5 Tips From Ernest Hemingway On How To Improvise

Yesterday would have been Ernest Hemingway’s 114th birthday if it hadn’t been for the fact that, like all men, he chose to die at an earlier point.

Ernest Hemingway

The man left us with many thoughts and ideas which continue to influence our culture to this day. For example: the strength of a good beard, the refreshing qualities of a mojito and how to write*.

Most people don’t know this, but Hemingway was also an avid improviser. He picked up the trade in Paris while hanging out in coffee shops and bars, performing with a team called the Expatriates of American Soil (they didn’t have an improv team name generator back then). Here are some of his more well-known improv tips (after the break):

1) To get started, make one true offer.

There are times when a man or a woman given the circumstances finds himself or herself in an improv scene with nothing. At these times I have found myself grasping for an idea staring into the audience as their blank faces were their own kind of laughter. Remember that before the scene can reach its middle or its conclusion it must first have a beginning and the greatest gift you can give yourself is to make a simple and clear offer. From there the rest will flow like wine out of a leather pouch into the mouth of a thirsty man.

2) Once you are done with a scene or show, you are done.

When I was in the war there were things I saw and didn’t see that I wish I had not and had. I was looking back searching for the moments that I lost and had escaped me but they were gone like my father in the fall. Do not waste your time wondering what could have been or what you could have done because they did not happen and they will not happen. Look to your next scene for that is where the good is.

3) If you are lost in a scene, look to reincorporate.

There are things that cannot be undone and most of those things are the ones you created before. In a scene, you are where you are because of the actions and choices you have made already. Remember this and do not forget this because these are your compass and will lead you to your next offer all the way to the end. The end is the dark place where the journey concludes and the laughter echoes off the walls and it is good.

4) Do something instead of saying you will.

Strength lies in action and no times ‘I will win this pie eating contest’ is better than a man eating all the pies. The man who eats all the pies wins the pie eating contest while the man whose mouth is full of words leaves empty stomached.

5) When the scene is over, end it.

Too often have I seen a man push a scene past its natural limits and milked it for more cream. A scene can only give so much and like a boy on a spring morning after the dew settles and the light shines through drops like spyglass the man must know when it is time to stop. When the cow is done do not try to milk a pig.

And, just for funsies, here are some of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite improv get-fors:

  • If you are a man and the day is slipping through your fingers where is she going?
  • There are three good ways to die. Name one.
  • The bulls were let loose and the crowd cheered and we all did what?
  • As the sky opened up and loosed its wet there is nothing to do but this.
  • What is your favorite color? What is a thing that is that color? It is gone forever. What can you not replace it with, no matter how hard you try?

* Yeah, that is totally where I got the idea for this.

Jan Lefrancois-Gijzen


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