“Yeah, but her brother is a heroin addict.”
Wait, I’m getting way ahead of myself.
I have two groups of friends. First, there are friends that love to plan and have zero surprises in their life. These are the friends that help you move and get you to the airport on time.
The other group is the friends who are up for anything. They turn the corner and find the best Thai restaurant no one has heard of. They will convince you to stay out late, way too late, especially when you work early in the morning.
With my friend Robbie, an “up for anything” kind of fella, I discovered the best way to practice my improvisation and character development . . . simply by tapping a button on my phone.
Uber: A Golden Improv Opportunity
We were waiting for an Uber for the sixth time in Los Angeles; we were there for a business conference; neither of us rented a car and we had about a twenty-minute ride into downtown LA.
So we get in the Uber and Robbie turns to me and says, “So how are you and Maggie doing? What’s the latest?”
And he winks at me.
I get it. It’s on. I don’t even know a Maggie. I don’t know the “latest.”
So I inhale and remember the rule of improv: “Yes, and . . .”
Here’s a snippet of our conversation:
“Yeah, with my upcoming move to New York, I don’t know if we are going to make it.”
“Wait a minute,” Robbie says. “You two were high school sweethearts; you finally got back to get together. Your life is a rom-com. What is the problem?”
I smirk at him while the Uber driver is intrigued by this conversation: “Well, the fun part of the relationship is that her brother is a heroin addict.”
The Uber driver’s eyes go WIDE.
I continue: “Yeah, heroin, like, deep into that mess. He has shown up four or five times at my house, banging on the door, screaming like a madman, begging for money. Maggie begs me to not call the police. It’s terrible.”
“Won’t the move to New York help that? Get away from him?”
“She doesn’t want to leave him. It’s about as codependent as conjoined twins.”
We sit in silence for awhile. The driver is enthralled.
Robbie looks at me, “That’s a hard choice, man. For her and for you.”
I stare out the window and say as coldly as I can, “Yeah, and I’m hoping the guy overdoses so we could all just get to our better lives.”
We start to pull in and Robbie says, “There has to be a way to make that happen.”
We thank the Uber driver and Robbie stares at me and says, “Did we just come up with a great idea for a book?”
Joseph wants to marry the love of his life, Susan, but her violent heroin addicted brother is the in the way. He says out loud to his best friend Chris that he wishes he could to get him to overdose so he and Susan can start their happily ever after. What starts as a terrible, off-the-cuff idea spirals into a dark world of deceit and murder.
How far would you go to protect and marry the one you’ve loved all of your life?
Better Lives by Ryan McRae: Penguin Books (April 2019)
Explore Your Ideas in Your Uber
Using a service like Uber or Lyft can be a great way to explore characters you are developing, come up with plots for stories or just practice your improvisation skills.
I’ve improv-ed with my buddies around the topics of:
- How to tell my boss I’m going to quit my job, even though she’s blackmailing me.
- Practicing how to tell my wife that I’m leaving her and she can have everything.
- Talking about potential test results, the good, the bad and the deadly.
- How my brother wound up being a bank robber and our parents still love him more even though I work in an ER hospital.
Sometimes I’ve been working on deciding on what decision a character is going to make and having a live dialogue as that character helps me figure it out.
A line of dialogue that is a treasure will sometimes emerge or one that sounds good on paper sounds like a old brakes grinding on metal when said aloud.
Yes, the driver is a unwitting member of the audience, but the driver is a member of the audience regardless of the conversation we are having (and I’m sure that driver has heard it all).
Fuel Creativity With Constraints
Sure, I could improv this scene with a buddy in my apartment, but it gives me two great opportunities:
First, we have an audience. We have a hostage audience, but trying out a scene to convince one person that it’s real adds to the authenticity we are going for.
Second, there is a time limitation. You have to finish the scene because eventually you are going to arrive at your destination. Where will the scene go if there’s a long red light? What if the Uber driver asks a question or interjects? Placing a restraint on the scene helps the creative juices flow faster. I have only the length of the car ride to make the magic happen, to get to the tension of scene.
And when we are done with the ride (especially if tension is running high and the scene is a bit dramatic), I’ll tell the driver, “Hey, we were improv-ing that scene. It was all made up.” The driver has a good laugh and the story is well received (there is no heroin addict brother! Whew!).
Don’t Miss the Magic of Uber
I’m in a car with a buddy so we could talk about the weather, sports or play on our phones. Or we could make up a scene where:
- We get in an argument about which dish soap is the best and the old arguments of our lives start to emerge.
- One of us confesses to an affair with the other person’s spouse and the other person says, “I’ve known for 5 years and I’m grateful for it.”
- We start to “brainstorm” the idea for a business but it is a terrible, terrible, idea, like “edible socks” or “glow in the dark coffee.” We pretend to call people on the phone and get funding then and there. One of us breaks out a laptop and builds the site.
The constraints that an Uber provides are the perfect, fertile ground for creating scenes, characters and plots. Improv makes the ride go by quickly, and sometimes spending $15 on a ride can help you solve hours of staring at a blank page, getting you to put hundreds if not thousands of words on the page.
Have you ever used improv to get your creativity flowing? Let us know in the comments.
Today, you have two assignments. First, take fifteen minutes to write a conversation between two friends. Pick one of the prompts I mentioned above, or imagine your own. What crazy directions will the conversation take?
When you’re done, share your writing in the comments below, and don’t forget to leave feedback for your fellow writers.
And sometime today, grab a buddy and practice your improv. No, you don’t have to take an Uber (although I think you’ll love it if you do!). Instead, you can set a timer for five minutes, choose one of the prompts I suggested or make up your own, and see where the scene goes.