I took an improv acting class in college. It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. There was no script, no direction, often very few parameter. In short, I felt like an idiot. But I did the work and committed myself to suffering through it in order to graduate. I didn’t think the class had any value besides making me extremely uncomfortable, until my professor ripped my security blanket away from me.

I had just finished an “improvisational” scene. I don’t remember what it was, only the comment my professor made.

“That was flat and boring. You want to know why? Everything you did was premeditated. I don’t think you followed a single impulse.”

She then went on to teach me one of my greatest lessons in my short-lived acting career. If you have an impulse, you follow it. Don’t think beforehand what you think the best choice will be. Whatever the best choice is, it will come to you right before you actually make it.

Translation to writing application?

I know there are many who choose to outline and many who do not. I’ve done both. I see the merits of both. But even if you choose to outline, it’s imperative that you follow impulses in your writing. If you planned for your character to jump off a cliff and when you get to the scene it feels natural, then great, make that character jump. But if you’ve forced every word because that’s what you planned and by golly you’re the writer, STOP! Wait. Listen. What else could happen? If you were in your character’s shoes, their skin, their mind, their heart, how would they act? How would they choose? It may take your story in a completely different direction, but it will be better. Great writing is about making great choices in both words and actions.

It takes practice to recognize and follow impulses. It’s uncomfortable at first because you are vulnerable and it requires leaps of faith. But when you let go of that security and take the leap of faith, then your writing will be natural, spontaneous, and exciting.

Because Heaven forbid it should be flat!

Any experiences where you planned for one thing and then wrote something completely different?


  1. They’re small things, but in one scene, I planned for my MC to carry my secondary MC across a room. Seemed very gallant in my outline, all that knight-in-shining-armor stuff. But when I got to the scene itself, I realized that Seth is way too awkward for that. He’d never just scoop someone – let alone a female – into his arms. So he helps her hobble across the room instead.

    In the same scene, I really wanted my characters to kiss, but the opportunity never presented itself. I decided a kiss on the hand was much more in keeping with Seth’s character, anyway.

    Good reminder, Liesl.

  2. I love this!

    I’m a big outliner, but this makes total sense to me. I need to work on listening to my impulses!

    • ali

    • September 15, 2010

    • 11:20 pm

    First off, I took an improv class too and can totally relate! That was scary stuff!

    And times when my characters have behaved differently? It happens! A lot! I like to outline, at least generally, but I try to let my characters have their “head” so to speak, which sometimes leads to changes in the “plan”. It’s all for the good, though.

  3. Listening to my impulses is why I rarely outline anymore…more often than not my characters acted on their own accord, and often contrary to my initial intentions!

    I’m a new follower, by the way.

    – Brad

    • Liesl

    • September 18, 2010

    • 2:38 pm

    Krista- I totally agree with you about your character Seth. (And don’t I feel special that I’ve actually read it and know what you’re talking about!)

    Brad- we are the same. I used to be a big outliner, but then the actual draft would turn out so differently I wondered why I even bothered. So now I have a vague beginning, middle and end and the rest I just have to “feel.”

    Thanks for following!

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