I’ve been taking improv courses since last year and just restarted up with a new company here in Seattle. Even though I’d done about four or five levels in SF, enough time had elapsed that I was feeling a bit rusty, so I started back with the beginning level improv. Which is good because we’re revisiting concepts but I get to see a fresh new take on them with a new set of teachers.
So now I’m trying to take my improv lessons and see if they can’t be applied to writing. In improv, we’ve got a concept for building a scene: CROW. It’s an acronym* for Character, Relationship, Objective, and Where.
Character refers to the individual characters we choose to play. We can endow them with history, mannerisms, voice. On stage, we occupy their bodies, we build their physicality. We slump, we wrinkle our noses, we occupy the space they do, we can expand or pull in tightly, we can be sloppy or strait-laced, we can be arrogant or nervous, so many personality choices, and so many ways to physically inhabit those traits. In writing, the voice, the dialogue, the choice of words and the character’s actions all inform the character.
Relationship: How our characters interact or are positioned to each other. This can mean Actual Relationship, like father-and-son, or sisters, or teacher-and-pupil, or lawyer-and-criminal. It can also start building off of character, and inform how the character behaves. This is where we set up dynamics, hierarchies, power–who has it, who doesn’t. A character by themselves may be one person around their mother, but another around a lover. (Unless their mother is their lover, Oedipus.) They might be pleasant in the office, but take out frustrations with family.
Objective: What do our characters want? Whatever they want. It should raise the stakes. You can get great dynamic scenes by having wants in opposition with the other character’s wants. Tonight, our classmates enacted a scene–a husband and wife going out to eat. They go to the restaurant–not a fancy one–and they conceive a need to sit at a particular table. Why? How does this relate to what we know about their characters and relationship? Why is this particular table important? Most importantly, what will happen if they don’t achieve the objective?
Where: In improv, knowing and defining where you are is important. One improv game we play involves five short snippets of dialogue. Hi. Hello. How are you? Fine thanks. Glad to hear it. That conversation can sound completely different based on where you are AND who you are. Imagine that conversation held first at church, then at a prison. Knowing where you are can give your character obstacles or define their objectives. In writing, this can be setting.
Anyway, I’m trying to run my Snakes and Ladder scenes through CROW in order to see if each of these things are clearly addressed in the scene. If it turns out my character doesn’t have an objective or that isn’t expressed in the scene….that’s something for me to focus on. Does it feel like my characters are consistent to their history and voice? Do their actions and dialogue BELONG to them? What relationships do they have with each other and how does that change their objectives? What stakes are there? What will happen if they don’t achieve their objective? Do they inhabit the world or are they talking heads spouting dialogue?
This isn’t meant to be wisdom from on high or anything. This is just me attempting to make use of my improv class. Obviously there’s other tools to be used here, like try-fail-try-succeed cycles, but I’m cannibalising from class and seeing if it can’t help push me along.
Today’s favourite bit of writing advice: Outline til it hurts. From Charlie Jane Anders One Weird Trick.
And outlining backwards is magic. Start with the end, and then put “because” after that, and keep going back. This happens because this happens, because that other thing happens, and so on, back to the beginning. If you can’t stick a “because” between two things that are supposedly causally linked, that’s a bad sign.
Omega point outlining! I like it!
*Not an initialism, honey!