Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Guest Author Bryan Cohen: 60 Seconds of Hell: An Improv Character Exercise Adapted for Writers

By Bryan Cohen, @bryancohenbooks

JH: Great writing tips can come from anywhere, and it's not unusual to find one in another creative form. Strengthening the creative muscles applies to all forms of creative expression, and today's tip comes from improv. Please join me in welcoming Bryan Cohen to the blog to share this interesting writing exercise with us. (And a writing contest!)

Bryan is an author, a creativity coach and an actor. His new book, 1,000 Creative Writing Prompts, Volume 2: More Ideas for Blogs, Scripts, Stories and More is now available on Amazon in digital and paperback format. His other books include 1,000 Creative Writing Prompts, The Post-College Guide to Happiness, and Ted Saves the World. He has published over 30 books, which have sold more than 20,000 copies in total. Connect with him on his website, Build Creative Writing Ideas, on Facebook or on Twitter.

In honor of his new book, Cohen is hosting the “1,000 Prompts, 1,000 Dollars" Writing Contest on his website. Click the link to find out how to enter! You can also check out the rest of Cohen’s tour here.

Take it away Bryan...

All writers are influenced by their past professions, hobbies and activities. Before I became a full-time writer, I did improv comedy for the better part of a decade. Through dozens of classes and hundreds of practice hours, I learned the skills necessary to connect with my fellow performers, but I also learned how to connect with my inner creativity. One exercise that made me a better improviser, and later a better writer, was the game "60 Seconds of Hell."

It was called "60 Seconds of Hell" for a reason. Every improviser I knew, myself included, dreaded the exercise like the plague. It stripped an improviser bare of all their standby tricks. It made a minute feel like an hour… alone on stage... in your underwear. And yet, it helped my fellow performers and I to expand our character creation horizons.

I don't do much improv anymore, but this exercise is one of the things that has stuck with me the most. Here's how it went. The coach of the improv team would hold a stopwatch and send one of the performers to the stage. The performer takes a one-word suggestion and starts a scene as a certain character. After 10 seconds, the coach says, "Switch!" and the performer must start a new scene as a completely different character. The goal is to create six distinct characters that speak different, move differently and are only connected by the fact that it's the same improviser performing all the roles.

Most of the time, a performer will have no problem with the first two or three characters. By the third or fourth character, there will be a pause or a similar character to the first couple will rear his or her head. While the first few characters are triumphant, the last couple are often a stumble.

This exercise taught me a great deal about the many ways two characters can be different, such as pace of speech, dialect, movement, emotion, pitch and a host of other traits.

Let's try adapting this exercise for writing, shall we? Set up a Word document or a piece of paper with six distinct sections. Have a friend or a computer set a 60-second timer for you. Start the exercise by writing dialogue for one character. Every 10 seconds, move onto the next section and begin writing dialogue for a completely different character. Keep shifting to the next section with a different character until you've finished your 60 seconds. You can test this exercise out going back and forth with a fellow writer, adapting it however you see fit (more time, more characters, word counter criteria, etc.).

Don't worry, this exercise is meant to make your brain feel like jelly. With enough practice, it should help you to differentiate your characters to keep them from sounding alike. By going through six characters at a time, you may also find a new person you want to spend time with in your next story. So try going to hell and back. You might return with a lot more than you bargained for.

About 1,000 Creative Writing Prompts

Creative writing prompts are short questions or situations that are meant to inspire you to write. Far beyond the typical, “It was a dark and stormy night…” story starters, this new collection of 1,000 prompts has been specifically formulated to dig deep into the creative process. The prompts employ thought-provoking questions, imaginative scenarios and humor to help writers of all ages defeat writer’s block. Author Bryan Cohen’s previous books of writing prompts have sold more than 20,000 copies and include multiple Amazon best-sellers. Through his books and his website Build Creative Writing Ideas, Cohen has helped countless writers, teachers and students to blast through the blank page and the blinking cursor to create blogs, scripts, stories and more! It’s time to stop thinking and start writing. Get this book on your physical or digital shelf today.


  1. Thanks, Janice, for having me on the blog today!

  2. The sudden need to create on stage does work. I went to Toastmasters and got my mind trained to do two things, think clearly and present immediately. I can't recommend it enough.
    If you have a problem with fear when you sit to write then try as Mr Cohen has and do it publicly with no ability to prepare but that which you take with you. It's like sky diving to get over the fear of ladders. Good article.

    1. Thanks, Harry! I love the skydiving comparison. I would have to agree with you :)

  3. HI Bryan
    Good post, thanks. That's a great idea, I'll be trying it soon.
    Another thing I picked up from teaching drama, that can be applied to writing is 'hotseating'. Getting the actor to sit in the hotseat and answer quick fire questions, whilst in character, from the rest of troupe, helps develop the improv skills and the character.
    Doing something similar with your written characters can be fun. Create a list of questions before hand, thrown them at the character and have them answer in their own way. It's great for finding out more about them, and also developing their mannerisms and style of dialogue.

    1. Thanks, Mike! I love hotseating! Another great exercise. Acting, improv and writing are simply not that different.