Just Say, “Yes and . . .” to Your NaNoWriMo Novel

The principles of improv acting apply to writing as well.

Inner Editor

Your Inner Editor has a sibling, who can be more dangerous to your writing than even the growling critiques of your Inner Editor itself. It tends to walk around the rooms of your mind gazing at all the imaginative ruckus with a persnickety, arrogant gaze. It exudes an air of judicious logic, speaking in the grave tones of seasoned caution. It likes to stroll in just when you get an idea that you’re about to pounce on like a puppy pounces on its chew toy, and it says, “But wait . . .”

“But wait, this just isn’t logical.”

“But wait, that’s unpleasant.”

“But wait, let’s just not go there.”

I think of “But wait” as an unenthusiastic drip, the kind of person who sits smugly in meetings and never quite gets behind an idea for whatever reason — the killjoy who lacks the oomph or the wonderful reckless zeal that brings ideas to life. “But wait” is a volcano that will never erupt. “But wait” has never led to great artistic or scientific breakthroughs, although it comes in handy if you’re an impulsive shopper. (“But wait” is quite different than its twin, “But wait, what if . . . ?” — a wonderfully stimulating thought partner.)

Improvisers take risks and make mistakes by definition. That’s what leads them in fresh directions.

If your brain has fallen into a rut of resistance, a storage bin of hand-me-down ideas and shopworn sensibilities, it’s necessary to find ways to open it up to new, sense-ravishing possibilities. If I’m feeling too many “But waits” in my mind, I try to embrace the opposite force, the guiding principle of improv: “Yes, and . . .”

It’s simple, really. Improv actors are trained to trust the impulsive force of an idea and just say yes to it. They accept whatever fellow actors offer in a scene instead of stiff-arming the action in the direction they want it to go. For example, when one actor says, “It’s so cold in here,” you don’t say, “But wait, that’s not a good approach to the scene,” or “But wait, I’m not cold”; you take the statement and build on it. “Yes, nudity brings on the chills,” you say. Or something silly. And then your acting partner embraces your statement and builds on that. When I’m writing, I sometimes like to think that there’s an entire writing team in my head tossing ideas back and forth — a veritable comedy troupe.