Improvise – like Brenda Blethyn!

I’ve been running Creative Writing classes for nearly twenty years now and there’s one thing I both dread and enjoy. What can that possibly be? It’s finding new exercises to demonstrate different aspects of writing. Sometimes the exercises don’t work out exactly as I thought they would; others do – and that’s when all the thinking and effort is enjoyable!

Mike Leigh 2Last month’s topic for my classes was using Improvisation in your writing. And the best-known exponent of this method is undoubtedly the writer and film director Mike Leigh. He doesn’t write scripts but works with each of his chosen actors on a one-to-one basis, creating their individual characters. This can take weeks, sometimes even months.

The actors are asked to think of all the people they know who are similar to the basic character they have been given, and to take their characteristics, speech traits and mannerisms. Each actor builds up the history of their character, exploring every aspect of their personality. Only then are the actors introduced to each other, to improvise scenes to build up the collective whole.

Leigh then writes an outline of scenes, and the actors improvise these scenes while an assistant takes notes. The best lines and moments are kept and scripted, and then the actual shooting of the film can begin!

Brenda Blethyn 2One of Mike Leigh’s best-known films is the award-winning Secrets and Lies. This starred Brenda Blethyn as a working-class woman who is suddenly confronted with the illegitimate daughter she had many years ago. The scene, in which these two characters meet, was filmed in one take in seven minutes. Neither actress knew beforehand that the daughter was black. And because both actresses knew their characters inside out, their reactions to the revelation were totally realistic.

We tried this in one of my classes, with each character having at least one if not two secrets that were to be revealed. There was a lot of laughter as the secrets came tumbling out! We’re not actors, but I think the exercise brought home how we, as writers, do not have to be slaves to our computers or notebooks. A bit of free-thinking and improvisation can be just as useful in creating our characters and plot lines.

If you’d like to read up more about Mike Leigh’s method, click here.

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Also this month:

Do you have problems thinking up names for your characters? Or do you find yourself relying on the same, stock names, whatever your character, situation and setting? Have a look at my article, which was previously published in Writers Forum magazine.

Several major short story competitions are still open for entries.

I’m off for a few days R’n’R so I’ll add this month’s writing prompts after some inspiration from walking in the New Forest and along the Isle of Wight’s lovely beaches. Please do come back in a week or so’s time.

Happy Writing!


This month’s photo is by Gemma Evans on the Unsplash website.

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