As improvisers we invent stories; by training we are good at that. Admittedly, narrative is not equally important in every style of improv. One might argue that narrative is less important in short form than in long form (I have no particular opinion about that argument and am not particularly endorsing it). Some formats like the Armando and certain ways of playing a Harold are more pattern-oriented (“pattern” in the sense of “finding the game”) than story-oriented. This post is about narrative and I’ll leave it up to the reader to judge to what extent the following applies to your style of improv. Personally I find it applies to any kind of improv but feel free to disagree.
To return to the argument of this post: Sometimes we are a bit too good at storytelling, in the sense that we very often (too often?) revert to explicit storytelling. When I teach improv workshops it often surprises my students to discover actually how often they use explicit storytelling. There are other ways of performing improv, and one such way I call Character-Driven Narrative. Which is what this post is all about. We’ll start by addressing explicit storytelling, so we can contrast it with character-driven narrative.
Here is an example of the initiation of a scene or story. Upfront comment: there is nothing wrong with this example!
A: “My King, here is your new sword. The elves forged it out of Synthenian steel and enchanted it with their blessings. With such a sword you must be looking forward to the upcoming battle.
B: Thank you my dear Snodrick, and yes I look forward to slaying Glurb, that foul-smelling orc monster. Be sure Elfenking Loïc hears of my gratitude; for victory in this battle will bring our people together once more.
The setup is very specific. We know A is some sort of servant, and B is a king, probably our protagonist. We know it is set in a world with elves, so we have a fantasy-setting with all the expectations that brings about. We also know what is about to happen: an epic battle, and the elves are somehow involved and on B’s side. Excellent yes-anding by B. We now know the servant’s name. We know our antagonists are Orcs and their leader is named Glurb. We also know about another antagonist, Loic the Elvenking, and we know that victory will bring B’s people and the Elves together once more – implying they are probably not as together as once before, or not as together as B would like.
I call this explicit storytelling, because a lot of the story to come (as well as some backstory) is explicitly stated by the players. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that and the future of the story itself is not set in stone: there are largely 2 possible outcomes: the King wins or the King looses. Both outcomes can be subtly varied, e.g. the King wins, but suffers such losses that the Elves overpower him subsequently. Or the King looses but following his loss a face-saving treaty is negotiated. Anyhow, as a setup for a story, this setup is pretty solid, IMHO.
We almost only know narrative facts. We know – apart from these narrative facts – virtually nothing about the characters, about what kind of people/elves/orcs they really are, what they like and dislike, what their character treats are, whether they actually like or dislike one another, what drives them and so forth. We may discover all of that as the story unfolds, of course.
Character-driven Narrative – Single Character
When we use the techniques of what I call Character-Driven Narrative, we will steer away from offering narrative facts about the upcoming story. I do expect the players to put forward solid offers. However, I want no (or as little as possible) offers about the story line, and mainly offers about the characters. I’ll try to explain what I mean by examples and counterexamples.
A: My donut shop is the most important thing to me in my life.
No hint of the story to come here. And an indication of what is important to the character. But his is a poor example. We do indeed get to know what is important about the character, but the statement alone (without further elaboration) gives us a cardboard character (insert link to definition). Why would the donut shop be so important? Simply stating what is important is not sufficient here. Let’s try again, with the same kind of setup.
A: Ah! The first month of profitability of my donut shop. I wish my father were still alive; I would finally have made him proud.
Better than the previous example: we now understand the donut shop is very important to the character, and we understand why!
A: I wish I were a blonde
No hint of the story to come here. But we know a little bit about the character: she has a wish or a desire. And there are probably reasons why she has this desire. Possible options below, which the character might state following the original sentence:
A.1: If I were blonde I’d have a boyfriend.
Pretty clear, and still no hint of the story.
A.2: If I were blonde Heather & Julie would let me in their little club.
Again, pretty clear, no hint of the story, and bonus points for introducing protagonists. Bonus points for establishing a young adult settling; this would make me think of a high school drama for example.
A.3: If I were blonde I’m sure I’d get real modeling jobs.
Again pretty clear & no hint of the story. And bonus points for implying she does get modeling jobs that are somehow “not real” – which makes us wonder whether she perhaps does porn, or only gets to work as a parts model. In all 3 examples, although there is no hint of the actual upcoming story, but we do know there are only 2 possible outcomes: by the end of the show, A will or will not have a boyfriend; A will either be or not be in H&J’s club; A will either get or not get real modeling jobs. Whether she gets to dye her hair blonde has actually become pretty irrelevant (though it may play in role in the upcoming story).
Also, all 3 examples are utterly believable. These setups are not very far fetched – most audiences will be able to relate to the kind of reasoning behind the character. They are well within the circle of expectation. Perhaps counter-intuitive, but knowing a limited number of outcomes does not limit us in our storytelling. We will address this in the last section of this post, but first a final example for this section.
A: Ah, finally, the Red Star Line. After all the hardships of the past months, the horrible travels, over 2000 verst, and now here in Antwerp, the last stage before America. Oh, sure I will miss the fields of Budyonnovsk, Uncle Misha, and I wonder if New York will have a decent bowl of Borscht on offer. But I will not miss the hatred, the persecution of our folk and those who killed my beloved Ishmael. Ay, I look forward to the end of this journey, and to a new life across the great Atlantic.
We clearly know and understand the backdrop of this setup: Jewish migration out of Eastern Europe, end 19th or early 20th century. The character stated lots of backstory facts, but again, no upcoming story promises are made. We know what is important to the character: she wants a new life, she misses bits of her old live, she lost a loved one, perhaps her husband. She is angry or bitter about that loss and about the persecution of her kin. She hopes to escape all that in America. There are 2 possible outcomes: she will either find a good life there, or her life will be equally or more miserable there.
A final note to this section. All examples here were monologues, but the information conveyed in the monologues could just as well be conveyed to the audience in a conversation between protagonist or antagonist and a secondary character. What all these examples have in common is they are about one character. They imply tension (or expectation if you wish) but limited to that one character.
Character-driven Narrative – Multi Character
We can takes this idea further to cover multiple characters. Let’s start by a looking at 2 very different examples, based on a suggestion “father & son”.
F: Morning son.
S: Morning dad.
F: Rough night? What time did you get home?
S: Oh, about 4 I think. Yeah; I’m a bit hungover.
F: I am thinking of retiring. I want you to take over the business, like I did when my dad retired.
S: But dad, I’m not sure I want to kill unknown people for money.
F: Well, I’ve got this big contract for Don Caprese coming up in 2 weeks, and I can’t do it alone. I’d like you to tag along and I’ll show you the ropes.
S: Dad, I really need to study for my quantum physics exam.
Compare example 5 to example 6: in both cases we have no explicit storytelling. But in example 5 we have no idea what the drives the characters. It’s also rather Martha. In example 6 we do: the father is really committed to his job and to keeping it in the family. The son is really committed to quantum physics and shivers at the idea of having to kill someone.
One might argue that the comment about the upcoming hit job for Don Caprese is explicit narrative about what is to come but I would argue against that: the upcoming story is not going to be about the Don Caprese job, but about the tension between what father want vs. what son want. Furthermore, that tension is heightened by the choice of quantum physics, which probably labels the son character as a nerd – the odds of the nerd becoming a hit man are suddenly significantly lower than they would have been without that tidbit of information.
Since we now have the points of view of 2 characters, we have 4 different outcomes:
- The son becomes a hit man or he doesn’t (options driven by dad’s desire).
- The son gets a career in theoretical physics (options driven by what the son wants).
- This totals 4 options because they can be combined: They may both get what they want (son becomes a professor and plays hit man on the side); or they may both not get what they want (son fails at physics and does not succeed his father – the weakest or least interesting option IMHO), or one gets what he wants and the other doesn’t.
Again see last section for a discussion about story options, which are very different from outcome options. BTW bonus points for example 6 in which we clearly steer away from Martha Stewart improv.
Here is one more set of 2 examples, in this case both based on the same opening sentence.
S: Dad, I’ve been thinking long and hard about this, but I really don’t want to be a man any more.
F: Billy, you know I’ll always support you, and I understand that’s a difficult decision. I’m proud of you to make this decision at your age. I was almost 40 when I had the guts to have my operation.
No story line yet, and very clear what is important to the characters. The first statement is a great opener; however, the second statement – though it will probably draw a laugh, is IMHO an example of ill-conceived yes-anding. I will devote a future post to that subject. Father is joining the son character, and thereby removing any tension between the two, and thereby removing potential outcomes from the circle of expectation. The richness of outcome options we had in example 6 is lacking here: either the son has a gender operation or he doesn’t. But there is no tension here. Compare this to the next example.
S: Dad I really don’t want to be a man any more.
F: Do not speak of this Abdul Aziz. What would the Prophet or the other Emirs think of me when they hear this? You are my son. I am proud of you. You will succeed me to lead the great Khalifa of Ur’Qhan, you will inherit my gold, my horses and my slaves, you will marry many princesses and father many sons. I shall hear no more of this nonsense.
S: Yes father, apologies, you are right, this is foolish thinking of me.
Compared to example 7, example 8 steers away from Martha Stewart improv. But more importantly here, we have 2 clear characters, who have very different opinions about what is important to them in life. This creates tension – not necessarily conflict – and this is some of the stuff stories are born out of. Note that in order to avoid instant trouble, the son character decides to verbally agree with the father.
And again, there are 4 possible outcomes, based on the drives of both characters:
- Either son becomes of woman or he doesn’t.
- Either son succeeds his dad or he doesn’t.
- Both negative options might happen simultaneously (weakest choice). Both positive might happen simultaneously – which would be a bit difficult to explain, but it is an (unlikely) option. Or one gets what he wants and the other doesn’t.
In the examples in this section, and unlike the previous section, the tension is between characters, instead of being limited to one character.
A Story is a Journey, not a Destination
Life is a journey, not a destination
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Similarly to quote above, the story is the journey, the outcome is the destination, and the destination is merely an endpoint of the journey. Our audiences are in my experience more interested in an interested journey, than in the specific outcome.
If we know a character’s point of view, if we understand what the character wants or does not want, what the driving force is behind the character, then you (both as the actor playing that character, as well as the other actors playing antagonists or secondary characters) already know how the character will – logically – react to anything you throw at it. You do not have to think about it; you know. All you have to do as antagonist or secondary character, is throw stuff at the protagonist that will play into what the character does or does not want, and a significant reaction will follow. Ergo a story will develop automatically. The story is driven by the needs/wants/likes of the character – on the condition that these are clear and known. Hence: Character-Driven Narrative.
We said earlier that once we know what drives a character, the outcome of the story is limited to a pretty short list of options. How we get there we do not know yet – the upcoming story is still to be invented as we improvise. That leaves open a multitude of options. In this section we will revisit some of the examples given earlier to see what those options might be. I will list some but surely you can think of tons of others.
Example 3: I wish I were a blonde
Let’s take the third option here: If I were blonde I’m sure I’d get real modeling jobs.
She either gets “real” modeling jobs or she doesn’t. Perhaps she won’t, but will become world famous as a foot model. Perhaps she ends up permanently loosing all her hair after a botched dye job – ruining her potential modeling career. Perhaps she does get real modeling jobs and marries a rock star. Perhaps she does become a super model, with a coke addition, and then a heroin addiction which ruins her career. All options, that might turn out, depending on the offers made during the performance, and depending on the character’s choices, which will probably be driven by her desire to “get real modeling jobs”. And perhaps the character will change fundamentally and discover a new and more powerful drive. Perhaps she becomes a successful model, which then has to face her biological clock – and she might decide family is more important than her modeling career. Who knows? And for any of the options, the road to getting there – the narrative element – are multitude.
Example 6: The retiring hit man
Either the son becomes a hit man or he doesn’t. Either the son becomes a scientist or he doesn’t. Suppose he does become a hit man: in order for that to happen something must fundamentally change the – probably nerdy – character of the son. Perhaps he kills – unwantingly – a deer in a freak car accident and discovers – maybe to his own horror – that he likes this. Perhaps that’s the awakening of his own dormant psychopathy? And out goes the idea of becoming a scientist.
Or perhaps he becomes a science teacher, and money is tight, and the wife has an expensive taste, and the kids are in poor health, so he gets to take up a hit man job on the side to make ends meet? Who knows? That will depend on the offers thrown at him along the journey, and that will constitute the story.
So there you have it: Character-Driven Narrative. Of course this is not the only way to approach narrative, and refraining from explicit story telling & focusing on really grounding a character is equally useful in non-narrative focused improv.
But this is a great tool for your toolkit. However, it is not as simple as it might sound here. This is a muscle that needs to be trained. I like this approach because it takes away the “burden” of inventing (explicit) stories – using the techniques behind Character-Driven Narratives players do not have to wonder or worry whether they make good story choices – any choice that will invoke a clear reaction from the character will propel the story forward. And knowing what’s up with a character makes it very obvious which offers will illicit a clear reaction.
If this sounds interesting I have a great workshop for you! Like or dislike what you read here, leave a comment below.