What Floris M. Kleijne learned about writing from theatresports

Unlikely Influences is a series of weekly blog posts about how science fiction and fantasy writers can learn the tricks of their trade in odd places. Most are from guest authors, but I’ll pop in from time to time too.

This week’s installment is by Floris M. Kleijne.

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By Floris M. Kleijne

One of the most enjoyable and scary things about writing speculative fiction is that I get to insert whatever ideas occur to me into my stories. This story about gadgets and kidnapping needs to start with two old friends shooting the bull at a Bagels & Beans. This protagonist is writing farewell letters on a plane. Here, the setting is an automated car park infested with goblins. In this story‘s resolution, the robot priest is reprogrammed to do the Moonwalk.

The enjoyable part is obvious, I hope. The scary part, at least for me, and certainly when I was a newbie at getting published, is this: more often than not, these ideas pop inexplicably out of the darkest and most impenetrable recesses of my subconscious. (Stephen King is on record as comparing it to mental farting.) Self-doubt is the obvious emotional response, and self-editing the possible destructive reaction. But those are the enemies of the creative process; to be able to write at all, I needed to overcome my own inner censor, stop listening to the little voice telling me how silly, illogical, and flat-out crazy my ideas were.

It’s perhaps no coincidence, therefore, that when my stories began to sell, and to be published, I was also a passionate theatresports actor.

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Theatresports—or as I used to call it: the most fun I’ve ever had with my clothes on—is a form of improvisation theatre. Actors play brief narrative scenes, inspired by prompts from the audience, and both aided and hindered by the limitations imposed by the specific game (scene format) being played.

Now the obvious thing one might learn from theatresports is story structure. A successful scene is like a short story: first the actors establish a platform by setting the who and the where (character introduction, world building, location), then they introduce conflict and complication, and finally they achieve resolution.

That’s not what I learned from it, though. What I learned instead, playing theatresports, is that it’s all but impossible to fail through trusting my instincts, through accepting my own mental farts.

A scene in theatresports develops as actors bring offers to the stage. An offer is any action or line of text that the actor inserts into the scene, and that introduces a new idea, a new twist to the plot, a new character: anything that furthers the narrative. Say that two actors, Angie and Brad, have established as their platform that they are classmates at a high school reunion. Within the framework of this platform, Brad suddenly says: “Why did you bring your horse in here? You know I hate horses!” In theatresports terms, Brad is making an offer, upping the ante by introducing a new element that carries the potential for conflict.

Angie can come up with countless responses to the offer, but they all fall into two categories: accepting the offer, or blocking it. “I know, sorry, but I couldn’t get a sitter” would be an accepting response. “Remember you brought your koala to the last reunion? Now you know how it feels!” is another acceptance, a better one even, since it establishes shared history, and deepens the conflict. “What horse?” on the other hand is a blocking response, refusing Brad’s offer, denying his contribution to the scene.

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It’s almost impossible to do anything wrong in a theatresports scene, but blocking an offer is one way. It kills the flow of the scene, brings negativity in, and leaves the offering actor floundering.

The great thing about improv, however, is that nothing is absolute: anything can be used to further the scene. Even a block isn’t necessarily a block, if the other actors don’t treat it like one. Brad can take Angie’s denial as a new offer within the established context of the scene, and accept it in the most dramatic way he can find: “OMG! Are you telling me you don’t see that ginormous horse? What’s wrong with me?” And then, suddenly, the scene is no longer about the horse, but about Brad’s mental state; Angie can latch onto that; and the scene continues.

Nothing the actors bring to the stage is inherently wrong; every offer can be accepted within the established framework of the scene, or even expand that framework. Improv actors, and theatresports actors in particular, need to have a very open mind, and trust that if they accept all offers and follow their instincts, the scene will—usually—turn out fine.

To be an effective improv actor, I was therefore forced to develop an accepting mindset, a fundamental attitude of knowing that every single thing anyone brings to the scene somehow fits into it.

Transposing that mindset to my writing helped me tame my inner editor, silence my inner censor. Ideas are good, ideas are valid, and whatever my subconscious farts up may find its place into the story.

At least in first draft. After that, the editor is unleashed.

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Floris M. Kleijne was a Writers of the Future finalist with his fantasy novelette “Conversation with a mechanical horse” (2004), won first place in the Writers of the Future Contest with his SF novelette “Meeting the Sculptor” (2005), and won the SF Comet Contest with “A Matter of Mass” (2014). He has numerous other short story publications to his name, and is currently wrestling his first fantasy novel into submission.

A native of the Dutch capital Amsterdam, he continues to live there with his lovely wife, their two cheerful kids, an ancient and grumpy cat, and a wall of books. More information is on his website.

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