Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The art of improvisation

with 2 comments

John Coltrane

Yesterday, while writing about what currently stands as my favorite show on television, I concluded: “The only thing I can say for sure is that both Hannibal and his show have a plan.” Shortly after typing this line, however, I realized that it was a little misleading. Clearly, this is a show with its eye on the long game, and I hope that Bryan Fuller and his team get the five seasons that they need to tell this story properly. Yet there’s also room for improvisation within the structure laid down by Thomas Harris’s novels and the show’s own narrative arc. Anyone reading the excellent weekly walkthroughs that Fuller has been giving to Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club knows that Hannibal often makes radical changes late in the game. The identity of Will’s secret admirer, for instance, was changed at the last minute to simplify a complicated storyline after several episodes had already been shot, and the shocking revelation at the end of last week’s installment was originally intended to conclude the first season. Fuller’s explanation for this last change is particularly revealing:

I just think it’s so much better for [it to happen] in this way, as opposed to putting [it] as part of the cliffhanger of the first season, because it actually would have taken a bit of the power away from that last moment between Will and Hannibal, which I think needs to have its air.

This only means that the series has both an overarching plan and the freedom to move around within it as the material itself suggests changes and improvements, which is the key to good improvisation. Television, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly, provides some of our most fascinating case studies in the tension between structure and serendipity, since so much of it unfolds in public. I’ve argued that a show like House of Cards suffers from its inability to react in real time to its own reception, and in recent years, we’ve seen examples of shows that improvise brilliantly within a strong narrative framework (Breaking Bad) and ones that suffer either from too little structure (Glee) or from an existing plan imposed on reluctant material (How I Met Your Mother). The ability to balance these two extremes is the mark of a great artist, and not just in works of narrative. Improvisation itself is a concept rooted in music and poetry, and from the beginning, it referred to a form of invention within constraints. An oral poet can improvise verse on demand thanks to an existing structure of meter, rhyme, and traditional formulas and epithets, while musical improvisers from Bach to Coltrane know how to wander far and wide while always returning to the rigorous logic of the chord progression.

Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal

In fact, you could make a convincing argument that structure is what makes good improvisation possible. Improv comedy thrives on implicit rules that provide beautiful guidelines for any kind of storytelling: add new information, focus on the here and now, establish the location, and don’t block your partners. A good improviser is always thinking ahead, and one of the keenest pleasures of a great improv set is watching the performers file away details that can recur later to give the scene a shape and a punchline. I’ve said before that formulas and clichés originate as a way of solving problems, and one of their most valuable functions is to provide a framework for exploration: a crime procedural, for instance, is flexible enough to accommodate any number of vignettes and locations, and if you drift too far from the point, the formula is always there to lock you back into focus. Matt Groening likes to talk about the “rubber-band” reality of The Simpsons, which allows the logic to be stretched for the sake of a joke, only to quickly snap back, and much of the joy of its classic seasons comes from that push and pull. (Like any rubber band, though, it gets looser over time, and that loss in elasticity goes a long way toward explaining why the show grew increasingly less interesting.)

There are also times when the illusion of improvisation can be as powerful as its presence. Anyone who has spent time listening to live jazz knows that many of those “improvised” riffs are really just good tricks, kept in the performer’s back pocket and brought out periodically to wow the audience, and that’s true for narrative as well. Some of my favorite movies are those that give the appearance, from minute to minute, of being made up on the fly, only to reveal a meticulous design in the end, as in the best work of Steven Soderbergh or the Coen Brothers. (It’s interesting to note, in passing, that both Soderbergh and the Coens edit their own movies under pseudonyms, which implies that finding the right balance between structure and discovery requires an especially intimate engagement with the raw footage.) Done properly, it feels like real life, which also reveals surprising shapes behind apparent randomness. And as a writer, I know that I only feel comfortable going off on tangents when I know that there’s a larger structure waiting in reserve when I need it. The underlying plan can take the form of an existing work, a detailed outline, or a sequence of chords in a fake book, but whatever it is, it allows us to be more daring than we could otherwise be. If we’re not sure how to find our way home, we aren’t likely to stray far from the path, but once we have a good map and compass, we can really explore the territory.

2 Responses

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  1. I should comment on and ‘like’ more of your posts. You have a keen insight into both the mechanics and the heart of good storytelling, and your articles are easy to read and compelling.

    I have had my fair share of improvisational moments, some of which ended well and others which … Well, they just ended. I agree that improv is a useful tool, and I believe readers can tell when a story has been excessively over-worked; there is also a strange beauty in seeing some writers construct a plot like a piece of clockwork, seeing the cogs and gears knit together inexorably. However, it takes a special kind of writer to make this work.

    Thanks again for all your efforts and articles. I look forward to every one.

    E. A. Hughes

    April 8, 2014 at 10:14 am

  2. Thanks so much! Very glad you’re enjoying it, and yes, I’d love to see you around more often.

    nevalalee

    April 8, 2014 at 9:54 pm


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