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Saying Yes Part 1: The Story

Updated: Dec 30, 2022

This is Summerizing Improv - a blog written occasionally by me, Summer. Because sometimes I get started talking about something in a class and then I remember that those ramblings are really more suited for a blog than a class that's about practice and not just theory... This is the first post!


Even if it’s become something of a cliché, “yes, and” is still one of the most inspiring “rules” in improv. And it's probably because we spend most of our adult lives in situations where we’re saying no – filtering out distractions and avoiding obstacles. So just think about what would happen if you were to say yes in those everyday moments when all of your upbringing and fears are telling you “better say no.” It’s exciting, scary, and maybe, just maybe, transformative.


At the same time, the longer I roll around the improv world, the more I’ve started to see just how confusing this “yes, and” can be in the process of an improv education.


And I’m not even talking about that comma (why, in a rule that’s just TWO WORDS LONG, do we need a COMMA!? I mean, I kinda get it. It allows for a pause to switch modes, to acknowledge silence and its importance, a breath. But still…) I’m talking about the word “yes” itself and the principle behind it – agreement. So we’ll leave the “, and” out for today and deep dive into “saying yes.”


And because there are three different messages behind this “say yes”, this is a post in three parts.


Wooohooo let's get started!


Message 1: Agree on the story.

When I talk about saying yes to your partner in improv instruction, it’s usually shorthand for “please agree that the story you’re writing together right now is about the thing that your scene partner just said it’s about”, which is long winded, so you can see why I often go for “say yes.”


But fundamentally it’s still about the improvisers as writers in the scene agreeing on what's happening, so they can build one world and write one story together. That sounds easy, until you remember that they’re not speaking as writers directly (99.9% of the time), so they have to communicate their ideas through dialogue instead.


A simple example:

Player A: Today is Saturday and it’s the best day because I get to spend it with you Mom!

Player B: I love spending the weekend with you too!


Now let's compare it with

A simple counterexample:

Player A: Today is Saturday and it’s the best day because I get to spend it with you Mom!

Player B: It’s Tuesday. Stop calling me your mother!


Not only do A and B not agree on what the story is about (a child spending Saturday with their mother), B has also completely denied the offers A made. So we're back at the beginning with no clue about what's happening in the story.


Things get more complicated when the line of dialogue isn’t a flat-out denial and more like an alternate offer.


Another example:

A: This presentation is terrible, and I’ve got to give it in 5 minutes, help!

B: Please marry me!


A is saying: “Let’s make this story about our characters working together to fix this presentation” while B is saying: “This story is about my character wanting to marry yours.” B hasn’t said it’s NOT about fixing the presentation, but they also haven’t said YES to it either. They’ve ignored A’s story idea and proposed (pun intended) an alternate idea instead. Thankfully, A is a brilliant collaborator and realizes the story can be about BOTH things. So they respond with

A: I thought you’d never ask! Yes, of course, and we’ll talk pre-nup…just as soon as we nail this pitch.

It’s not as simple or smooth as it could have been, but by acknowledging B’s story idea and combining it with theirs, A has built a platform for a scene.


So the fundamental principle behind saying yes, in this context, is that agreeing with each other’s story ideas right away makes real-time collaboration on writing a story much easier. And you don’t even have to say the word yes to do it!

A positive example to end on:*

A: “This presentation is terrible, and I’ve got to give it in 5 minutes, help!”

B: “OMG you’re right, it is fugly! Ok… We’ve got 4 minutes and 50 seconds left.”


So that’s one level of agreement taken care of – the improvisers as writers. But because our improvisers are speaking as characters at the same time, saying yes can have another meaning…turn the page for part 2


*yes, this is deliberately a “just acknowledge and repeat the story idea” example because we’ll get to “and” later, much later, in a completely different post.

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