It’s an old improv cliche: you’re talking in a little circle about some improv-concept or other and then someone says “it’s just like life” and then everyone cries a little bit inside, and possibly also outside, and there’s a long silence and then you change topics completely. But – wait for it – there are many big ideas from improv that apply really well in everyday life. As a writer, I think a lot about what writers can learn from improv. First up: reincorporation.
One thing improv is especially great at is helping you understand how to craft a satisfying ending even when you had no idea what the ending would be when you started. This is because (of course) in improv there’s nobody in charge, so nobody can come up with a plot for a scene, and (as we all quickly learn) any attempts to “plant” a clever ending in advance will inevitably get derailed about 30 seconds later when another improviser says something contradictory. Improvised narratives have to be created moment by moment, with no guiding force and no power that can co-ordinate a satisfying conclusion in advance.
And yet, perhaps surprisingly, improv groups consistently create stories that not only contain lots of fun or funny moments but which also feel satisfying, coherent and complete by the end as a whole. How does this work?
One key technique is reincorporation: basically, ending an improvised narrative by re-incorporating elements that featured at the start of that narrative. We start the scene in a woodshop with four bored carpenters. They go off to rob a bank and for a long while the carpentry element just isn’t mentioned again. But at the end of the narrative there is (inevitably) some kind of drama/problem that needs resolving, and if one of the improvisers solves it using carpentry then you can bet the audience will let out a collective, appreciative gasp. It doesn’t matter how carpentry solves the problem, and it doesn’t really matter how convincing the solution is: merely the fact of reincorporating carpentry has a somewhat-magical power to make the story feel satisfying and “complete.”
One of the brilliant things about this technique is that it can work no matter which of many possible directions a narrative takes. If the carpenters wind up in jail and suddenly discover that they can use their carpentry skills to cut their way through the bars, that feels satisfying. If the carpenters get caught but bribe the police chief to let them go by whittling a wooden police-doll for his daughter, that feels satisfying too. Reincorporation is one reason that people often leave improv shows in surprise (or maybe suspicious disbelief) that the narratives they saw were really just invented on the spur of the moment, because the stories simply feel too complete and coherent – and yet, that doesn’t require any advanced planning on the part of the improvisers.
Bringing in the concept of reincorporation can be insanely useful to a writer or blogger; it can help you give your readers that same feeling of satisfaction and completeness that a good improv narrative creates. I think this can be especially helpful when writing popular non-fiction in magazines or blogs (versus writing books, which are more likely to be carefully plotted in advance). When writing articles or blog-posts it’s easy to find yourself putting down a thousand words on a general topic and getting to the end thinking “ah, how do I wrap this up?” Reincorporation can help you do that in a way that feels satisfying to the reader while requiring minimal forethought from you as a writer.
Let’s see that in action. My friend Jess Whittlestone wrote a piece about how Google results can bias our views on certain topics due to a quirk of the algorithm: if you search for a question, like “Do vegetables cause cancer?”, Google is more likely to bring you sources that confirm your search rather than ones which refute it, even if (in fact) there are a lot more sources responding negatively. In the second half of her piece Jess switched to talking about practical steps you can take to overcome this problem, so the material about the specific quirk in Google search results was in the back of the reader’s mind but no longer being actively discussed. How did Jess end the piece? With the following brilliant line:
Of course, if you’re worried that Google may be biasing your views there’s a simple way to find out: just open your browser and type in “Does Google bias your views?”
This elicited a genuine laugh, because it cleverly re-incorporated the idea that had begun the whole piece. But it didn’t require any forward planning on Jess’ part – if the second half of her piece had ended up going in a different direction she could have used a different variant of the same re-incorporation and it would have felt just as successful and just as satisfying to us as readers. And, just as importantly, she could have also chosen to reincorporate any one of the other key elements that had appeared in the early part of her piece: for example, she started the article with a story about her granddad reading the encyclopedia, so she could have finished by reincorporating that element and it would have felt satisfying too. Popular non-fiction articles and blogposts are often vulnerable to “drifting off into nowhere” at the end: the author has said everything she wants or needs to say about a topic, and then isn’t sure how to bring the piece to a satisfying conclusion. Reincorporation can fix that.
This post is adapted from Uri’s book Write Harder: clear, actionable tips for writing charming and compelling non-fiction. You can get the first three chapters (plus occasional free content) here.