Hello and welcome to Day 43 of 100 Day Writing Challenge.
So by my reckoning you’ve notched up six full weeks of writing days, doing this. That is a long time to commit to something. And look – if you hadn’t done this, if you hadn’t chosen to turn up and drop a coin in the piggy bank each of those days, the six or seven or however many weeks it’s been would have passed just the same. And you would have been here now without this body of new work behind you. Without this new body of knowledge and sense of what you can do.
I’m not saying this to be like, so uh, I guess ol’ Timmy C has done you a solid, what a great guy I am – I mean what a fantastic capable person you are, and wow. Turns out a small regular effort can produce worthwhile, significant changes. You’re learning stuff. It doesn’t always take this superhuman effort and impossible commitment. Just gentle persistence and a sense of mischief.
We’ve been doing a lot of stuff about dialogue and how characters interact and I want to wheel back to a concept I introduced early on, this slightly nebulous idea of ‘feeling’ your way through a piece of writing. You’ll have heard my saying before you start an exercise ‘don’t try to plan it, just sort of listen’.
Now this is by no means the bunnyquotes Way To Write endbunnyquotes but I do think cultivating a loose, easy style is good practice for getting yourself unblocked, generating ideas, and just putting yourself in a position where, if you want to, you have the option to just take a sentence for a walk and see where you both end up.
It means you’re far less likely to find yourself stuck with nothing to write about. If your novel gets all gummed up you can take two characters, plonk them together and see what happens. The scene doesn’t have to be canon, it’s just a form of dynamic planning where you get out of the error-spotting problem-solving mode and into the exploratory, creative, try fifty possibilities and see which ones work mode.
I gave up writing for a while and became a performance poet, and I’m glad I did because all that time on stage meant I learned loads of warm up techniques and drama games and a smattering of cross-training exercises that proved really useful when I came back home to writing. Because it turns out adjacent disciplines have figured out loads of really useful stuff for writers, and if only creative writing academia wasn’t so insular and convinced of its own erudition students would have like a bajillion extra exceedingly useful tools at their disposal.
Today I want to adapt an exercise from Keith Johnstone’s classic book on improvisation in theatre, Impro, because it’s a good illustration of a term I mentioned a few episodes back and then breezed past without defining: the offer.
Here’s what Johnstone says about it, quote:
‘I call anything that an actor does an “offer”. Each offer can either be accepted or blocked. If you yawn, your partner can yawn too, and therefore accept your offer. A block is anything that prevents the actin from developing, or that wipes out your partner’s premise.’ End quote.
So for example Person A says ‘Nice hat.’
Person B might reply ‘Oh thank you, I’m on my way to christening.’
Person A introduces the hat into the scene’s reality, Person B accepts the premise and introduces the christening as a further offer.
Now a less exciting version might go:
It’s still an acceptance of the offer, but it’s a bit dull. Not necessarily a problem, you can have scenes where one character is constantly initiating and making the offers and the other character is the straight man, a sort of brick wall to bounce a tennis ball off of.
‘Don’t see a lot of hats of, uh, that style round this part of town.’
‘Oh? Well. There we are.’
‘Very rare. Specially on this street.’
By this point it would take a superhuman lack of curiosity for Person B not to ask ‘What’s special about this street?’ If a character doesn’t bite the other one can sweeten the deal, so to speak.
But, as Johnstone points out, accepting an offer means accepting the premise behind it – it doesn’t necessarily mean saying yes.
‘No it’s not, it’s hideous.’
That’s still an exchange where Person B accepts the offer that they’re wearing a hat and Person A likes it, and they return with their own strong offer.
‘For the last time, it’s not a hat.’
Again, on the surface that might seem like a block – the character is insisting they’re not wearing a hat – but actually they still acknowledge, yes, there’s something on my head, that has been mistaken for a hat before. They build on the premise and knock it back across the net to Person A.
Here’s what a block might look like:
‘Listen I need to buy a lawnmower.’
Person B’s response entirely ignores Person A’s offer. Now this kind of missed return – while not ideal – is by no means fatal to an exchange, as long as it’s a one-off. The scene might go:
‘Listen I need to buy a lawnmower.’
‘You, uh, you dress like that when you’re gardening, do you sir?’
‘Well it’s just the… aren’t you worried about getting grass stains on your cummerbund?’
‘I can hardly tend the Duke’s lawns looking like a scruff.’
And so on. A single missed connection is fine. Multiple blocks are a kind of agony for the audience or for your readers. Here’s Johnstone again, quote:
‘Good improvisers seem telepathic; everything looks prearranged. This is because they accept all offers made – which is something no “normal” person would do. Also they may accept offers which weren’t really intended… An inexperienced improviser gets annoyed because his partners misunderstand him. He holds out his hand to see if it’s raining, and his partner shakes it and says “Pleased to meet you”. “What an idiot” thinks the first actor, and begins to sulk.’ End quote.
Now obviously, the characters in your stories are not living autonomous actors improvising a scene. They’re just clusters of words, written in order by you. But I think most of the same principles still apply. You just let one character make an offer – i.e. say something interesting, by which we mean something anchored in a concrete reality, perhaps inflected by an emotion – then you let the other character accept that offer and make an offer of their own.
You’re coming up with the responses and writing them down, and the main difference between you and an improv actor is you’ve got a bit more time if your mind goes blank. But you might be discovering the details and backstory of your fictional world, the world these characters exist in, in the moment that one character responds. Then later on you can use that information, you might even rely on some tiny improv-ed detail as a plot point.
So today, to practise this idea of making and accepting offers, I thought you could have a go at an exercise Johnstone suggests called ‘It’s Tuesday.’ (Impro is a fantastic book by the way, and I’ll put a link in the shownotes of today’s episode in case you fancy grabbing a copy for yourself)
He came up with the game in his workshops and it’s based around the concept of ‘overaccepting’. That is, taking an offer and running with it as hard and as far as you can. He says, quote: ‘If A says something matter of fact to B, like “It’s Tuesday”, then maybe B tears his hair and says “My God! The bishop’s coming. What’ll he do when he sees the state everything’s in?” or instead of being upset he can be overcome with love because it’s his wedding day… All that matters is an inconsequential remark should produce the maximum possible effect on the person it’s said to.’ End quote.
So in your scene, A might say: ‘I’m making eggs for tea.’
B, overaccepting the offer, might go for extreme terror: ‘Eggs? But you know they were part of the… of the… p-p-p-prophecy. Hide me! I can’t die. Not today. I’m too young. Haven’t I suffered enough? Barricading myself inside a bunker every Easter. Filling my home with foxes so chickens can’t get in. And you never know what part of the supermarket they’re shelved in. Sometimes by the dairy, sometimes over by the bin bags…’
And now A overaccepts a mundane remark by B, perhaps falling into rapt nostalgia: ‘Bin bags? Oh, I haven’t heard those two sweet syllables in a while. Mother used to sing it from the backdoor every evening, calling us in: “Bin bags! Bin bags!” And me and my five sisters, four brothers and little cousin Terry would crawl inside our bin bags and pretend to be used tea bags, medical waste, that sort of thing.’ And so on.
It’s not a game designed to mimic how you’d actually want to write a scene, but more to impress upon you what it feels like to accept an offer, through exaggeration.
So that’s it. One scene, two characters, you can throw in some light scene setting or dialogue beats if you want to describe how they’re behaving, but one makes a mundane remark, the other overaccepts, hits an emotion very hard, runs with it, then the first picks up on some incidental detail and overaccepts that, back and forth, really going for it.
Are you ready to play ‘It’s Tuesday?’ Three… two… one… Go.
And that’s it. You may well have found your scene petering out a bit after the first couple of exchanges – it’s hard to maintain that frenetic intensity for more than a few paragraphs – but I hope you had fun emoting and wrenching backstories out of these melodramatic characters.
Dialled down, the concept of offers and accepting offers gives you a really good framework for generating – I was going to say ‘believable’ dialogue but it’s not really believable. It’s just interesting. Characters throw out storyhooks and other characters tug on those hooks and draw out whole slices of world. You can have lots of fun experimenting with what kind of utterance makes for a good offer, and all the options available for a character when they choose to accept.
And speaking of which, should you choose to accept, I shall see you tomorrow. Though that was an admittedly rough segue so I’d understand if you didn’t want to.