That’s What She Said: Deb Molly Learned Dialogue by Studying Improv

2012 Debutante Molly BackesLike any good Chicagoan, I’ve studied improv (improvisational comedy, of which Chicago is the motherland) and I’m married to an improviser, so improv is a frequent topic of conversation in my house. Much of what I know about writing fiction I learned from doing improv. I often find myself telling my fiction students, “It’s like in improv, when….” and then looking around the workshop. “Wait, you mean you’re not all improvisers? Okay, so in improv….”

Improv and fiction have a lot in common. They’re both concerned with human relationships. They both work best when they trust their audience to help them build a story together — my fiction professor in college used to talk about building a bridge halfway to your reader; improvisers begin by asking the audience for suggestions, and they talk about playing to your audience’s intelligence. They both build stories around scenes — in fact, improv almost never uses summary (telling instead of showing). And just like writers, improvisers strive to create moments of truth, even in the middle of the wackiest scenes.

And though you don’t have to study improv to write good dialogue, it certainly doesn’t hurt!

A major rule in improv is not to ask questions in a scene. Questions don’t add anything to the scene, and they (unfairly) shift the burden of creation from you to your teammate. If you start a scene by asking a question — “What’s in that box?” — your scene partner has to decide what’s in the box and respond by telling you, thus carrying the creative burden. However, if you begin with a statement — “If that’s another box of blind kittens, you are uninvited to my bat mitzvah,” — you’re helping your scene partner by giving her something to play off, a relationship and conflict to add to.

Of course in writing, you’re in charge of all the dialogue, but I still think statements are stronger than questions. “Where were you tonight?” versus “I know you were at the Quarry with the Jenkins brothers tonight.” The latter jumps right past all the boring stuff (“Nowhere.” “Don’t play around with me, mister, I asked you a question.” etc etc) and into the meat of the conflict, which helps to move the plot forward. Much better!

One of the most common scenes you see in amateur improv involves a bunch of people standing on stage talking to one another. Turns out, this isn’t usually the most fascinating thing to watch, and when you’re just standing around, it’s easy to get stuck. In improv, the trick is to build your setting around you: instead of just standing and talking, start slicing a loaf of bread, or sanding the bottom of your canoe, or polishing your shoes, or flossing. Suddenly, you have a setting, which helps to develop character and further plot. Two guys standing around talking about their wives might be sort of interesting, but if they’re talking about their wives while they’re performing surgery, or while they’re robbing a bank, suddenly you have a whole new layer of insight into who these people are and what their relationship is with each other and with their wives. The same goes for writing. Often, when I find myself stuck in a scene, I think about where the character is and what she’s doing, and the setting helps me move the plot forward almost every time.

This, incidentally, is what I use instead of Erika’s beloved dialogue tags: character movement and setting description. For example:

“I’m not going with you,” I exclaimed. “I have plans.”

versus

“I’m not going with you.” I leaned over my canoe, avoiding his eyes. The wood was smooth from weeks and weeks of sanding. “I have plans.”

In the second example, you don’t even need dialogue tags — the action and setting tell us who’s speaking. And now, instead of empty tags, we have more information about what’s happening in the scene. We can read the character’s body language and interpret her descriptions to guess at her plans and her emotions.

And finally, characters should have wants. In every human interaction, each person wants something. Approval, acknowledgement, obedience, understanding, love, an admission of guilt, respect, revenge, sex…the list is endless. Often you have more than one want motivating you at any given time, and often you don’t fully realize all the petty and noble desires that drive you at any given time. But that doesn’t mean they’re not there. Onstage, knowing what your character wants can help you to react more honestly to everyone else on stage, and as we know, truth=funny. The same thing goes for writing. If your characters have strong wants and needs driving them, your scenes will be more complex and more interesting, especially when we get to see the ways your character reacts to the inevitable obstacles standing in his way.

But of course, we rarely come out and tell each other what we want. Instead, we try to get people to say what we want them to say, without letting them know that we want them to say it. Few people would come out and say, “I want you to tell me that you still love me and you’re feeling sorry that we broke up and you realize that I’m the best thing that ever happened to you.” Instead, they dance around the issue, they talk about other things entirely, they say things they don’t mean, they hear what they want to hear. “So, you went bowling with Rita? She’s really pretty, isn’t she? After a while, you don’t even notice that mole on her nose….”

And then you go back to sanding your canoe.

4 thoughts on “That’s What She Said: Deb Molly Learned Dialogue by Studying Improv

  1. Improv–a brilliant comparison. And one I’ve never thought of. Having done a TON of improv myself over the years, I think you’re on to something here, lady.

    And you’re so right that statements are much more compelling than questions in most cases–and as you point out in your last paragraph–a point that is a biggie in dialog–that even though we as writers COULD construct the perfect lines of communication, we shouldn’t because people don’t say the right things, no matter how much time they have to prepare their statements. I think that’s one of the hardest habits to break in writing dialog early on–you think/want your characters to have the perfect conversations, to have fully thought out and logical statements, but not only is that not authentic, it’s not particularly fun to read.

  2. What a great take on dialogue! I’ve never thought of it this way, but this shines a light on what makes for interesting and flowy dialogue. Thanks, Molly.

  3. When I took improv back in my friending year, I too was so struck by the similarities to writing. It was definitely something I hadn’t thought of until my teachers kept saying things I’d heard my writing mentors say. I even started a running list of commonalities–specifics are funnier (don’t say girl scout cookies when you can say Thin Mints), avoid exposition, no questions, simpler is better. They may seem obvious, but it’s so easy to get caught up in trying to create a fictional world that we overcomplicate it.

  4. Brilliant take on dialogue! I especially like that you use it to help you through scenes where you’re stuck. So not only is improv a great dialogue aid, but it’s also a possible cure for writer’s block. Perfect! 🙂

    You also make a great point about statements vs questions, and getting right to the meat of a scene. Just as improvisers don’t want to give audience members an excuse to turn their attention away from the stage, an author has to be careful not to give readers a reason to let their eyes wander from the page.

Comments are closed.