Like most who know about the artform, I was introduced to improv comedy from the famed TV show Who’s Line Is It Anyway? Despite many of the references going over my young head at the time it first aired, I still found myself bursting at the seams with laughter at the off-the-cuff antics of the performers.
In high school, I was fortunate enough to participate in an improv club, where we not only played games, but also took field trips to performances and studied techniques from professionals.
While I was goofing off in a cloud of gawky adolescence, I was ignorant to the fact that improv was not only teaching me how to think on my feet, but also how to tell stories. And one day it clicked that the beauty of improv, as well as the core of storytelling, is all about engagement. Whether you are performing or observing in the audience, improv is a hands-on experience, much like the worlds you build in your narrative and the relationship you have with your readers.
It was only later in adulthood that I realized I was inadvertently applying these skills in my D&D gaming sessions. It started simple enough with my character creation (and giving my GMs headaches with grotesquely detailed backstories), then evolving further when I started DMing myself. Eventually, it got to the point where I chucked the rulebooks out the window and ran completely diceless campaigns.
After making this connection, I was able to apply my knowledge to large scale writing projects and develop the eyesight to become my own content editor. (NOTE: Don’t depend entirely on your own skills for content editing if you can help it. I am saying I was able to recognize enough to save work for someone else).
These skills not only helped with the writing aspect, but also the business side of being a “Competent Author™.” Elevator pitches, networking and relationships, public speaking etc. All of this can be improved upon with a flight from the seat of the pants.
But performance, no matter how small the audience, is much easier said than done, especially if you have anxiety. With practice and a few quick, short-worded sentences tucked in your belt, you can excuse yourself from overwhelming situations:
“Hey, this was a great conversation, but I really need to be elsewhere right now.”
“Thanks for chatting! I’m headed to another appointment, but maybe we can continue later?”
Whether it’s true or not, it’s great to have some pre-fabricated exits. However, I am speaking through my personal experience, and not everyone can find this helpful.
If you want to start off with playing improv games, try it out with a few close friends just to get a feel of the mechanics. The more you practice in a safe environment, the easier it may become for you. Remember, your replies will NOT sound polished. In fact, they will be clumsy and awkward until you learn what bits of your personal conversation filter can be shut off at will.
And that’s okay! Improv is not supposed to be polished, it’s supposed to be messy and random. A lot of the most noteworthy moments can come from spouting off the first thing that comes to mind (in both good and bad contexts). Just like editing a draft, polish comes later with time and practice.
A good first-time game is called “One Word,” where participants take turns telling a story one word at a time. Put a little flair on it by adding a theme or setting to help keep everyone focused. Make a space adventure and tell the story of a first alien encounter. Perhaps an opposing kingdom is beating down the gates to your castle, what happens next?
A quick google search of “Improv Comedy Games” will bring you a slew of options, but here’s a pair of sites with great examples to get you started:
Many games can be tailored to fiction, adding genre spins to suit whichever you want to practice. Focus on setting and character creation, or even use the Question Game (make a conversation only using questions) to practice your dialogue development.
Introduce exercises in your next writing group meetings or convention mixers as an icebreaker. But please be mindful of those with social anxiety and be respectful to members not participating! Improv requires a certain level of trust, and some may not feel comfortable for whatever reason they may or may not feel like sharing. Do not take it personally if you get rejected but be sure to leave the door open for those who want to try.
And on that note, another vital skill learned through improv is the ability to read the room. Improv is not just about spouting off the first thing that comes to your head. It’s also about learning the dynamics and knowledge base of the participants as well as the audience.
For example, any games involving song titles or movies may leave some players out because they don’t partake in popular media. It is also advisable to stray away from politically charged topics in a new setting until everyone is familiar with each other. It will take some experimentation to determine everyone’s comfort levels, as well as what types of games everyone excels at. Play off each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Ultimately, have fun with improv whether you apply it to your writing or not! It’s a fantastic way to practice interactions and storytelling while enjoying time with others both in and out of the industry. And most importantly, don’t be too serious when playing. It is comedy, after all.