, to ask “yes… and?” of my characters and see where they go. Sometimes, like Camelot in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it is a silly place and I end up not staying there. But sometimes, it leads to a new revelation about a character, a wrinkle that allows me to do something unexpected with the story.
For example, my main character in The Wrong Woman gets shot. That came out of an improv writing session. I knew that I wanted the characters to be changed by an event. And I knew the emotional place I wanted them to be at when that event was over. So I played. I kept asking “yes… and?” and it led to the central event in the book!
I try to take “yes… and?” as a general rule in my life. What about you? How do you like to write or encounter new challenges in your life?