Columns > Published on December 23rd, 2022

Phantom of the Hip-Hopera: An Improv Novel-Writing Experiment

They tell you to start your column with your best line, so I’ll start by telling you this is a story about a new way to write fiction.

And now I can get to the extremely boring second line: I do a podcast.

If I was good at promoting myself, I would link it here. But I’m not.* Besides, it’s the worst kind of podcast: just some dope talking about whatever, no format, all nonsense.

Every October, I do something called Podoween (that was the best name I could come up with. See, you don’t want to listen), which is 31 days, 31 podcasts.

Usually these are short, spooky, Halloween-y episodes about real life horrors. This year, however, I tried something different: A semi-improvised, fictional tale in 31 parts that I call: Phantom of the Hip Hopera.

And what it turned into was an experiment in writing a novella through improv.

Here’s how it worked.

Part 1: Concept

I had this idea a bit back: wouldn’t it be funny to put together a story about someone in the 90s trying to write a "hip, for the kids” version of a classic novel?

Like, imagine someone tasked with writing an updated Frankenstein where Frankenstein is a drummer in a ska band.

I hit on Phantom of the Opera for my particular story because, well, the Phantom is possibly the pettiest of the literary monsters. He's hilarious.

I had my classic picked out, I had the era it’d be revived in, but there was a problem: I didn’t know how to make this work.

Part 2: Format

How do you write something that makes fun of something else without rewriting the entire thing? Or, how do you write Phantom of the Hip-Hopera so that people who haven’t read Phantom of the Opera 100 times will still enjoy it? How do you explain what you’re doing while also doing what you’re doing? How do you mash together the two layers: the original Phantom and the Hip-Hopera version?

Part 3: Falling Together

I needed something, a structure to bring out the story, a format, a character to guide everyone in. I needed to produce a new kind of thing, and to do it, I needed to write in a new way.

My character is Werther Delight Johnson, the pen name for an MFA-holder who’s found himself in the world of novelizations, especially the Critters series and Killer Klowns From Outer Space. He’s being tasked with writing Phantom of the Hip-Hopera, and as someone unfamiliar with the original Phantom, Werther takes the listener through the original, the key changes, and the process. For better AND worse.

And he's keeping an audio diary so that once he's famous, which he surely will be after writing this thing, he'll be able to put together a memoir. 

Boom, done.

Part 4: Outline

I set up a basic outline for all 31 chapters, and I’d talk them out, one chapter per podcast episode.

I’m not usually an outliner, but I took an approach I’d heard about from Curb Your Enthusiasm: the improvised parts happen with the actors knowing where the scene is starting, where it needs to end, and the rest is magic.

"Magic" is more than a little bit of an oversell in my case, but it's more descriptive than "and the rest is stuff."

Part 5: Improv

Falling from grace is impossible when you live in the basement full-time.

I’m not an improv guy. I’m more “Wait, what?” than “Yes, and.”

Even after I recorded a couple episodes, I wasn't sure about the whole thing. What if people hated it? What if I fell flat on my face doing something that’s pretty embarrassing on the WHOLE DAMN INTERNET!?

But then I remembered the advantage of having an unpopular podcast and a not-illustrious writing career: You can do whatever you want.

Seriously, if it sucks, who is going to be mad? It’s not like I’ve got investors I’m answering to, millions of dollars in budget, unsold action figures rotting on the shelves at Target.

The one advantage of being extremely unpopular is that you aren't beholden to anyone, you can afford to fail.

Falling from grace is impossible when you live in the basement full-time.

And with that rosy attitude, I managed to record all 31 episodes.

Part 6: Transcribing

Now comes the worst part. And the fun part: transcribing everything I'd said.

Transcribing speech is the most boring activity in writing. How do we talk so fast and write so slow? It’s a miracle we ever made anything remotely resembling journalism. If I’d been in charge of journalism, I would’ve just been like, “Fuck writing this all down, let’s just all promise to tell like 5 people, and they can all promise to tell 5 people. It’ll work out.”

Transcribing sucks. But in this case, it’s also the fun part. Because with Phantom of the Hip-Hopera, it wasn’t just a word-for-word transcription, I was adding things, moving things around, normal rewrite stuff, but it felt different. I kind of got to write this story again for the first time.

It was…actually a lot of fun. And it was a fast way to get to a polished second draft.

Why You Should Give It A Whirl

It might be a little easier to talk in a character’s voice than it is to write in one. It might be easier to let the story take you places when you start out loud. On the second pass, it’s very easy to let go of what sucks because, well, it was just sort of tossed out there, not something you labored over for hours. The cracks, the places that need extra attention, are more obvious when you start out loud and then put it in writing.

You have to commit to the bit. You have to really talk it out, like you’re doing a character on a stage. You have to try and make it feel real, just to you anyway.

It feels silly, but it’s worth it. I got a manuscript out of it, it went fast, and it was, honestly, kind of fun.

Try it. What do you have to lose?

Besides, yours won’t be worse than mine, guaranteed. Mine is called Phantom of the Hip-Hopera. I've set a very low bar for all of you to leap over.

Get The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux at Bookshop or Amazon

Get How to be the Greatest Improviser on Earth by Will Hines at Bookshop or Amazon 

[*Helpful Snowman Radio —Editor]

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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