Improv Writing for Better Writing

Or – How to love not knowing what the hell you’re doing.

By: Bowen Gillings

I am a huge fan of Pikes Peak Writers’s Write Drunk, Edit Sober improvisational writing events that occur on the second Wednesday of each month. Deb Courtney provides a grounding lesson at the outset that sets the theme, if you will, for the evening. Then a series of writing prompts are given out, each designed to be the opening line that drives you the writer forward for the next ten minute span to let you brain steer the train down whatever track opens up first.

When the timer goes off, that train hits the station whether you’re ready for it or not and then you’re off again, chugging down the tracks with a new thread to pull on led by a new prompt and, if you’re brave enough, allowed to take the wheel of you’re creative self all on its own until the clock dings and time is up. Then the whole crazy excursion starts again. Only the boundary of the clock following the final prompt halts your cross-brain zephyr. Then it’s upstairs for a final cocktail and a bit of sharing with your fellow writers.

What is Improv Writing?

Improvisational writing, that is writing based on the directive of a third party and limited by time to force creativity, is a wonderful, powerful, and inspirational tool all writers should make use of. Improv writing is fun, invigorating, and eye-opening. It is from one night at Write Drunk, Edit Sober where I wrote about four paragraphs that I then expanded into a short story which was published in Allegory. That short story provided the opening chapter for my first completed novel manuscript which won at the Zebulon Writing Contest and became a finalist at the Colorado Gold Rush Literary Awards. Without improv writing, I would not be able to call myself a published, award-winning author. Did I mention I love improv writing?

Four Benefits of Improv Writing

Allow me to share with you four benefits of improvisational writing and I think a) if you have never tried it, you will want to, or b) if you’ve dabble in it as a fun release, you’ll grasp it’s true potential to release the great writer in you.

  1. Improv Writing Kills Your Internal Editor

By having a hard time limit, you are forced to drive the story forward. You can’t afford to go back and make your effort pretty, to select a better adjective, to tweak a phrase so that it rolls better of the tongue of the mind. You have to move the story along and that is key to getting through the first draft of any work. Improv writing allows you to ignore the blemishes of what is already on the page and just get the story that is swirling in your mind onto the paper or screen in front of you.

2. You Will Discover Your Voice

Voice is something each of us has. It is what makes us different from the next schmuck with an idea for a novel. Voice is the you in your writing. It is that special something that makes the story yours versus someone else’s tale of a non-binary werewolf looking for love while touring the Dutch tulip fields in 1973. Improv writing brings your voice forward like no other tool I know.

For the longest time, I was convinced that my writing destiny lay in epic fantasy. I loved, lived, and breathed that genre. I set out to write a trilogy set in my own magical world. Yet I struggled to move it forward. I started and fought and sputtered and started again. Then I dove into improv writing and found that, when pressed by the constraints of the medium, my brain never went to fantasy. I wrote contemporary stories dripping with wry humor, offbeat characters, and odd scenarios. My voice emerged of its own accord and it was not in any way the voice I saw as mine until it popped out and said, “Yo, douchebag. What took you so long?”

3. You Can Try Things Out

Let’s say you have a work in progress. You have a character you love or a scene you want to expand. Improv writing is an opportunity to flesh out that character, reimagine that scene, play around with the structured narrative of your current project. Maybe in your story your protagonist would never attack an innocent. But, in the freeing realm of improv, a writing prompt may just let you experience what your character would do or how they would react to doing just that, or sitting by while that happened, or maybe they shoplifted a Snickers. I don’t know, but you get the point. Improv lets you play with aspects of characters and events that you won’t reveal in your story, but will add to your understanding of that character’s depth, that scene’s importance, and what the consequences would be to your fictional world if you changed just a tiny aspect of your work.

4. Exposition Go Bye-Bye

Okay, we have all read or been guilty of writing the hated info dump opening. These are the “here’s how my world works” first five pages that agents and editors stop reading after paragraph one. Improv writing forces you to ditch exposition. There’s no time for backstory and world building on the page when you only have ten minutes to vomit out an opening narrative. This is a good thing! You quickly realize that, no matter the genre, readers don’t need or want a lengthy setup of the world in which the story takes place or the traumatic history of the main character. That info can come later, at the time and place the reader and the character need that knowledge revealed. Your story features complicated social norms? Improv writing forces you to show them to us through interactions with your characters, not by telling the reader how things work before starting us along the path of the story.

Improv writing is like a trip to the gym for your creative muscles. It hits your weak spots. It lets you flex your strengths. It leaves you tired but energized and eager for more. I challenge you to tackle an improv writing event at you earliest opportunity and experience how your writing will metamorphose. Pikes Peak Writers offers improvisational writing every second Wednesday. Check out Write Drunk, Edit Sober on pikespeakwriters.com for details.


Bowen Gillings

Bowen Gillings is an award-winning author writing to appease the story demons in his head. A former president of Pikes Peak Writers, he currently hosts Open Critique and Writing with a View each month (both on COVID-induced hiatus). He has been featured in Allegory e-zine, Voices and Views and Rocky Mountain Writers podcasts, Ghosts of Downtown, Writing is Art, and the Writing from the Peak blog. He holds a Master of Education in Adult Education and is a travel enthusiast, nature lover, and closeted RPG nerd. He enjoys cooking big meals for family and friends, hiking wooded mountain trails, and seeking Zen through mixed martial arts. Born in Wisconsin, he grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota, matriculated in Minnesota, and then bounced around Europe with the Army. He’s lived on both coasts, danced on the Great Wall of China, and driven a Volvo from Alaska to Louisiana before settling in Colorado with his wife and daughter. Check out his website and look for his latest work in the anthology from Pikes Peak Writers due out in 2021.

Flex your creative muscles with Improv Writing