Most people are conflict-averse; we spend our lives in conflict-management mode. Trying to apologize for some mistake, put out some fire, or overthink some awkward interaction from two days ago. And maybe that’s a good thing—if you held a grudge over every perceived slight, you’d spend a lot of time at home, alone, watching Netflix with your cat. And what you’d notice, watching Netflix, is how every conflict in every TV show or movie is neatly wrapped up by the time the credits roll.
With all of this conditioning, it’s no surprise improvisers seek to resolve conflicts in their scenes as well.
This resolution comes in many forms, but is always visually sealed by a category of moves I call “the Handshake.” It might look like an actual handshake, or hug, or a nod, or a kiss (if improvisers are very comfortable with one another). And when it comes, improvisers typically recognize it for what it is—a silent scream for a quick, merciful edit.
Why do improvisers shake hands (and resolve conflicts in their scenes)?
- Humans begins naturally feel the need to resolve conflicts. No one likes being a jerk; when your scene partner makes a good point, you feel you ought to be nice, drop your unreasonable position, and give them the win.
- The Freytag dramatic structure has conditioned us to seek conflict resolution in our improv scenes. Books, movies, and TV shows rarely leave things open-ended.
- Improvisers run out of things to talk about and/or run out of heightening moves.
Despite these three very good reasons for wanting to resolve conflicts in your scene work, you cannot. Doing so kills the tension and brings the scene to an end. Shaking hands is no different than tapping out—it’s a plea for someone else to come into the ring and save you.
Shaking hands is a weak move because:
- It’s unrealistic. When real people argue about real issues (e.g. parenting, religion, career, etc), minds are rarely changed in one argument, if ever. If your scene work is supposed to mirror life, then you cannot give up your point of view in three minutes.
- You drop the funny. Conflict is the gas that powers every story, and therefore, every scene. So resolving the conflict is a bit like running out of gas. You get stuck. You can’t go farther. You lose what makes the scene enjoyable and fun. As Susan Messing once said:
“Drama is when someone touches the hot stove and says, “I’ll never do that again.” And they don’t. Comedy is when someone touches the hot stove and says, “I’ll never do that again…OH F**K THAT’S HOT.”
- You lose your pull. When you resolve conflict in your scene work, you make it more difficult for the ensemble to pull from that scene later in the show. It’s hard to bring back characters or a game from a scene that’s already been resolved and put away.
- You can’t assume your teammates will edit. The other improvisers might be timid, bad at editing, or (gasp) not paying attention. If someone doesn’t swoop in to save you, your scene goes downhill, fast.
So what do you do if you think you’re about to shake hands?
- React honestly and emotionally. Do not give up your point of view for the sake of resolving conflict. Dig your heels in and react with a big emotion to heighten the conflict. That will allow your scene partner to have an even bigger reaction, which will keep the scene going. Ironically, you have to say “no” to your scene partner to “yes and” the game of the scene.
- Give a “little win.” Don’t give up your point of view, but concede your scene partner has made a good point. Release some of the tension and bring the scene from a 10 to a 4. Then, take an action that restarts the conflict and take it back to a 10.
- Go one level deeper. In most instances, the “real” conflict has little to do with today’s argument. It’s not really about the dirty dishes; it’s about an unequal division of chores. If your argument is starting to feel silly (and therefore, resolvable), dig for the deeper level of the conflict. It will sustain the scene.
When you shake hands in a scene, you resolve conflict and let all the steam out. But conflict is inevitable, it’s what powers the drama and the comedy. Rather than backing down, dig in.
If you liked this post, you’ll like my book Improv ABC: The A-Z Guide to Becoming an Unstoppable Improviser. Drop your email here to get two free chapters.