Writer in Residence

Improv Taught Me How to Craft a Story

By Naseem Hrab

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I know a lot of people who want to write books who don’t actually do any writing. It’s a curious thing to want to do something you don’t do. I used to be one of those people, so I say that with no judgment. (I mean, I’m probably judging you for some other reason, but not that one.) So, what got me from a Netflix-addicted wannabe author to a Netflix-addicted author of several books?  

1)    A Wake-Up Call: My dear friend Connie said to me, “You talk about wanting to write a lot, but do you actually write?” (Well played, Connie, well played. It’s like you took a master class in tough love taught by my mother.)

2)    I Got Tired of Hearing Myself Talk About Writing: Have you ever really listened to yourself talk? My gosh, you repeat yourself.  

3)    I Learned How to Craft a Story: Everyone thinks they can write, everyone thinks they can tell a story … but can you do it well?

4)    A Whole Lotta Netflix

Despite years of having that “story arc” diagram drilled into my head in middle school, taking a number of creative writing classes and reading a bunch of books about writing, I had no idea how to craft a story. 

storyarc

I would sit down to write, but I didn’t know how to make all of those story bits work together. I mean, how do you make a character who has wants? Also, what does that even mean? And how on earth do you get from the “exposition” to the “rising action”? Also, what does that even mean?

confused

In my personal experience, I found that beginner creative writing classes were not basic enough for me. I would muddle my way through assignments—never honing any pieces and rarely finishing anything because every assignment could be fobbed off as a new work-in-progress. Then I would give useless feedback to people about their stories because, well, I had to for some kind of arbitrary participation mark, and then I’d just get useless feedback back in return. And then I would get a short paragraph of comments from a well-meaning but busy instructor. Not really the recipe for someone who needed a lot of help.

When I decided to get back into improv—it was something I had done in high school for a short period of time and loved—I had no idea that I would finally learn how to craft a story. I thought I might get a date out of it (I didn’t), but I definitely didn’t think I would learn how to write a story. But I learned how to create characters who audiences care about; come up with strong, inciting incidents (or as my improv teachers would yell, “Make something happen now! You need to make something happen NOW!”); and what makes a truly satisfying ending.

For me, three years of improv classes—that is, PHYSICALLY ACTING OUT stories over and over and over while a teacher (aka an editor) yelled feedback at me—was a million times more effective than the oft-repeated advice of “just read more and write more.”

Now I’m not telling you to go take three years’ worth of improv classes to learn how to craft a story (I’m lying … I am telling you that, but I know there are a lot of people out there who just won’t do it), so in my next post I’ll share my storytelling tips for beginner writers. I swear I won’t use the word denouement once. 

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.


Naseem Hrab is a writer, a storyteller and a pretty good friend. Her comedy writing has appeared on McSweeney's Internet Tendency and The Rumpus. Naseem worked as a librarian for a time and now works in children's publishing. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.