Writers are famously well-adjusted social beings. I’m kidding: the kind of person who enjoys sitting alone with a laptop for hours on end, while trying to thoughtfully interpret the human condition, is obviously quite a strange creature. Meanwhile, improvisers have a lot of experience conveying and interpreting human interactions from a very different angle. I think writers have a lot to learn from improv about how to convey relationships in the most engaging way.
A common sight in improv classes is two players starting a scene together – for example, “you’re at the gym!” – and immediately defaulting to playing strangers.
A: “Hi, excuse me, I’d like to buy a gym membership,”
B: “Great, let me show you around some of the facilities at our gym”
This is not very fun to watch, and at this point the improv teacher might say “start the scene again, but this time you know each other.” Now the scene goes differently:
A: “Hello hello, back on the old treadmill are we? Haven’t seen you in a while.”
B: “Ah, you know how it goes, I took the week off when we went on holiday, then another week off to recover from the holiday, then… you know how it goes!”
I’m not going to try to analyse exactly why personal relationships are more interesting: maybe it’s just about the joy of watching people connect, in a way that strangers don’t (see Jules’ blog last week for more on this). And this has strong implications for popular non-fiction writing. I think a lot of beginner popular non-fiction could be made more engaging by “upgrading” anecdotes and examples about strangers into ones about people who know each other, and have some kind of emotional relationship with each other (whatever it might be).
As an editor, I often receive article drafts that make a point using an example like “if Bill wants to buy a hat, and Jane wants to buy the same hat, this is an example of scarcity in action.” To me, this is missing a huge opportunity: the story is instantly more engaging (and more memorable!) if Bill and Jane are brother and sister, or arch nemeses, or lovers who both want to buy each other the same hat. It doesn’t necessarily matter what the specific relationship is, just so long as there is a relationship.
There are very many different human relationships and human experiences to explore, and you can pick whichever one you like at a particular time and build an interesting story from it. In my book Thinking Statistically, some of the relationships that occur in anecdotes include: a teenager passing notes to a crush, a son who doesn’t want to visit his mother, an annoying child who punches other children, and a guy who can’t remember the names of acquaintances he runs into. It’s hard to come up with a straight comparison to “equivalent” stories about strangers but I would argue that part of what makes these particular stories work (in my opinion, at least) is that they’re about recognisable personal relationships with some kind of emotional component which makes them instantly engaging to us as readers, even though (since they were only used as brief anecdotes) they don’t particularly have interesting “plots” or “drama” in them.
Ultimately, it’s no surprise that personal relationships are interesting to us; it would be rather strange if they weren’t. It’s just easy to forget them, sometimes, when writing an article or blogpost – there’s an odd temptation just to make your anecdotes vague and abstract, to throw down stories about two anonymous strangers. Perhaps that’s because choosing a personal relationship to write about feels like hard work, like a big decision. But one of the big lessons of improv is surely about not worrying too much which specific specifics you choose, about understanding that all roads you can go down are good roads. No matter what the specific personal relationship between the characters is, we’ll all be enchanted as we discover where the relationship goes.