Improv and Writing: advice from Denise McInerney

As I’ve done on past blogs, I’d like to share things I learned at my Virginia Romance Writers’ monthly meeting. Denise McInerney talked about “improv for writers,” or “how to drive a stake through the heart of your inner critic so your muse will come out to play.” She taught some gems that I cannot keep to myself, and what better way to transfer her message than this blog?

Here are the four main points that I took away from her talk:

1. Improv is great for writer’s block or even for writer’s doldrums. Need to liven up a character? Need to make that dialog snappier? Use improv.

2. Trust your instincts. “Leap and the net will appear.” You might throw away 95% of what you come up with, but that 5% is well worth the right-brained effort.

3. There’s a time for critique groups or self-criticism, but there’s also a time for an unadulterated lovefest. When you are stuck, criticism can potentially jam you up even more. Brainstorm only with friends who’ve agreed to accept all ideas as valid. The key phrase here is “yes, and,” instead of “yes, but,” (or worse, no, never, and you can’t). No judgement means less fear. Less fear means increased creativity.

4. Listen with intent and make sure that your characters are also listening to each other. Stay in the moment, yet remember that the most interesting dialogues between characters aren’t made up of “How are you?”/“Fine” or “Nice weather, isn’t it?”/”Yes, but rain’s expected tomorrow.” Real life—the interesting part—isn’t so predictable. If your character absolutely has to ask someone how they are, then hopefully the response can be something unexpected, like “How can you ask me that when I’m covered in cat snot?” or something equally … improvisational.

The workshop in its entirety contains many more wonderful details, like the King of Denial (a crocodile), and it’s full of fun group exercises to get the brain huffing and puffing into the fearless city of soaring ideas. Everyone must participate, but the beautiful thing is that there are no wrong answers. None.

I recommend that every writer take this seminar!

Lucy Balch, author of

Love Trumps Logic

Available on Amazon (Kindle and print), and through Second Wind Publishing’s website


Filed under writing

4 responses to “Improv and Writing: advice from Denise McInerney

  1. Good advice, Lucy, especially the trusting one’s instincts. I’ve always found that helpful. Sometimes when I sit down I have no clue where I might pick up the story; but I have to trust that something will come, and it does.

    I also read long ago of the wisdom of taking one’s characters out to dinner. This is a good way to get to know your characters. Sure, your night out might not make it into the text, but that’s not important. What is important is the relationship building, which makes it into the text in subtle ways.

    Thanks for sharing your lesson.

  2. Oddly enough, my husband was taking a seminar on writing software specs yesterday. I was surprised how well the advice seemed to fiction too, and we spent a while discussion character driven versus plot driven. Decided that when he’s got to solve a problem he can’t write a detailed plot-driven spec because first he has to work out the character of what’s going wrong.

  3. christinehusom

    Good suggestions. I like making sure you’re characters are listening to you. And J’s idea of taking your characters out to dinner. Thanks! A lot of times I’ll fast-forward. If I’m stuck, I’ll move to the next scene, or another scene so I can keep writing.

  4. Lucy

    Thanks for your posts! I like the idea of taking characters out to dinner, too, and have used it since getting the suggestion.

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