At the improv jam tonight, the facilitator Andrew Morgan gave the group some pointers throughout our time together. One of them was to increase the intensity of the scene as it went on. Not so much in terms of volume or crazy antics but more in terms of raising the stakes.
I recently wrote my first comedy sketch. It’s not perfect, but I’m proud of it. Been something I’ve wanted to do for a while and it feels nice to get it out of my head and out into the world. It’s a five minute scene (ballpark) about someone who works in a corporate office. I asked some people for feedback on it, and I got a similar bit of advice.
A funny person I know said (paraphrasing), try to get the character closer to what they want in each interaction, and then right when he’s about to get what he wants, take it away. Then do that again and again. Each time increase the reasons he can’t get what he wants in terms of improbability or absurdity.
I’m a Star Wars nerd. Ever since A New Hope came out when I was 5, it’s played a part in my life. On the way home from the theatre, my dad ruminated and asked “how did they do that”?
I didn’t realize that what we just experienced wasn’t real or maybe I did on some level, but I had suspended my disbelief 100%. I asked how did who do what? He said it must be someones job to tell the story and make the special effects.
Since then when people asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, the answer was “make Star Wars movies”. I didn’t know how or what specifically until later.
I don’t love every Star Wars movie now that I’m older. But I really enjoyed The Last Jedi . One of the reasons I liked it so much (spoilers) was Rey’s backstory. She’s not a “chosen one”; her coming isn’t prophetic. I listened to a podcast with the writer/director where he talked about why he made the choice for her backstory. He said it was because (paraphrasing again) that it would be the hardest thing for her to hear and deal with.
I heard another podcast recently that taught me more about writing than anything I’ve read before. I fall victim to embracing a structure. This should happen at page X, that should happen at page Y, at the bottom of the Harmon Story Circle is where you do the plot twist. The podcast talked about why those things tend to happen at those specific intervals. The transcript is here.
In this podcast Craig Mazin says:
What you write is an ironic disruption of stasis. Ironic as in a situation that includes contradictions or sharp contrasts that is, and hear me out, genetically engineered to break your character’s soul.
In my previous life as an animator, all these things ring true as well. It’s all narrative after all. Be clear, have status exchanges, raise the stakes, make the character struggle.
People love good characters because they change based on the obstacles they face in order to get what they want/need. As a writer we get to be mean. We purposefully put these obstacles in their way to knock them back to where they started.
It’s kinda fun to be mean.
I now understand that this works in all forms of storytelling; comedic sketches, film, and in the moment of improvisation on the stage. Maybe in standup too? Perhaps even the reverse is true in the narratives we tell when we are building software via User Stories and Journey Maps. Reduce User Pain, make more enjoyable experiences. But that’s another post.