After class, a student approached me and said she had a problem—she felt like she was always in “conflict scenes.”
Part I: In most performers’ minds, “conflict scenes” suggest that characters should disagree or fight.*
All stories need conflict.
Simba needs Scar. Hamilton needs Jefferson. Conflict keeps the story moving forward and the audience engaged. So I had to tell my student she was doomed. Doomed to live the rest of her improv-life taking part in “conflict scenes.”
But when my student said “conflict,” she was using it as a synonym for “argument.” And in improv, there’s a big difference.
Scenes always need conflict. Scenes never need argument.
Improvisers retreat to argument scenes for one simple reason—they feel safe. They give you an immediate and clear dynamic to play: Player A wants X and Player B wants Y. They can go back and forth, digging their heels in ever deeper, until another improviser cuts the scene three to five minutes later.
Part II: You don’t need to CREATE conflict; your character needs to need.
Improv students end up in argument scenes because they initiate with an argument. As Jimmy Carrane says:
Nothing will stop a scene faster than starting with a problem. Usually it looks like this: Two improvisers hit the stage and the first thing that comes out of one of their mouths is a problem like: “We are out of gas.” As an audience we don’t care, and worse, we know where this scene is going. Problems at the top a scene do not connect us to our partner. We think they do, but they are as frustrating to watch as they are to be in them.
If the first line you think of is “We are out of gas,” before you say it out loud, change it into a positive statement: “We’ve got a full tank of gas.” Okay, it might not be the most brilliant initiation you have come up with, but it’s 100 times better than a problem.
What I like about Jimmy’s revised initiation (even if it’s not “the most brilliant”) is that it’s neutral. It doesn’t force the scene in any direction. It doesn’t start a fight or a make out session. It leaves plenty of space for your scene partner to respond and for both of you to figure out what the scene is about together. And the way you get there is by discovering what your character wants. Now that you’ve said the gas tank is full, do you want to go on a road trip with your scene partner? Do you want gas money? Figuring out that simple, internal driver will push your character forward and ensure you never get stuck.
Part III: Other characters have their own needs, therefore conflict will ensue whether you want it or not.
If you want the gas money, your scene partner might just give it to you. But they might not. It all depends on what your scene partner wants. Maybe they want to get you off their back. Maybe they paid for gas last time and they want you to stop being such a mooch.
Their want and your want might lead to an argument or they might not. The difference is that an argument discovered in the scene, between two conflicting wants, is much more interesting and meaningful than one that’s forced on the scene from an initiation.
A forced argument lacks context. It feels like an argument for argument’s sake rather than something naturally arising out of the opposing desires of two characters with whom the audience feels a connection.
Part IV: “Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional.” – Max Lucade
Scenes aren’t black and white. When initiating, you don’t need to choose between the biggest argument of all time or the gooshiest wedding proposal. In fact, most great improv scenes start out with something simple and neutral and never end in a fight.
When you focus on what your characters needs rather than what you need as an improviser (namely, to “make something happen”), you’ll find yourself in much more interesting scenes, more interesting conflicts, and (when necessary) more interesting arguments. And in those scenes, you won’t have to worry what to do next. It’ll feel easy because you don’t have to invent anything. It’s all right there.
*Subheadings are taken from Tom Vest’s article on People and Chairs.
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