“W” is for “Waffling”

“Gossip can be entertaining, but at its worst it’s just a mass of waffling that drags on until the improvisers find ‘a laugh to end on’.”

Keith Johnstone, Impro for Storytellers. New York: Routledge, 1999. p.119


To Waffle is to exert the might of your words clumsily and without finesse. There are many unique but related faces of voluminous verbosity, but they all share the common feature that – despite appearances – they tend to take more from the scene and teammates than they give.


A scene begins in a dentist’s office. Player A anxiously approaches the reception counter, clearly a first-time time patient who has obviously avoided this moment at great personal cost. The dental assistant looks up from behind the counter and begins…

Player B: (only tangentially aware of A’s established reality, if at all) “Welcome to the Smile Factory. I’m going to need you to fill out the following forms in triplicate before the doctor will be able to see you, although as we’re so busy today – and a little understaffed – I can’t guarantee that you’ll make it into surgery in the next hour or so… so if you’re in a rush you might want to set up a more formal appointment time online. You can find the link on the sign above the desk. Make sure you’re firmly pressing with the pen or it won’t go through all the copies and you’ll want to list any preexisting conditions as a new patient, as well as any medications. And I wouldn’t sit against the wall as the air conditioner duct blasts really cold air against it…”

Types of Wafflers That Might Show Up In Your Scene Work If You’re Not Particularly Careful About Using Your Words Deliberately and Concisely

1.) The scattershot… Random, thoughtless, unfiltered, disconnected, and over-original: the scattershot likely hasn’t possessed a thought onstage that they haven’t voiced immediately. While it’s clearly important to embrace our spontaneous spirit and impulses. without self-awareness, it can become easy to flood the stage with a tsunami of half-formed ideas that may have little to do with the story threads already in play. Too many offers also make it exponentially more difficult to isolate any single idea for polishing and development. Improv often suffers from excess, which becomes fueled by a misplaced belief that there isn’t enough happening. A scattershot approach of saying anything and everything invariably results in anything and everything becoming largely meaningless and nothing. Improv benefits from purposefulness.

Player B’s unvoiced subtext: “If I say everything I’m thinking, something good must eventually come out.”

2.) The overloader... Effusive, eclipsing, cluttering, panicked, and unfocussed: while the scattershot improviser inclines towards randomness and disconnection, the overloader may provide more linear or related choices, but this waffler still uses their language unknowingly as a weapon rather than a constructive tool. The improv shelves will quickly become burdened by well-intended minutiae, too much for the scene or show to ever possibly manage or utilize fully. This particular brand of panic privileges quantity over quality. Softer hues and more subtle potentials become suffocated in the verbal assault. Individual ideas, taken one at a time, could prove helpful and insightful, but taken en masse leave little room for others to add details of their own. Improv flourishes with moderation.

Player B’s unvoiced subtext: “If I make a whole bunch of offers, everyone will see that I’m contributing.”

3.) The staller… Inactive, postponing, fearful, wimping, and under-energized: the staller doesn’t so much control the action with their verbal meanderings so much as grind it to a halt altogether. If you talk incessantly about the pros and cons of a potential plot twist or action, after all, then you’ll probably never have to actually do it. This vampiric tendency to drain the momentum out of a scene reveals a deep-seated fear of fully committing to an exploration of the unknown and in this sense is perhaps a more “run of the mill” embodiment of a wimping energy. Stallers enjoy the perceived safety of their intellectual musings and are experts at providing clever or witty reasons as to why not embarking on that exciting adventure is actually the “better” choice. Improv thrives on action.

Player B’s unvoiced subtext: “If I hide behind these words long enough, then I won’t have to actually do anything that might reveal something about me.”

4.) The bulldozer… Controlling, bulletproof, overwhelming, prescriptive, and unresponsive: although our prior wafflers’ efforts might inadvertently result in taking some control over the scene, this is the raison d’etre of the bulldozer. This improviser often needs control over the action in order to quell their own anxieties. From this perspective, to stop talking is to allow for the possibility that the next major choice might come from somewhere else on the stage. There are clearly times when certitude and leadership are welcome and can steer an otherwise sinking story to calmer waters; but, as a stylistic norm, bulldozing cuts a clear path ahead at the cost of laying waste to your teammates whose own ideas might stand in the way. I discuss some ways to siphon the fuel from such a destructive energy in my entry devoted to this improv trap here. Improv shines with collaborative give and take.

Player B’s unvoiced subtext: ” If I keep speaking, then I will also retain control over the scene and won’t run the risk of looking foolish when I don’t know how to respond to someone else’s idea.”

5.) The talking head… Static, witty, overly intellectual, gossiping, and backstory-spewing: Johnstone alludes to this last waffling variant in his opening quote. When dialogue becomes the only focus of our work on stage, a talking heads scene will nearly always follow. Here, players ignore the communicative (and vulnerable) potentials of full-bodied expression in lieu of a “neck up” approach to theatre. Scenes may quickly become discussions about past events, or considerations of (never-to-be-seen) future actions, or dispassionate displays of wordplay that only comment on present possibilities. While our other four faces might also appear in this dynamic, talking heads frequently thrive in each other’s company where there is safety (and stasis) in numbers. For some tips on escaping this “road to nowhere,” go here. Improv gains immeasurably from using our whole selves.

Player B’s unvoiced subtext: “If I concentrate on my talking, then I won’t need to feel anything real.”

Final Thought

Talk less to say and do more. Talk less to enable others to contribute more. Talk less to experience and feel more honestly and deeply. Talk less.

Related Entries: Bulldozing, Commandment #6, Over-Originality, Postponing, Wimping Antonyms: Action, Physicality Synonyms: Commenting, Talking Heads

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2023 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Chatterbox

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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