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A quick primer on improvised storytelling.

After teaching my introductory course students our session on storytelling, a student asked if I could write up an overview of what we looked at. Once I was done, I thought I may as well publish it here – so here we are. These storytelling fundamentals are well-described in Keith Johnstone’s Impro for the Theatre, and very systematically in The Improv Handbook, written by my very first teachers. I’m using examples to bring it to life, which makes it longer but hopefully clearer.

1. Great Story Powers, Great Improviser responsibility

We all have a natural story sense, inbuilt or developed since childhood (or likely both), that show itself whenever we have a sense of where a film/book could be headed, or whenever a moment strikes us as really true, or really unsatisfying. Our inner audience member knows their stories. This is great!

There is a risk, though. This is that we can cease to be in the moment – that wonderful place where you get to connect to your partner, bounce off their ideas, and react and act in fresh way. This is because we become too preoccupied with the future of the story, and fixated on delivering it (an unrealised idea in your head) properly. No fun for improvisation! All the fun is in the moment. So we practise sharing elements of the story with each other. We may have a notion of the next step, but we hold our ideas lightly and let go if another direction presents itself.

2. The Start is the Heart

One funny thing about stories is that we intuitively know that Stuff Should Happen, but we forget how many stories begin: simply by showing us an everyday world, what we call the Platform of the story. That turns out to be very useful – in fact, it’s the key to making an improvised story.

If we spend the start of a story establishing the everyday – who we are looking at, what they care about, where they are and what is in their environment – then when the action comes, it can be satisfying and relevant.

– A low-level earthquake is a bit of a random event… unless our hero is working out their probation in a shop selling fragile china.

– A noisy party next door is a bit boring… unless our hero is playing the chess tournament tomorrow, and really needs her sleep.

The story develops through looking backward at what is already there, and just developing potential already in the scene (“delicate china”; “needing some sleep”). It may not involve adding anything new at all – the china worker might simply knock over the most delicate piece, the chess player might just be unable to sleep.

When the development of the story feels really satisfying, it’s often because we have found The Right Trouble for the Right Hero. You steal the voice of the singer, or drop the arachnophobic into a giant web, and we find it compelling.

The story continues with this development, this Break or interruption of the everyday routine, making it clearer and carrying out its implications. Let’s take the china shop example further: the employee catches the falling vase, but the quake continues, and they have to desperately catch more and more as the situation moves towards ruin.

3. Endings.

Then what? At some point, we want a story to end, and that calls for a satisfying moment. The employee starts to juggle the china to keep it up in the air. Good, but doesn’t feel like closure. The china finally smashes! Good – real consequences. These are good, obvious ways to develop the situation. But to close the curtain now still feels premature . 

You can keep adding things: the fragments are swept into the corner, the boss turns up and starts yelling, fires the employee – all plausible, but none of it feels like an ending. Solving the problem feels like it might be a solution, but when you do it – perhaps the boss has replicas of everything in the back room – it feels like a cheat. How do you get off this train?

Here’s the trick: the end is in the beginning. Bringing back a detail we saw earlier on, and making it important at the end, ties the story together in a way that makes the resolution feel more believable, and satisfying.

So let’s say that we had a nice rich Platform at the start, including these facts:

– there is a china bull next to a sign “In case of emergency, break bull” 

– the employee has a hidden artistic side

– there is a antique picture of a pretty young woman holding china

and let’s return to the moment the boss returns, just after the earthquake is done.

You could try any one of these options as a way to close the scene:

– have the boss break the bull, pull out some glue, and say “looks like you’ll be working late tonight…”

– have the employee hurriedly fashion the broken shards into a beautiful mosaic, impressing the boss who makes them a partner

– have the boss break out of his shock by admitting he only ran the china shop to hang on to his dead wife, but it’s high time to say goodbye – and the scene ends with the two characters systematically smashing the remaining pieces.

This creates a pleasing, circular sense – things have happened but we’re still held in the same space we began in. And audiences can be amazed at the amazing plan you had for that picture all along – even though you had no such thing. You simply looked at what you had and decided to make something matter.

Improvisation is the art of walking backwards – we don’t know our destination, but we’ll discover it by paying attention to what happened before.

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