I’m taking a week off producing new content to give me a chance to edit my novel. Currently at around 40,000 words, it’s about half (or slightly over half) the length of the finished thing, so I felt it was a good time to stop, just once, and make sure that some of the threads I was defining in this first half are being threaded through the entire book.
With that in mind, I began reading for three things that have been informed by doing improv classes…
One of the great dangers of writing a novel is getting caught up in its length. It takes time to write one; and no matter how fast you are, ideas you have on day one may have changed subtly or drastically by the time you write the final word. That’s the improv link, too – the ideas you have at the side, as you’re waiting to come on, often don’t survive contact with the scene beyond a minute or so (unless they become a motif).
I have never found it possible to complete a novel without there being some sort of continuity error that I needed to unpick. And the sooner I found it, the better it was for the overall structural integrity of my finished work.
Key examples include writing in abilities, traits, relationships or objects that characters have, which then were supposed to matter later. Had these characters remembered these in a crisis moment (and let’s face it, they would definitely remember), the story would’ve taken a different turn at various points. The degree to which the errors are tangible or even noticeable can vary, but I’ve had to go back and rewrite a story from chapter five before. Avoid.
Another thing in improv that’s valuable is the idea of callbacks. Callbacks are moments when we refer to words, phrases, or actions (and especially mistakes) that were funny the first time, so we do them again to see how they play.
In writing, this makes even more sense. The callbacks don’t even have to be funny – in fact, sometimes it’s far more engaging for them to be dark. Calling back to a trauma, or a feature of the world, can really help to embed a character’s mindset, ground a scene in the character’s experience, or cement the reality in which we find our protagonist(s).
3. Character development
How many times have I sat down to start writing and had to throw out a ton of words because I forgot who I was writing as? Stephen doesn’t sound like that! Katie wouldn’t do that! This is a challenge for improv, too. Characters have to be allowed to mutate and change in contact with others, but a central core should be retained.
Character traits are strongest at the beginning. In a good story, they go through an evolution, but usually it’s only one dimension – one axis that we’re looking to get them to travel along. So, in going back to the beginning and marking the key choices and observations the character makes, it’s possible to get a picture of who they are and watch the change (while putting the brakes on anything that shouldn’t move).