“R” is for “Rhyme”

“There once was a young man from Lyme
Who couldn’t get his limericks to rhyme.
When asked “Why not?”
It was said that he thought
They were probably too long and badly structured and not at all very funny.”



I must admit I’m a little obsessed with Rhyme and how it can infuse and elevate musical and style-based improv. Pursuing rhyme is also a wonderful way to unlock unexpected plot and narrative twists – I’ve been known to joke that I can’t be held fully accountable for where rhyme takes me on stage! While rhyme might feel like a tangential skill, it appears in many deciders, short-form games, and augments a wide array of elevated scene work, from the Greeks, to Shakespeare, to contemporary hip hop and slam poetry. As Smith and Dean describe in their Improvisation, Hypermedia and the Arts since 1945, rhyming games are also a well-established form of modern Western improv. They write that “Richard Tarleton, the famous Elizabethan clown active in the late sixteenth century, often improvised at the end of a play and engaged in contests with the members of the audience who would throw up rhymes which he was expected to better, but he would also sometimes add improvised speeches in the course of the play” (11). Even if you feel this skill will never be solidly in your wheelhouse, a familiarity with the basic strategies involved in crafting spur-of-the-moment verse can only help your verbal acuity and attack.


Two farmers work the field on a hot summer day. One is tinkering with their tractor while the other is hard at work mending a damaged fence.

Player A: “This scorching sun is not our friend.”

Player B: “I fear this day will never end.
The tractor’s dead. It will not start.”

Player A: “The fence is rotten – every part.”

Player B: “The world conspires to do us harm!”

Player A: “Yet all we have is this old farm!”

Climbing the Rhyming Mountain

Like all skill sets in the improv canon, it might take you a while to find comfort in the land of rhyme, and some players are innately more adept than others. But, each journey begins with a few brave steps, and I offer these foundational approaches with that in mind.

1.) Play from a place of joy and calmness. When you approach rhyming situations it’s helpful to remind yourself that not every rhyme will be a “winner.” If you expect every couplet to zing you may have set yourself up with an insurmountable hurdle. It’s okay to struggle a little and, in many cases, this struggle adds great charm and performance value to the whole affair. When you play with abandon and joy even your stumbles can land like amazing successes. I also always remind my students that every word has one perfect rhyme – namely, the word itself. Now yes, you don’t want to overuse this failsafe method or your rhyming scene will no longer feel like a rhyming scene, but knowing that there’s something in your pocket for even the most challenging situation can go a long way in reducing anxiety. (A slightly more advanced variant of this approach is to keep the final word but rhyme the penultimate one – so “blood orange” could be rhymed with “dud orange…”)

2.) Don’t forget the basics. It’s extremely difficult to rhyme with something that hasn’t been clearly heard – especially when you’re playing in a setting where rhyming couplets or clusters are shared – so be sure to speak (or sing) with clarity and in a way that unmistakably features the rhyming offers and responses. On a technical level, punching that final intended word a little can make a world of difference. It also doesn’t hurt to pitch the pertinent word to the likely next speaker as so often we’re able to clear up any confusion when we can see our scene partner’s mouths and expression. If you’re inclined to verbosity or cramming excessive words into your allotted time or sentence, be aware that this habit may be causing others undue and unnecessary stress. Especially when you’re establishing the scene or game, less is more in terms of words and will often allow you more space to really sell and act your offer.

3.) Structure and rhyme schemes are your friend. Whether it’s in the pursuit of an improvised song, playing a highly patterned decider like Da Doo Ron Ron, or sharing couplets between characters in a scene, structure can be your best friend or worst enemy. There is so much tempting us as players to retreat into our heads in search of new choices when rhyme is part of the equation, but if you lose the greater thread, your perfect rhyme could create more turmoil than acclaim. I’ll often see an excited player throw on that third rhyme (which they’ve proudly formulated in their head and can’t let go of) when a couplet pattern has been established as the norm thereby throwing off the rhythms of the scene. This typically causes confusion as to whether or not this third line (“…flight” followed by “…night” followed by an unexpected “…plight”) marks the first offer of a new couplet or should be left as an exceptional third in its own right. When a clear rhyme scheme or pattern has been set and maintained it behooves everyone to follow this blueprint unless a departure serves as a deliberate and rich breach – this may be the case for the final exchange in a scene, for example. This holds true for line lengths as well: a line of eight syllables followed by a meandering line of twenty is unlikely to hit the ear as a strong rhyme even if the two last words are beautiful lyrical matches.

4.) Keep an eye on what greater purpose rhyme is serving. In some cases, rhyme is the name of the game, such as when you’re playing in an elimination warm-up, but more times than not it is one element of the scene that seeks to serve story and character. If this is a less comfortable skillset it is understandable that it might consume much of your focus, and perhaps this is a somewhat unavoidable stage in most improvisers’ pathway towards rhyming confidence. However, few improv scenes will thrive if we’re only concentrating on our language finesse. Make sure you’re confidently bringing all of your other gifts to the improv party as well and that rhyme is serving a greater scenic purpose or goal. Through the lens of character a great deal can become justified or contextualized. A fluency with verse can reflect a lover’s unfettered passion; a more plodding use of language could conversely suggest a character’s simplicity or earnestness.

5.) An open vowel can go a long way. If you are starting to scramble, embrace the gift of ending on an open vowel (“oo,” “ay,” or ” “ee”) or a common word ending (“ate,” “at,” or “een.”) While it’s a strong choice to head towards a specific word or set up (as noted below) an open sound will leave multiple options available to you or your fellow players. Such an approach can also unlock the delightful generative quality of rhyming as well as there is a sense of true uncertainty as to where the next line will land and how this will influence the action or narrative. My only caution would be not to keep going to the same well over and over again. This can become particularly problematic if a memorable rhyming couplet or exchange has been crafted and then players return to these same sounds or words again (and again.) Often this will result in little more than a clumsier and less effective echo of the prior moment. Unless you’re engaging in a truly epic long-form rhyming extravaganza, it’s helpful to consider prior rhyming partners “burnt” whenever feasibly possible. The exception would be if you’re pitching to a recurring hook or chorus phrase where the game can become finding new ways to rhyme with the established line. This would also serve as an example of this last strategy…

6.) A little targeting adds finesse. Lastly, as you find greater ease with the tenets of rhyme, incorporating some target rhyming will greatly add to the impressiveness of your work. When you target rhyme you set up a strong potential that is clearly linked to the current story or topic by providing the less on-the-money rhyme first. So if the scene or song is about elephants the first speaker might opine “I’m so in love, I’m almost drunk” in an effort to gift the next player the elephant-inspired target word of “trunk.” In group games this is a great way to not only add value but also make your partners look good (which I write about here) but the payoff is equally joyous if you’re setting yourself up for such a moment in a song or spoken couplet. This philosophy of reverse engineering a little – that is, thinking initially of the word you’d like to end on – is a strong approach in general especially if you’ve clearly landed the other foundational elements of the scene. In this manner you can focus on getting to your desired word or rhyme rather than suddenly arriving at the end of your thought and throwing out something opaque, poorly articulated, or just plain impossible to use. If I’m personally a little anxious or in my head, target rhyming will feel less manageable for me as a player, but even a little of this ingredient can really elevate your play, especially if it’s used strategically to highlight verse endings, scenic buttons or moments of emotional import.

Final Thought

If this skill scares you a little (or a lot) rhyming is one of the few improv subsets that you can actually effectively rehearse alone in your spare time as you walk between classes or meetings or while doing your laundry. In some ways there really isn’t a fast track superior to just getting in some rotations when the stakes are low and no-one else is watching!

Related Entries: Verbal Skills Antonyms: Not Rhyming! Prose Synonyms: Poetry, Verse

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Rhyme Fire-Line

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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