Learning! — Beginners are Unoriginal

A big problem that beginning writers (and other content creators) have is that they struggle with the concept of being original. Obviously, it’s really hard to come up with things that are original. There are so many things out there it almost goes without saying that anything you try will have been done before.

But what many aspiring writers don’t realize is that this doesn’t really matter. One of my first blog posts was about how originality is a myth, but really the core concept of being unique boils down to three things.

The first is that the single most important thing for a writer to do is to read and write. It doesn’t matter much what you read and write, in fact. You could spend your days reading magazines and writing a blog (self burn) and it still counts for author brownie points. They may not teach you as much as reading and writing novels, but practice is practice. Don’t waste your time not writing because you’re worried about the words not being poetic or unique. That’s not what matters.

In fact, this leads me to my second point, and that is that originality is far from unattainable. The only thing that isn’t original, in fact, is straight up plagiarism. If I told you to sit down and spend the next few weeks writing The Lord of the Rings from memory, filling in all the gaps with plausible plot points, it would end up being pretty different. I’d bet that if you changed all the names, the only thing that would bear much resemblance to Lord of the Rings would be the plot structure . Certainly the words wouldn’t be the same. Tolkien is practically old enough to be considered literature, for crying out loud. All things considered, I’d wager an experienced writer that took me up on this bet would be able to publish if those gaps they guessed at were compelling enough. (This activity would probably be an excruciatingly painful and unfulfilling exercise, though. Would not recommend.)

My third point is that it is perfectly acceptable for an aspiring writer to be intentionally unoriginal. Fanfictions are good writing practice, because the story structure is all yours. It’s a good crutch because you don’t have to invent new characters, but it still teaches you a lot. At the same time, writing a story about a group of kids that discover a new world will teach you about pacing and description regardless of how much you base its characters or events off Narnia. I would actually consider this sort of thing a great idea if you want to hone a specific skill. If you want to know how to put sentences and paragraphs together before you start stitching personalities into characters, fanfiction is a great place to start. If you like to build characters, don’t be ashamed of copying the plot-line of your favorite book.

Here’s the takeaway, really. This goes for everything, not just originality.

An aspiring writer can do no wrong as long as they are both reading and writing.

Improv 101 — Numbers

Last week I covered the fundamentals of performing a basic scene in an improv scenario. You need an anchor to serve as the “main character”, you only want two or three people on stage at a time (never one or four if you can help it!), and the goal of the scene is to follow the “rule” of the game while establishing CROW.

Numbers is probably the most basic scene game there is. There’s only one rule: every improviser in the game is given a number, and everything they say has to contain that many words. If their number is one, they can only say one word at a time. That’s it.

As far as setting up the game goes, every improviser should have a specific amount of words. One person should have one or two. Another should have three to five. Another should have five to seven or eight. The last person should have a huge number like eighteen or twenty nine.

The easiest way to make a scene like this work is to have your anchor be somebody that can talk “normally”. The anchor should be the person with a number between three and seven, as long as they don’t have difficulty speaking.

The “one or two” person works as a great safety net, because they can introduce a problem or push somebody off stage very easily. They can come on and say “Fire! (Help!)” or “Police! (Stop!)” and immediately change the direction of the scene.

The person with the huge number should, in the ideal circumstance, come on last. Especially if they have an absurd number (like forty six), they should only be allowed to speak once. The second time they would normally speak (if the scene calls for them to do so), somebody should cut them off before they start talking, or the ref can call scene (as long as the game has gone on long enough).

By far, the most difficult thing about this game is the counting. Virtually everyone in my improv troupe miscounts once or twice when they play this game (unless their number is one), and in a performance, the audience isn’t going to fly with not following the game’s only rule. But even then, you should never count on your hands. For one, it won’t make sense for the character to be doing that, and it makes it impossible to pantomime while talking. But it’s also cheating in a way that isn’t really funny for the audience. The idea here is to try to have a “normal” scene, and if you’re counting on your hands that won’t work. (There is an exception here. If you must, the person with the huge number may count on their hands, but if they do, they must do so correctly and hold their hands up for all the audience to see. The difference is that this improviser will have a hard enough time speaking, so its extra funny to the audience when their suffering is increased by gratuitous counting).

There are two things I always tell people when teaching this game: the first is to remember that multiple syllables don’t count as two words. You’d be inclined to count “firefighter” as two words in this circumstance, especially since it takes so long to say, but the audience will know better. Take an extra half second to count the words in your head if you have to!

The second helpful hint is to break up phrases into small chunks. Our brains group larger numbers into threes and fours in order to make them easier to count. Imagine how you tell somebody a phone number: you give them three or four numbers at a time rather than saying the whole string in one go. that’s because as soon as a group of things is more than five, our brain splits them into multiple, small groups and adds them together.

If you apply that principle to this game, it should help a lot. If your number is six, for example, instead of thinking of a sentence exactly six words long, it’ll be way easier for you to make two small sentences three words long. Lets say your character is in a hurry. Instead of trying to say “I’m in a hurry we should… (awkward pause)”, you can say “Can we leave? I’ll be late!” If your number is a bit uglier like seven, you can simply add a name to that sentence without having to count any more!

This game may be simple, but like many scene games, it’s still quite difficult. It requires juggling rules while still trying to establish CROW, and even with moderately experienced improvisers, nailing all four aspects of CROW can be tough! So don’t be discouraged if a scene game is hard. Like everything, it just takes practice.

Improv 101 — Basic Scenes (295)

So far, every game I’ve gone over has required little to no scene structure. For many games like Chain Murder Mystery, or Dr. Know-it-All, the characters and location of wherever the scene takes place is irrelevant. These games are often referred to as “hoop games”, where the game is based off whatever the rule of the game happens to be, and no scene needs to be built.

But before I introduce “scene games”, its important to know how to properly build a scene in the first place. Building a scene is something that is required on top of whatever the rule of the game is, so knowing how to do it is equally as important for entertainment purposes than the rule of the game is.

There are a few terms this includes that I’ve never brought up before, so I’ll define them here. These are elements that are necessary for virtually any improv where scenes are involved.

First and foremost, the goal with scene construction will always be the same thing: CROW. We’re trying to establish Characters, Relationships, Objectives, and Where. Most often, if a scene fails to be funny or make sense, it’ll be because part of CROW is missing or contradicted with what was previously said/established (which means its denial). The easiest way to ensure that CROW is established is to start any scene game off as ABA. Have the first person pantomime, and establish your characters and where you are in the first two lines of the scene. It makes your life so much easier.

There’s a few ground rules to scene games. First, we can go on and off stage here. Many games will still require four people, but they won’t be performing all at once. In fact, you never want more than three people on stage at the same time. You don’t even want three if you can help it, but it can work. This is because it gets confusing when there’s too many people on stage, and you’ll find that when so many characters are on stage, some become irrelevant so they just stand there doing nothing. If this ever happens, find a reason to leave the stage. When improvising, often you won’t have a “backstage” to go to, so “offstage” in this case simply means off to the side doing nothing so other improvisers know you’re not in character.

Scene games will also pretty much always have what’s called an “anchor”. This is an improviser that serves as the main character of the scene. Other improvisers will come and go on stage, but the anchor is always on to make sure everything that happens on stage revolves around them, and this makes things more concrete. Most often, the anchor will either start on stage when the scene starts, or be the first person to walk on stage when it does. The main thing here is that the anchor doesn’t ever go off stage.

If you have some improvisers that are more veteran, you can use one in a scene game as a “safety net”. Put simply, this is a person that stands off stage and doesn’t go on unless the scene needs saving. If the improvisers start bickering or no longer have anywhere for the scene to go, the safety net comes on and helps. Sometimes its simply to pull somebody off stage (you can arrest them, call them home for dinner, etc), but it can also be to introduce a new conflict. If the scene’s conflict was solved early, the safety net can walk on stage and introduce a new conflict. The reason this needs to be a seasoned improviser is because they need to know how to fix a scene that devolves in the first place: something that beginners wouldn’t know how to do.

Before I teach actual scene games to beginners, I go over these basics and run normal scenes with them just so they get the hang of building a proper scene. Basic scenes are rarely funny, but it does happen. This isn’t the point though. In order for a scene game like Numbers, Forward/Reverse, or New Choice to work, CROW needs to be established. The rules above are probably just some of the simplest ways to achieve that.

Improv 101 — Good, Bad, Worst

Good, Bad, Worst is (another) game that requires a lot of audience interaction. This game goes really well if the improvisers have stock characters, which are characters the actor is familiar with and that they can become given the opportune situation. Stock characters aren’t necessary, but it does help a lot. (No, stock characters don’t make something scripted. Being familiar with a specific personality is not at all comparable to knowing what one is going to say beforehand!)

This is a hoop game for three people (or four if you want to use another improviser to be the ‘MC’ of the game rather than have the coach/ref do that). Each person sits in a chair and takes on the role of an expert on a panel. The MC can perform this as a television show, or simply a panel sitting before an audience. Each expert on this panel will have a specific character, and the MC will have them introduce themselves before the game really starts.

It’s important to note that each of these characters will be giving specific answers to the questions the audience will be asking them. The first person to answer, the person on stage right, will give “good” answers. Most often their character will be a doctor that gives real advice and answers to whatever the question happens to be. Whoever is playing the role of “good” should focus not on being funny, but being a real person, to make the difference in answer more humorous later on.

The second person will give “bad” answers. This can be virtually anyone: a mom with little education, a teenager, and a farmer are all prevalent characters in my troupe. The key here is that whoever is playing “bad” gives, as you’d expect, bad advice. This can be funny, or even nonsensical, but whatever the answer happens to be, it should be in line with the identity they have presented to the audience.

The last person gives terrible answers to whatever questions are. The person in the “worst” role will often go on tangents completely unrelated to the question, or give an answer based on ill-founded logic, or answer in a similar way every time. For example, one of my favorite “worst” roles in my improv troupe is somebody who plays the character of a guy who just went through a terrible breakup. Everything he answers refers indirectly to his own life experience and how sad he is, and with some questions he nearly starts crying. With most games, this character will be the source of humor, so you need to have a good character and actor to fill this role.

Overall, this game is actually pretty tough. This one can’t properly be taught without an experienced improv actor to distinguish the differences between specific “good” and “bad” answers. In my personal experience, it’s quite difficult to nail down a stock character who always gives one kind of answer, so creating a solid, fleshed out character will really help an improviser play it in a consistent way.

Improv 101 — Questions Only

A lot of people have heard of Questions Only, and it’s pretty straightforward, but as improvisers soon learn, it’s hard to master. We don’t typically perform this one, because a big group game that isn’t high energy makes it hard to fit into the lineup of a one hour show. That being said, it still very much has its place in improv practice, as long as the improvisers have broken the beginner mistakes of asking questions in normal improv games.

So, as I said, Questions Only is a group game. Conventionally, it’s an elimination game, but this only works if your cast is strong enough to know how to reply to things in the form of a question. (If an improv troupe is bad at this game, it’s more likely that they would simply take turns rather than play it as an elimination. Typically you’ll have two lines competing against each other. The two people that are first in line will play (and you’ll only ever have two performers at a time), and people that are eliminated step out.

But, as bad experience will show, it’s easy to banter. If you say “Where are you going?” and I reply with “Where do you think I’m going?” it doesn’t do anything. I didn’t come up with my own sentence, I just reworded yours. That isn’t improv.

The way to play Questions Only is to treat every interaction as a two person scene. Every scene should start off as ABA, and establishing CROW is still paramount to “winning”. In addition, and this is the hard part, every question needs to move the scene forward. For example, if you say “Where are you going?” I could say “To buy groceries, want to come?” Now, I have added something to the scene, and we now have more insight into our characters and location than before. Breaking the habit of asking useless questions is definitely the most difficult aspect to this game, but its the only way to make it entertaining to an audience.

An interesting thing about this game is that it is virtually autonomous. You can get suggestions from the audience for location or relationship, but it’s not necessary. Furthermore, the only thing the ref has to do is call people out when they mess up. He/she doesn’t point to people, doesn’t give them directions, or anything. As long as the improvisers know what they’re doing, they should be able to perform the game with enough entertainment value as to not need any sort of help or interaction.

The funny thing, is that you see this game played a lot by non-improvisers. I’m sure you’ve bantered with a friend or a sibling in the car where you only ask questions. This is simply taking it a step forward where you introduce characters in the context of a scene. It’s for that reason that this game seems easy, because everybody does it for fun, but is actually hard because of that non-intuitive rule of not asking useless questions.

This is a great example of this game being played right, but pay attention in the beginning where Colin simply repeats whatever Ryan or Wayne says. That’s an example of what not to do, but luckily he doesn’t do it enough to overshadow the humor!

Improv 101 — Spelling Bee

One of my friends showed me this game, and it’s a lot of fun, but situational. It’s something that, in my estimations, should never be performed on stage, and doesn’t work as well if you have a sizable audience (meaning over, say, fifteen people watching). I say this having never played it in either of those parameters, but the general vibe I get from this game is that’s its best just to mess around and have fun with rather than playing it to entertain an audience.

It’s a team hoop game, meaning four people jumping through a hoop rather than building a scene. In this game you have two people: the heads of the speller, and the MC. This game is a lot like Dr. Know-it-All, because the speller is three people, and the idea is pretty much the same, only instead of answering the audience’s questions, you are spelling words that the audience throws out. The humor here is that the three people have to play it like a spelling bee. They all say the word in unison, spell it, then say the word again. Depending on how you play and whether or not they spelled it correctly, they can either pronounce it differently after they spell it, or just say it normally. (i.e. “Journal! G-u-r-n-i-l! Gurnill!”) My troupe plays this game very specifically, however, and it goes as follows.

The MC, one of the improvisers, introduces the other three as one person, the “spelling bee champion” of ____ school. (I like to say ridiculous things like “Upside-down Dolphin Elementary School”, or “Sentient Paintings University.) You can have the speller introduce themselves by spelling their name, in which case the MC should call them by their name often, regardless of how hard their name may be to pronounce. Then, the MC grabs words from the audience, asking for a monosyllabic word, then moving on to two syllables, then four, then an “exotic” word, meaning either a huge word or something that is very difficult to spell, like rendezvous. We’ve always played this as a very congratulatory game, where the MC is extremely impressed with their spelling skills, even if they are terrible. After spelling the really difficult word, the MC gives them a medal, a degree, doesn’t matter.

The cool thing about this game is that, especially since we play it for fun, we can play it very differently every time. The MC can be a PTA mom, the janitor, doesn’t matter. The MC can have them spell a ton of different things, grabbing words other than from out of the blue from the audience. For example, you could say, “What color is that man in the front row’s hair?” and see what the speller does. You can create different personalities for different heads (they are in reality different people, after all).

The reason that this game wouldn’t work in a performance is because the gimmick is very simple. With Dr. Know-it-All, there’s a ton of different answers you can give for any question, but in Spelling Bee the game will pretty much always play the same as last time you played it. There’s only so many different ways you can spell something wrong. Throwing in apostrophes and numbers can only get you so far, and you should never do something like that more than once in any one game! So while it’s a lot of fun, it doesn’t have enough diversity to be able to take the game outside of an improv practice session.

Improv 101 — Dr. Know-it-All

Dr. Know-it-all is one of those games that doesn’t ever “fail”. It’s easy, and at worst you’ll get some mild chuckles. But it also has a lot of room to improve. It’s a hoop game, meaning a group of four (as is typical) improvisers playing around the gimmick of the game rather than building a proper scene, as is the case with scene games.

In this particular game, you can have between three to ten people, actually, but playing it seriously and at the performance level works best with the usual four. You have them line up, and the ref grabs questions from the audience. You can easily take questions like “Why is the sky blue?” or “What’s the meaning of life?” but it works best to have the ref shut those questions down as you’ll get them every time you play. Better questions are ones that would have a wide variety of subjects, such as “How do I get my kids to eat their vegetables?” or “Is Australia real?” Once you get a suitable answer, you pose it to the improvisers. The idea here is that they form one person: Dr. Know-it-all. This character knows the answers to all questions, so they know exactly how to get your kids to eat their greens. The way it works is that the improvisers, down the line, answer one word at a time. That’s the whole game.

For the improvisers, there are a few things to keep in mind. It’s imperative that the other improvisers can hear what you say. Obviously it’s hard to form a cohesive sentence if the people after you couldn’t understand you. Once you do that, work on the actual content of your answer. Now, you as an improviser will have an idea of what silly thing you want to say, but remember you won’t get to say it, because you’ll only get to form a fourth of the words in this sentence. Don’t force anything out. Just say the first word that comes to mind when you hear what the person before you said. Again, you’re one person. People don’t typically think about the next word they’re going to say mid sentence, so you shouldn’t in this game. Your answers don’t actually have to make sense in this game (or even be an answer to the question), but most of the things Dr. Know-it-All says should be grounded in reality. Don’t bring up aliens or alternate dimensions in every answer because ludicrous answers to mundane questions gets old faster than you’d think.

As improvisers get more and more experienced with this game, they can start practicing extra tricks. Really the biggest one here is to churn out an answer with the same speed as if it had been one person speaking, but beyond that actors should work on further enunciation and clarity (so that the audience can better understand, too), and body language. Ideally, every improviser should be standing the same way, i.e. hands folded or behind their back to further and more thoroughly communicate a unity between them. Eventually the cast could get close enough that they can even make simultaneous hand gestures! You can also learn to be the part of Dr. Know it all that adds conjunctions repeatedly to make the rest of the actors continue talking, such as, “and…”, “but…”, “also…”, etc. It’s really funny to the audience when one person in the group does not allow the rest to cease talking.