I’ve been performing more frequently with some improv troupes, and the lessons I learn about story and writing are invaluable. The immediate feedback from audiences is so informative. It really helps me understand the kinds of plot twists and situation heightening that people enjoy.
For example, a few days ago I was in a show where a character was reminiscing about a Christmas from his youth and how a puppy was waiting in a box under his tree. I tagged out his scene partner and became his mother handing him a Christmas present in flashback. “Here’s your Christmas present, son.” “Should I open it?” he said. “Sure, go ahead. But you have been shaking that box a whole lot…” I was ready to continue my lines, but I had to pause for quite a while for the audience to finish laughing.
What was funny about this scene? The surprise, for sure. Everyone initially expected the boy to receive a live puppy. But also I think it was funny because the audience had to put the ideas together themselves to figure out what was happening. I didn’t explicitly state that there was a shaken puppy inside the box. On their own, the audience was asked to recall the puppy idea and then figure out what a shaken box might mean. When the audience makes the connections themselves, it’s funnier.
That idea of subtext, reading between the lines, is commonly recommended to screenwriters. It works in drama, as well as in comedy. And I think we all experience in everyday life, how connections are more meaningful when we make them ourselves. It’s the reason therapists say things like, “What does that remind you of?” or “How does that make you feel?” When we come up with associations on our own, it is powerful. So as writers and story-tellers, we need to remember to allow the reader/audience to make those connections. Surprises are great. And reading between the lines is half of the fun.