CRAFT: Say “Yes, And”: How the Rules of Improvisation Can Make You a Better Writer

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When you hear the word “improv,” what do you think of? Does it conjure an image of a black box theater where you once bought a ticket to see a late night show with topical sketches and Saturday Night Live-esque characters? A team-building game that you painfully had to perform with coworkers at an annual retreat? Or, perhaps the word strikes you with fear — the idea that you’ll have to stand up in front of an audience and make something up on the spot to fill the time … only to be met with crickets.

Improv, or the performance art of unplanned invention, can be a magical art form when done well. Just think of all the comedy greats you know and admire who started their careers making things up on the spot: Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Colin Mochrie and Wayne Brady, just to name a few. These performers bring us joy.

As writers, it can be a daunting experience to place ourselves and our work on a stage. Whenever we share something we’ve written, on social media, with an editor or even with a friend, we are taking a huge creative risk. What will the world think of us? What we’ve made? How could anyone think it’s fun or enjoyable to be put into a situation where they are challenged to make up a reality as they go?

Being a writer is hard. But it’s not impossible when you let yourself have the room to explore your creativity and to take risks. For me, taking improv workshops made a big difference in this area. What started as a desire to be a better performer (and also to just be more funny!) became a lifeline when I found myself feeling stuck, lost or uninspired.

Improvisation can be one of the most helpful tools any writer can use to strengthen their own craft, generate new work and regain a sense of presence with works in progress. However, just like any other art form, one cannot wait until divine inspiration strikes to make things happen. For as much as we’d like to think improv is effortless, improv performers rely on a set of rules to guide their thought processes and behaviors as they engage in the work of crafting a scene.

The first rule, the one that most people know and remember, is the idea of saying, “Yes, and.”  In improv, saying “yes, and” means accepting the conditions of a scene and embracing them to ensure that it continues moving forward. Said another way, it means to avoid saying “no” in the service of building upon ideas rather than detracting from them. For example, let’s say two improvisers are creating a scene together where they are in a coffee shop, talking about their wedding plans. Then, one suddenly says, “No, you’re not my fiancé – you’re an astronaut and I’m a journalist. I’m interviewing you!” Now, we have a scene that’s at a standstill. The conditions have changed and we’re all – both performers and audience members – left feeling confused and less engaged.

Instead of rejecting the conditions or circumstances that drive a scene, successful improvers build on those conditions. They add texture, detail and richness to the world they’ve created so that the characters in their story can move forward and the game can continue. We’re left feeling more entertained as we can start to see the story take shape.

Saying “yes, and” as a writer can take a variety of forms. Perhaps as a memoirist, it’s allowing yourself to go deeper into your memories to mine the detail you need to conjure a more accurate scene. Ask yourself, “And then what?” over and over until you can go no further. For those who dabble in fiction, it can be allowing your characters to go where they wish — instead of controlling them, you follow them and observe what truths they reveal. A good way to get started practicing this rule as a writer is to allow yourself to freewrite. Generate a sentence and then ask yourself, “What else?” See where the next line takes you.

The second rule is that improv performers must make statements, or rather, they can’t just ask questions all the time to reveal more information in a scene. They understand who they are as characters and they make decisive choices as to what they say and do. As storytellers, we must commit to the story and have a definitive point of view. While questions can be helpful, they should not be the only way that we learn more about our scene, players and where it might be headed. If we were only to continue asking ourselves questions without allowing ourselves, or our characters, to be sure of something, how could we advance our narratives forward?

Improvisers who commit themselves to their scenes and the characters they conjure are more successful because they can approach a scene with greater confidence and clarity. Writers can do the same thing by considering the point of view they wish to bring to their work. Pre-writing exercises, character sketches or solid foundational research for your writing project can help you not only be more sure of yourself and where you wish your story to go, but you can avoid getting mired in a loop of constant questioning. Commit to a path forward and take it. Remember, you can always revise if you’re getting lost or heading in the wrong direction!

The third rule is that there are no mistakes, only opportunities. I think anyone who can stand up on a stage and make something up on the spot is brave. They might be scared, but you wouldn’t know it to see it because when you watch an improviser who is present, in the moment and who sees everything that happens in a scene as an opportunity, you cannot help but stay focused. This is the magic of improv. You are in the now with the performers as they invent. They take risks and we all reap rewards: the performers have a sense of accomplishment after a successful scene and we as audience members are entertained. A good piece of writing does exactly the same thing.

We get really hard on ourselves when we make mistakes in our work, whether it’s a typographical error or an obstacle hit as we build our narratives. Maybe we can’t find the answer to a question we need in our research or perhaps we find that a thread we’ve chosen to follow has led to a dead end. It’s a frustrating and deflating experience. We’re not perfect, y’all! But what if you were to turn that experience on its head? Instead, what if you embraced the thing you think is stopping you in your story and had a little fun with it?

Earlier this year, I led my fellow cohort mates in the Wilkes University Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing through a brainstorming exercise as part of a course in teaching writing. It was such a blast – we looked at typographical errors in published books, including Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, and allowed ourselves to imagine what opportunities those errors could create for where a story goes next. Who might the characters be in a story where a word is invented? How does the error change the meaning of the passage? Does a mistake open up a door that we could explore with our characters? Suddenly, we were generating new stories and feeling like we had plenty of directions to go in. Having a sense of play and looking at obstacles as opportunities can help you get past the blocks that are keeping you from finishing your manuscript or even cranking out that first draft.

It might seem contradictory to rely on a set of rules to get to a place of greater creative freedom, but think about what we learn as writers when we study our craft. The techniques, the approaches and the lessons all help us become better at what we love. Maybe a few guidelines aren’t so bad, especially when we’re reaching out in the dark for a way forward and can’t find our light.

For how much effort we put into developing our craft, it’s important to remember that there’s always room for play, even when we’re following the rules. We just have to let go of our inner critic and any stage fright we have to allow ourselves to step into the spotlight and create, on the fly, to see where it takes us.

 Like what Mandy has to say? She’s leading our next How-To Tuesday, on April 16, on a topic unrelated to this essay, but relevant to every writer today: “WTF is Analytics?!” Get the details here.  


Meet the Contributor

mandy penningtonMandy Pennington is a writer, marketer, teacher and actor with a passion for storytelling. She serves as the director of digital strategy at Wilkes University and is currently pursuing her MFA in the Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing. She holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in communications from Marywood University, a master’s degree in creative writing from Wilkes University, and instructs courses in organizational communication, media ethics and other marketing communications topics.

Her work has been featured in Currents in the Electric City: A Scranton Anthology (Belt Publishing), 2022 American Writer’s Review (San Fedele Press), Used Car Dealer and Search Engine People. Her first play, My Condolences, premiered at the 2018 Scranton Fringe Festival, where she currently serves as a marketing committee volunteer and active performer. She is in the process of finishing a coming-of-age memoir and adapting it into a one woman show.

Mandy lives in northeastern Pennsylvania with her husband and two mischievous cats. Learn more: @mandybpenn or

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