Let's Talk with Debra H. Goldstein

The Art of Improvisation

July 13, 2023

Have you heard the one about the author who took ten years to write his first book? How about the tale of the writer who produces two to three books a year? I can’t provide the punchline for either of those questions, but I can explain the art of improvising a complete mystery in one hour.

Recently, I had the pleasure of moderating and being part of a “Let’s Make a Mystery” zoom panel, with Sharon Lynn and Sarah Smith, hosted by Sisters in Crime’s Desert Sleuths Chapter. Our charge was to explain the elements that comprise a mystery – things like characters, setting, plot, dialogue, and pacing – and then, using suggestions the audience put in the chat, create a mystery. It was a hoot!

Many settings were proposed, but we settled on a run-down ranch in a rural setting near a town of 800 people that had cows and horses and a well-tended marijuana patch. We then turned to the characters. Names, jobs, and relationships were all explored. The three of us narrowed it down to five or six characters. Next, we decided on the crime. Murder, of course.

We first thought that in 2023, a character would discover a decayed body in a box in a leaning barn but jumping two time periods and having the body in the box seemed trite. So, using the weapons suggested, we pivoted and moved the story to the 1970’s, where Hank, a former farmhand who managed to get hold of the farm via a shady marriage, was found propped up like a scarecrow near the pot he grew on the farm. He’d been killed by a pitchfork to the chest.

Sadly, the shady sheriff had only one suspect in his line of vision – Hank’s wife, Sadie. That wasn’t good enough for us. Improvising we gave every character a motive, turned one into the amateur sleuth, and came up with a plausible reveal of the killer both for Hank and the body of someone who disappeared/died years earlier (yes, we worked in the body in the box).

What we accomplished within the hour was hilarious, but it also was a good teaching tool. The audience learned the elements that go into a mystery, discovered the effectiveness of brainstorming, and saw how authors run into dead ends but must be flexible (which can be translated as “kill your darlings”) for the good of the work in progress. We ended by noting that we’d created a solid mystery, but like most writer’s first drafts, our present product wasn’t ready for submission. Although the bones were there (literally and figuratively), our mystery needed revision.

For a chance to win one print or e-book of SHOULD HAVE PLAYED POKER (U.S. only) tell me if you’ve ever done improvisation in your writing or in some other way (like comedy or charades)?

While you’re here, click over to enter our July contest! Giveaways this month include a book from Anna Gerard (aka Diane AS Stuckart) and Valona Jones (aka Maggie Toussaint). CLICK HERE to enter.

Want to learn more about author Debra H Goldstein? Visit her WEBSITE.

Posted in Let's Talk, with Debra H. Goldstein • Tags: , , |  35 Comments


35 thoughts on “The Art of Improvisation

  1. When I was in high school. one of our teachers took us to see some improv. I remember liking it.

  2. Before the pandemic, I attended a Writers Retreat in Kill Devil Hills that our fabulous Maggie Toussaint/Valona Jones organized. One of the evenings was a competition among the writers to devise a very short story. Teams were given a character name, location, and a type of car. It was hilarious. Would like to see the retreat return, but travel is… well, awful.

  3. I’m not that familiar with improv, but now that I’ve read this post, I may have to look into it closer.

  4. I’ve taught in-person workshops similar to this where I give a brief setup. The participants then have to write one sentence each to describe the internal and external goals, motivations, and conflicts of the main characters. It’s always amazing how everyone’s results are so different.

  5. Writing + improv is lots of fun. I’ve done it a few times, and i’s amazing what you can come up with when you brainstorm as a group. Some of it is wacky and silly, but every so often there’s a real gem in amongst the craziness. 🙂

  6. I love group improv for brainstorming books, stories, even elements of writing. There’s usually so much creativity flying around you feel like you could write 10 books in a day! Great topic, Debra.

  7. Hubby and I were clowns for several years. It was something we LOVED so much. It’s so rewarding to put a smile on someone’s face. So YES, during those years making things up as you go along was 90% of the job. We were fortunate enough to have learned from the best (Emmett Kelly Jr. who became a dear friend) and clowned from GA to AZ and AR to MI. That’s how we spent our vacations traveling with a 1/4 sized pickup truck, 18 inch motorcycle and all our gear from one gig leaving laughter and smiles behind us.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

  8. I really enjoyed the Drew Carey improv show.
    Too bad I cannot think that quickly to be any good at it.

  9. Hahaha. I don’t think I’m very good with “off the cuff” or “in the moment” improvisational stuff (even job interviews throw me for a loop), so no improv for me! 🙃

  10. Thanks everyone for participating. This week’s winner was LuAnn. Watch for my next post for more giveaways or follow my newsletter which always, like Booklover’s Bench, has a giveaway!

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