The Circle of Expectations Revisited



Keith Johnstone coined the term “Circle of Expectations” in his book “Impro for Storytellers”.  It’s a concept  I like, be it that – I think – I use it in a wider context than Johnstone does.

Definition of the Circle of Expectation

Johnstone’s concept of the circle of expectations links to his theory of “being obvious” – Johnstone is widely known for statements like “be more obvious” or “stop being original”.  Here’s a definition (not by Johnstone himself):  “The Circle of Expectations is Keith Johnstone’s name for the cultural assumptions and associations that cumulatively define the improvisor’s dramatic world.”

An example

The above is a very theoretical formulation, so let me use an example (paraphrased from Johnstone himself if I remember well).

Suppose a player has established she is on a beach.  This immediately puts related concepts in the audience’s mind.  Think of sea, palm trees, sand, seagulls  These “related concepts” are what we call the circle of expectations.  The audience would not be surprised if any of these appear in the story to be developed.

Now the player decides her character finds a treasure chest buried in the sand.  This too is reasonable within the circle of expectations; we all know stories of pirates burying treasures on deserted island beaches, so this is within the circle.

The character manages to open the chest, and finds no treasure, just a lone crab.  Again, crabs are to be expected on beaches, so this is within the circle.

The crab starts talking to our character, telling her it knows where the treasure is really hidden.   This is a bit further on the edge of the circle.  Crabs – in real life – are not likely to talk to us.  But we are clearly in a fantasy world of pirates & treasures, so one might argue this is – perhaps borderline – within the circle of expectations.

Next thing that happens is a rain of meatballs in tomato sauce , pouring down on the beach.  According to Keith, this is so way out of the circle of expectations that the audience will disconnect.   Also according to Keith this is a clear example of a player trying too hard to be original or funny.

The Circle in Johnstone’s Improv World

It is important to understand where Johnstone is coming from, or what his approach to improv is.  Johnstone is key proponent of an school of improv that is focussed on narrative (the title of his book “Impro for Storytellers” makes that pretty obvious).  Johnstone also plays with concepts like ‘status’ and ‘tilts’.  The talking crab might be considered a tilt in this sense.

For (a lot more) on tilts you’ll have to read “Impro for Storytellers” but here’s a skinny:  “A tilt is a change in the established platform that breaks the established routine, forcing action to adapt to the new circumstances.  Tilting is all about balance.  Bad improv is when balance is always maintained.  Good improv shifts balance”;

In my understanding of Johnstone’s writings, Keith argues for tilting within the circle of expectations, or just on the edge, but not way out of it.

I use the term, with largely the same gist, but in a bit wider sense.

Extended Use of the Circle

Related to Martha Stewart improv

As I have argued in my post about Martha Stewart improv, I like specificity in improv. Anything that is not clearly established on stage, will be established – by default – in the audience’s collective minds, as being “here, now, ordinary”.

Let’s take 2 examples based on a suggestion of “father & son” (I used the same examples in my post about character driven narrative):

Example 1: 

  • 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.

Example 2: 

  • F: I am thinking of retiring.  I want you to take over the business.
  • 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 the 2 examples, and compare the realm of expectations planted in the head of the audience (and in the players’ heads).  In the first example, I can think of tension between F & S about S’s drinking and partying. I’m also thinking about fairly ordinary fathers and sons, probably in a location like, erm, “here”.  Which for me is 21st century Belgium.  So in my circle of expectation I have fairly ordinary things, like an ordinary job, an ordinary mom, etc.

Contrast that with the second example :The context of a hired gun combined with the Don Caprese reference immediately brings to mind mobsters, extortion, murder, drug deals, money laundering, expensive life styles, sports cars, weapons etc.  All that is now in the audience’s head as “things we might expect”.

The point is: being specific helps define a clear circle of expectations and that is a good thing.

Related to Character-driven narrative

I also like to use the term circle of expectations in the context of character driven narrative.   Following example is also from that post:

Example 3

  • 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 horses, my gold 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.

Several remarks here.  First off, the second example is pretty specific about who the two are, and where they are, which immediately establishes a circle of expectations about snake charmers, fights with western European invaders, genies in lamps, harems, flying carpets, souks, spice trade, camels and so forth. This is the Martha Stewart argument for the circle of expectation we mentioned in the previous section.   But more importantly here, we have 2 clear characters, who have very different opinions  about what is important to them.  This creates tension – not necessarily conflict – between them 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.

We do not yet a hint of the story yet, but we have planted seeds of expectation in the audience mind, and we know there are few possible outcomes to be expected: The son does not become a woman, and probably succeeds his father; or the son does become a woman, and probably does not succeed his father.  There are other elements of tension that may lead to story lines: the father is clearly self-centered, but an option within the circle of expectations is that he might end up putting his son’s happiness before his own status.

Let’s reconsider the example from the previous section about the mob hit man and his nerdy son.   The forthcoming story is in this example not yet known at this point. But both the players and the audience have clear ideas in what direction the story might evolve.  And there are only 2 possible outcomes: either the son becomes a killer, or he doesn’t.   Both are equally interesting, and the way to getting to the conclusion is likely action packed and entertaining.  And both are clearly within the circle of expectation.

Link to antifactual storytelling

Take the example 3 again.  In order to avoid instant trouble, the son agrees with his father, at least factually, since he is stating “Yes father, apologies, you are right”.  We all know he is probably lying – even though the character might actually believe his own lie.  The fact that he is lying is almost expected by the audience and is certainly well within the circle of expectations.

In the blurb for my workshop on that topic  I state that antifactual storytelling is at first sight counterintuitive to improvisers trained in yes-and, because we will, on purpose, destroy “realities” as stated by characters.  Or so we think – since these realities are not factual, we destroy nothing!  I’ll go even further: statements that are not necessarily factual or true, are perceived by the audience as such: the fact these facts may not be true is actually well within the audience’s circle of expectation!


So there you have it: 3 relevant uses of the concept of circle of expectations in improv.  If you like this, let me know in the comments below.  If not, let me know why in the comments below.


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