In any play, movie, story, or improv scene there are two kinds of dialog. One type of dialog forwards the story, the other is atmospheric or basically filler. Dialog that forwards the story is rich with information. The information doesn’t need to be exposition, but it does need to reveal to the audience something new, a next step perhaps, in the direction the story is going. Atmospheric dialog exists in plays/movies/etc, to fill out the reality of the story, to give the audience a taste of what the world of the story is like and to make scenes sound realistic. Good playwrights know the proper time to use each one of these types of dialog. Good improvisers would do well to pay attention in their own work to these types of dialog as well.
Too often in improv a lot of dialog is filler. This is why the “don’t ask questions” rule was created. While watching scenes, improvisers noticed that scenes with a lot of questions didn’t go anywhere. But, are all questions inherently bad? It can (and has) been argued that questions do have a place in improv scenes, and I am of the opinion that the desire to drive out all questions is futile and counterproductive. However, most questions are atmospheric; they typically do not forward the story.
What kind of dialog does forward the story? Statements. Specifically statements made by characters that reveal something about how they are thinking or feeling, what they are seeing or trying to do, what they want, and how they feel about the other characters on stage. I have broken these kinds of statements into three categories that make up the final three letters of AEIOU:
U (you) statements
An I statement is any (nonquestion) bit of dialog that starts with I. I think it’s going to rain. I want a laptop. I went to the dungeons earlier. (I feel) This sucks. I statements tell the audience what a character is thinking, feeling, doing or desiring in a scene.
Observations are statements made about the location or action happening on stage. It sure is dark in here. That’s a huge snake. Hey, someone stole my egg beater! Observations let the audience “see” what is happening on stage and what exists at the current location.
U (you) statements are all about endowing the other characters on stage. You’re fat. You’re late. (You) Pass me that shackle. You stole my egg beater! You statements show the audience how your character thinks and feels about the other characters, and allows you, the actor, to endow your scene partners.
When I teach beginning improvisers I am careful never to use the rule “Don’t ask questions.” In fact, I teach no rules at all. Instead, after spending a good deal of time teaching improvisers how to use action and emotion to move stories forward, I teach them dialog tools that do the same thing. Teaching improvisers these three dialog tools does not remove all questions from scenes. Questions are going to happen. But, once these tools have been taught, improvisers know when they are moving a story forward, and when they are just filling the air with words.
Today’s Improvmantra: Not all dialog is created equal. In scenes, say something that forwards the story.