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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Act Like a Writer!

Improv Games for Authors

By Amy

Hi Tribe. I’d like to talk today about the voices in my head. I’m sure you have them, too.  Most writers do. They’re the characters we’ve created (and the ones still lurking in the shadows), murmuring to us while our busy mind is occupied. They whisper the most amazing words…words that would surely earn us a Newbery or a Caldecott if only we could get those voices to speak WHEN WE WANT THEM TO!

Patience, young Grassmonkey. There’s a way to make them talk and it’s called IMPROV! I did some Improv in college, while pursuing a minor in theater, and just recently started taking classes from a graduate of The SecondCity Training Center. Almost immediately after starting classes again, I noticed a difference in my writing. Words came faster.  Dialogue nearly wrote itself. I wasn’t terrified of putting the wrong words on the page, because I knew how easily I could erase them and go in a different direction! Sweet -- like bananas!

Improv is taught through acting games which require you to think on your feet…and think quickly! In Two-Headed Expert, for example, two actors are given a subject about which they are supposed to be very knowledgeable. Then, speaking one word each, they proceed to explain how to do something. Let’s say the topic is ‘How to Ride a Bike.’ Two-headed expert might go something like this:

Person A: To

Person B: ride

Person A: a

Person B: bike,

Person A:  you

Person B: must

Person A: first

Person B: buy

Person A: a

Person B: helmet.

Things usually start off pretty easy, but the longer the game goes on, the harder it becomes. You have a clear idea of what you want to say, but your partner has different ideas. Inevitably, they’ll come out with a word that makes no sense with where you thought the monologue was headed. Two-headed Expert teaches us to think fast and keep an open mind.  It’s great for writing dialogue, since our characters often have their own ideas about what they want to say.

Here are a couple other Improv games you might try. FYI, little monkeys love these games and they’re great for car ride entertainment. So you can work on your writing, play with your kids and fulfill your carpool duties all at the same time!

Yes, but…

This is one of my favorite games. Two actors are given a setting and a relationship, such as employees in a coffee shop. The rule of the game is the actors must respond to each other, with one sentence, always beginning with “Yes, but…” The goal of the game is to keep the conversation going as long as possible.


A:  You ate my bananas!

B: Yes, but you ate mine last week.

A: Yes, but you said I could.

B: Yes, but I thought we were sharing.

A: Yes, but you’ve eaten everyone’s bananas for a whole year.

B: Yes, but I’m a growing monkey.

A: Yes, but you’re growing sideways.

B: Yes, but bananas taste good.


Yes, but… is especially good training for first drafts, because it teaches us to build on actions and keep the story going. It’s also great practice for brainstorming. You can take one possible direction for a  Yes, but… scene, run with it as far as you can, then start over with a different direction. Try playing it with your characters, when you’re not sure what they’ll do next.


This one requires three or four people. It would be an awesome opener for a critique group meeting. Two actors sit in chairs, side by side, facing the same way…like in the front seat of a car. One is the driver. The third actor stands ‘outside’ the car and thumbs for lift. The hitchhiker has in mind a ‘persona’ which s/he makes known once they sit down in the 'backseat.' The other actors then adopt the same persona and ad lib a conversation. For example…

Hitchhiker: Duuuude, thanks for picking me up. I been hanging loose out there since low tide.
(clearly, the hitchhiker is a surfer)

Driver: No worries, man. We’re headed down coast to pick up some Emmas and catch the next tide.

Hitchhiker: Right on, Bro. I’m with ya’.

Passenger: Dude, did you see the epic waves hitting Kaui? They were, like, totally bodacious.

Driver: Yeah, man. I totally wanted to eat that surf!

 Once the conversation goes on for a while, another hitchhiker appears on the side of the road. The car pulls over, the driver gets out, the passenger slides over, the hitchhiker becomes the passenger and they drive on…picking up the new hitchhiker soon after. The new hitchhiker has a totally different persona, and the actors must change their personalities to match.

 I find Hitchhiker to be awesome practice with “voice.” Voice isn’t just dialect or a strong accent. It’s word choice and inflection, timing, pace, humor (or lack thereof)… All of these things combine to give a character strong voice. Consider playing Hitchhiker as one of your characters and see how much stronger you can make their voice.

A couple things to keep in mind…
Being funny is generally a goal in Improv games (despite my lame-o examples above), but being funny isn’t mandatory. Serious scenes pop up sometimes, and that’s fine. Also, the No. 1 rule of Improv is, if someone asks you a question during a game, the answer is always yes. It keeps the scene moving forward.

 There are many, many other Improv games, all of which get you thinking outside the banana peel. If any of you have favorite Improv exercises, I’d love to hear about them. In the meantime, consider trying some of these … and start acting like a writer!


  1. I love this Amy. I think many writers will find their characters will pop off the page after they've spent time doing these exercises. Of course is also takes courage to sit up there. Good on you for bringing this to us.


    1. It does take a bit of courage. That's why doing this with a critique group makes such perfect sense! We've already bared our writing to them and know we can trust them.

      And something magical happens when our brain gets switched on like this. It's one of those times when the result is more than the sum of the parts. I love magic.

  2. Amy, this is a great way to "write outside the box." And it explains why you're so witty :)

    1. Aw, thanks Marilyn! We'll have to try these out next time we get together! Monkeys doing Improv would be a real hoot!

  3. Loved this!! And I love Smittens! As a teacher, I would definitely use these improv activities. Kids really enjoy this. We did an activity in class similar to Improv, called The Hot Seat. While reading a novel,a student would volunteer to sit in front of the class and become a character. The rest of class asked character related questions. I was always amazed at the depth and thought to their questions. And you're right. It was magical! Thanks for the great post, Amy!I plan on using these activities!

    1. Ellen, Hot Seat sounds like a great game to play when fleshing out characters! I'll have to play that with The Boy sometime! :)

  4. I so wanna take a road trip with you monkeys so we can play these games, "Please, puleez, say yes!"

  5. Super! I have written them down for use in my Art classes. We always have an 5 extra min. to wait and you know in teaching 7th & 8th graders that can be a deadly long time. Oh, and maybe with my writing, too!!! Thanks, Amy.

    1. Linda, my son is in 7th grade and he loves these. He can be as silly as he wants and it's completely fine! :) Enjoy!

  6. Oh wow! These are cool. Could even play these games at work. Might end up with a few story ideas.... yay!

    1. I'm so glad you like them! They are so fun and so easy. And they really do help with loosening up your brain. I hope you find yourself swimming in story ideas soon!

  7. Amy, great post! I took a couple of improv classes last year after Bruce Coville suggested it at the SCBWI LA Conference. Now you've got me thinking I need to go back - thanks for the nudge!!

    1. Lori, I'd love to hear some of the games you played in your classes! Anything you particularly liked?

  8. This is so much fun, Amy! I can't wait to play some of these games with my characters, and my fellow monkeys!

  9. I can't wait to try these exercises! Thanks for the wonderful ideas, Amy! You've got me inspired for a Saturday of writing! <3

  10. Julie, I think we're going to try to play some games in VC, which should be very fun!

  11. I love improv!check out 'I'm sorry I haven't a clue' on BBC radio ...the ultimate improv word game programme. Can't wait to play some of these with you!

    1. I haven't seen that one, Hazel! I'll definitely check it out. The Boy loves word games. :) You and I can play them with whiskey.