Improv Games and the Novel Writer

SomeKindofJoke--CatSo, I got an email from a friend who is in an improvisation class. She’s currently learning improv games as a team comedienne, and she loves the class. She sent me links for a particular one: The Harold.

Yep. The Harold.

The Harold is one of many improv games. Truth in Comedy: The Manual for Improvisation focuses on this long-format improv game, if one is interested in learning more about it.


I easily slip into a somber and grim writing style, thick with melodrama. The bits of humor here-and-there only come when my characters insert them. They require editing and a quick polish, and I’m done. Unfortunately, the humor in my redraft Man and Brother is missing. I have to take control, aggressively insert opportunities for tit-for-tat and snark. I must add levity.

Well, I read the description of The Harold and had a startling personal revelation. Improv games look like a great tool for adding a natural comedic rhythm between characters in my novels.


So, What are Improv Games?

Improv games are a kind of theater game, which are exercises to warm up actors before a rehearsal or a performance. Improvisational theater is created as it is performed; improv games help actors practice this form of ad-libbed entertainment. Divided into many categories, improv games inspire both the on-the-fly creativity and the precise timing necessary for improvisational comedy.



The Improv Encyclopedia website is a comprehensive online resource, and many books on improvisational techniques are available.



How Can Improv Games Meant for Actors Help a Writer?

improvgamesA writer is like a director; characters, like actors. Some writers let the characters improvise and reveal their motivations and personalities in first drafts. I’ve said before that when I write a first draft, the novel essentially writes itself. I’ve spoken to many writers, and some write like I do. We are what the writing community calls pantsers or pantzers.

If a writer’s characters are already ad-libbing, then improv games are an essential tool to have in a seat-of-your-pants writer’s toolkit. Good storytelling hits on the same kind of beats which actors rely on. A scene which drags loses the audience’s interest. Uninspired characters with no motivation bore the audience. Pages are the stage upon which a novel is played out. Everything–from setting to dialogue to pacing–plays a part.

Knowing the tricks of the acting trade as a writer means a novel’s characters will be able to use them both for drama and for comedy.


Any Examples of How Improv Games Help Writers?

Cartoon by Tom Gauld

From me? No. From others? Yes.

This just hit me today, so I have to get out there and research improv games and improvisational theater. Happily, I’m not the first to discover the connection between improvisational theater and the writing life.



“The Joy of Failure: Improv and Writing” by Jason S. Ridler (July 2013)

“Writing and Acting: How Improvising Helps My Writing” by Louise Voce (January 2014)

“Improv to Write” by Carmella VanVleet (for young writers)



3 thoughts on “Improv Games and the Novel Writer”

    1. Oh, thank you! Yeah, it does feel that way–doesn’t it?–doubting until you get feedback that something you wrote and hope desperately is funny actually is funny to readers.


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