Improv [Writing] Tip #8: Keep it here and now

by Laura on May 24, 2011

in Writing How-To

(#8 in a series of tips from my improv class that struck me as applying to writing.)

Improv [Writing] Tip #8: Keep it here and now.
Scenes are not about people not here or in the past. Scenes are about what you and I say and feel right now.

This tip for improv was especially eye-opening for me. I began to notice how many times I’d launch a dialog on stage, only to find I was talking about someone not actually in the scene. Like this:

Me: Hey, bro, how’s the prep for the first day of school?
Malcolm: I can’t find any of my notebooks!
Me: Didn’t Dad get you those yesterday?

And there we are, suddenly talking about Dad, and even worse, about the past. Better is:

Me: Hey, bro, how’s the prep for the first day of school?
Malcolm: I can’t find any of my notebooks!
Me: Is that why you stole all of mine?

If you do want to talk about Dad, make it about here and now.

Me: Hey, bro, how’s the prep for the first day of school?
Malcolm: I can’t find any of my notebooks!
: Aw, Dad was just messing with you! He hid them behind this plant.
Malcolm: And he told you? He always liked you best.
Me: That’s because I always do better in school.
: Because you can always find your notebooks!

This idea has had huge implications for me whenever I try to add backstory into my prose. It’s too easy to slip into writing a scene as though a character is remembering it or witnessing it without interacting with it now.

For example, the main character in my time-travel novel witnesses some famous historical events. At first, I wrote the scenes from a distance, as though she were passively watching the events on TV. My critique partners gave me an excellent tip: put more of her emotions into it. So, I edited to show her internal reactions as the scene unfolded. This does a better job of connecting the scene to my character, and consequently, to my reader.

The important point is to make sure that whatever you’re saying, about the past or someone who is not there, has immediate implications for the characters in the present scene. How do they feel about what they’re saying now, not just back then? What does it mean to them now, in their current context?

It’s boring to talk about how frightened/hurt/mad they were when the event happened, because it’s not relevant to the current story. But the fact that they’re still angry, or newly angry, or getting angry now has implications for the story you’re telling at this moment.

Let’s take a look at one of the coolest revelations of backstory ever.



There is no escape.  Don’t make
me destroy you.  You do not yet
realize your importance.  You
have only begun to discover your
power.  Join me and I will complete
your training.  With our combined
strength, we can end this destructive
conflict and bring order to the


I’ll never join you!


If you only knew the power of the
dark side.  Obi-Wan never told
you what happened to your father.


He told me enough!  It was you
who killed him.


No.  I am your father.

Shocked, Luke looks at Vader in utter disbelief.


No.  No.  That’s not true!
That’s impossible!


Search your feelings.  You know
it to be true.


No!  No!  No!


Luke.  You can destroy the Emperor.
He has foreseen this.  It is your
destiny.  Join me, and together
we can rule the galaxy as father
and son.  Come with me.  It is the
only way.

Vader puts away his sword and holds his hand out to Luke.

A calm comes over Luke, and he makes a decision.  In the next
instant he steps off the gantry platform into space.


Darth Vader being Luke’s father is not all that is important to this scene; it’s how Luke feels about it at that moment and what he does upon discovering it.

I might have five different friends ask me how I’m doing today, and I’ll tell them each something different based on how I feel at that moment. Even as our feelings change and evolve, our characters’ will as well. Pick the moment to reveal backstory such that it also has a connection with the present story, and you’ll find you can get a lot of it in there painlessly.


Jack Payne June 5, 2011 at 8:54 pm

Basic common sense.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst, for they are sticking to their diets.

My first book (1949) sold 75 copies. I hungered and thirsted a bit, but hung in. 55 books later I even was able to squeeze 1 best seller in there.

Steve T May 27, 2011 at 3:41 pm

Ah, this is my favorite lesson so far. You’re right: It is easy to write a scene where nothing is happening except a character remembering what’s already happened. It’s a dialog cheat. I fall into that trap too often!

Robyn Bradley May 24, 2011 at 2:26 pm

More great food for thought. It’s important that our characters aren’t simply bystanders during scenes (even the narrator in Gatsby had feeling and emotions about what was going on).

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