How to Read Literature Like an Improviser


lady reading book in a library

The library has always been my happy place. For most of my life I thought nothing could ever top a calm, quiet, building filled with books. Then I discovered improv while attending a ComedySportz class. The library now has to compete with the CSz Richmond Theater for my affections.

When my Minor League Coach, Christine, started teaching us about the hero’s journey template and character archetypes, I understood that all those years spent with my nose in a novel might actually come in handy. I realized that reading and improvising are not conflicting but complementary pastimes. Since then, I’ve tried to be mindful of improv lessons in places I would not normally expect them.

At first glance, I thought How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines by Thomas C. Foster would be an interesting read for the booklover in me. Before I even finished the introduction, though, I realized I was reading it as an improviser. Whether you approach this book as an improviser wanting a deeper understanding of storytelling or as booklover considering taking improv classes, I hope you’ll find your own little moments of discovery.

Foster says that stories have a set of conventions including types of characters and plot rhythms. When you improvise a scene, you are telling an unscripted story. Understanding basic storytelling elements like character types and plot structure allows you to appeal to your audience’s appetite for a good tale.

Foster also points to the rambling manner with which small children tell stories. They include every word and detail they recall without the wisdom that some features are more important than others. Beginning improv students can fall into that same frantic style of filling the air with more elements than the scene needs. We can be so caught up in our need to create something from nothing that we fail to focus on what the scene needs to move forward. By approaching books and movies like a professor, we can strengthen our storytelling abilities.

When he reads a new work, Foster says he spins “the mental Rolodex looking for correspondences and corollaries” and he provides the following example:

“Thirty minutes into Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider (1985), for instance, I thought, Okay, this is Shane (1953) and from there I didn’t watch another frame of the movie without seeing Alan Ladd’s face.”

Spinning that Rolodex does not come naturally to me. When I read a novel or watch a movie, my rational brain takes a nap. Fiction has always been my escape from reality, but now I’m trying to stay analytical even when getting caught up in a good fantasy. If I think like an improviser, I just might pick up on a pattern or symbol in a summer blockbuster.

Why analyze books and movies for patterns at the risk of discovering that nothing is new? As an improviser, your ability to recognize patterns allows you to make sense of the unscripted scene your partner has initiated right before your eyes. By drawing on your memory bank of stories, you can react to your partner in a way that will move the scene forward. You can create an entirely new story from old patterns and archetypes.

When I start to recognize patterns, I will be better equipped to apply them in scene work. And if you are already adept at spotting such elements in the comics or novels you read and the sitcoms and movies you watch, you’re already ahead of the game.

Lisa Swope has been a Minor League Player at ComedySportz® since 2016.

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