Improv Stuff: How To Say No

Will Hines
4 min readDec 22, 2020
art by Caitlin Sacks

No, this is not advice on setting boundaries with toxic friends! This is about the mundane but crucial process of “saying no” within the reality of an improvised scene.

This is ultimately about feeling control over your own improv. We should teach how to “say no” right after we teach how to “say yes.”

The general formula is: say no and say why.

Accept Offers, Usually

An “offer” is any choice you make in an improv scene. Offers can be about: yourself, the world, the other people. Generally, you want to ACCEPT offers. Make whatever internal adjustments you need to, and then confirm.

  • Them: “I feel happy!”
    You: “Yeah, You LOOK happy.”
  • Them: “Wow it’s really raining out.”
    You: “Yeah, it’s really coming down.”
  • Them: “You look so happy!”
    You: “I FEEL happy!”

You Can Reject Opinions. You Can “Say No.”

But here’s a thing we don’t teach clearly enough. You can reject offers that are opinions. You absolutely can. In fact, it’s often helpful to reject them.

Keep the facts, mind you. But have your own opinion if you want.

Person 1: “It’s raining, isn’t that just so great?”
Person 2: “It’s really coming down, and no it’s not great! It’s terrible!”

A new improv student might feel like they’re doing something wrong, but they are not! This is just having a point of view.

Say No… If A Reasonable Person Would

When to say no? Here’s when it’s good to reject an opinion.

A reasonable person would not feel that way.

Person 1: “It’s raining so hard and cold, isn’t that great?”
Person 2: “No, Arthur, it’s NOT great! What’s WRONG with you?”

This “frames” the offer and the other person as unusual.

Say No… If You Feel Like It

Another reason you can reject an opinion:

Because you feel like it.

Honestly, that’s a good enough reason. Why? Because it’s really important that you feel in charge of your own character in an improv scene. You are a co-author. Go ahead and reject an opinion if you just don’t want to have that opinion.

Person 1: “Don’t you love anchovies?”
Person 2: “Not really. They’re gross.”

Person 1: “We’re going to Disneyland! Isn’t that just so fun?”
Person 2: “No. It’s a corporation and an evil one. I’d rather go to the sewers.”

Trust your gut. You can change your mind, break patterns. You never “have” to feel anything. If you don’t feel that way, you don’t feel that way. Feel that power of being in charge of yourself.

Saying No Is Better Than Saying Nothing

The WORST thing you can do to an offer is IGNORE it.

Person 1: “It’s raining, isn’t that great?”
Person 2: “Someday, I’d like to be a detective.”

THAT is trouble. Instead, you should speak to the offer. Say yes, say no, but speak to it.

Rejecting an opinion is still using it and being inspired by it.

Say Why

How can you make sure you’re not blocking the scene? By saying WHY you don’t agree. That makes the scene great!

In this next example, Player 2 accepts all the facts, but replaces the opinions and adds a little “why.” This is a fine scene!

Player 1: “You were late for dinner, that’s why I know you don’t love me!”
Player 2: “I was late, but I DO love you! I just hate being on time!
Player 1: “If you love me, then why didn’t you get me anything nice for Valentine’s Day?”
Player 2: “I didn’t get you anything nice for Valentine’s Day because I am lazy and cheap, but I love you very much.”

I admit: it’s a bit slower than accepting the opinions as offered as given, but it works well. And if it makes Person 2 feel engaged and committed to the reality, it’s well worth it.

“I Can See What You’re Saying But…”

If you feel “guilty” because you feel saying no is blocking the scene (you’re not, but it can feel that way) then start your opinion with a little yes. Like this:

Person 1: “We’re going to Disneyland, isn’t that great?”
Person 2: “I can see why people like Disneyland, but to me it’s a cesspool.”

It’s not necessary, but it shows your partner that you’re listening.

In Conclusion

A good improviser tends to accept offers. Make no mistake: saying yes and accepting the offer as it’s given is generally the way to go.

But if the offer is an opinion, you can reject it if it feels wrong.

In early classes, teachers might discourage you from rejecting opinions that are put on you. For early classes, that’s fine: learn to say yes to all opinions. It’s good practice.

But it’s NOT essential to ALWAYS accept opinions. Any good seasoned improviser feels very comfortable saying no to opinions if it just doesn’t feel right.

Say no and say why.

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Will Hines

Los Angeles, actor, improviser, amateur computer programmer. Born in 1970, largely nice. Founder of http://www.wgimprovschool.com/