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Saying Yes Part 2: The Characters

You’ve clicked through to the second part of this dive. Thanks! If you missed part one, it's here.

Message 2: Avoid superficial conflict.

This part is, in some ways, the simplest, because it actually involves saying the words yes or no in a scene. Let’s look at

Another example:

A: Mom, just look at this beautiful park!

B: No, it’s not very beautiful at all.

The improvisers as writers are in agreement thus far - “The story is about a mother and child in a park” - but they’ve presented us with characters that don’t agree about its beauty. So the story is beginning with characters in conflict. And the conflict is superficial to the plot, or at least it’s not likely that we’re going to see an entire story about the aesthetics of green spaces.

Superficial conflict is ONE way to start a story, but it’s not the ONLY way, which is why I’ve also used “say yes” in class as shorthand for “start your story with characters that agree” or “this would be a good moment for your character to agree.” Sometimes to make it easier to build the platform—superficial conflict can make an already complicated story too difficult to tell—and sometimes because a student has a habit of creating conflict.

Do we want our characters to agree ALL THE TIME? Probably not. BUT if your characters ALWAYS disagree with the other characters, then it could be time to tell yourself to “say yes” not only on the improviser as writer level, but also on the improviser as character level.

For example:

A: Mom, just look at this beautiful park!

B: Yes, it is beautiful today.

It’s a simple way to steer the scene toward the open waters of discovery instead of the narrow canyons of conflict. And that's why characters that agree is a good tool to have in your storytelling toolkit.

There are also the moments within the process of agreement where improviser as writer and improviser as character are difficult to detangle.

Oh my it’s another example:

A: Alright it’s time to rob the bank.

B: Nope! I need to drink my tea first.

Out of context, it’s a bit difficult to tell if it’s the improviser as writer saying “I don’t want to go with your idea yet” or if it’s the improviser as character saying “I’m the one in charge here and I need tea”. Either way conflict has been introduced and needs to be addressed before anything else can happen in the scene….which is why it could keep the scene from feeling like it’s moving forward.

This is the kind of example that apparently led to the creation of the “yes, and” rule in Elaine May’s apartment after one particularly bad show, or at least that’s how Charna Halpern reports the lore in the Kitchen Rules chapter of Art by Committee .

I’ve been saying superficial conflict a lot…so let’s look at what the opposite would be in a…

Deep conflict example!

A: Alright it’s time to rob the bank.

B: Nope! I’m out of the game, nothing illegal for me from now on!

This is a conflict that feels much more essential, and an entire scene could be based on it. And it falls within the range of story possibilities presented by the first line of dialogue. So this is an example where our characters disagree but our improvisers as writers still agree.

So to recap, we want the improviser as writer to say yes to their partner’s story idea and often we want the improvisers as characters to agree in order to avoid superficial conflict and keep a story moving forward.

But what about when you really don’t agree with the other improviser on what the story is or how it should move forward…click here for part 3!

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