Trains & Tracks


Here is another metaphor I like to use in many of the workshops  I teach.  It originated from a statement by a fellow improv player and it’s the title of the first section of this post below.

“Long form is Fragile”

A great friend of mine, Dimitri Desmyter, saw one of our RIOT tryouts in 2008. Dimi is an improviser who only performs short form, and he’s amazing at it: he is quick-witted, has great imagination, excellent listening skills and is great fun to play with. Here’s Dimitri & myself playing short form at a Festival in The Netherlands in 2004.

Performing at Big Night of Comedy Festival, The Hague, 2004

Anyhow, Dimitri made more or less the following statement:

 I really enjoyed the show. But I wouldn’t dare try and pull this off: what you guys do is incredibly fragile – one silly joke, or one ‘stupid’ statement can ruin the reality of what you have set up.  I would be scared to play like that.

This statement made we wonder about 2 things:

  • Why are we not afraid?
  • Answer: because we do not violate this fragility: the silly jokes and the ‘stupid statements’ simply do not happen.  Which leads to the question: why not?

I believe the answer to the second question is: we rehearse putting trains on tracks.

Putting a Train on a Track

Setting up a great improv performance is like setting up a train on a track: Once train & track have been solidly set up, the train will execute a journey, by simply following the track.

What this means or advocates is the following: take the time to establish your main characters: protagonist & antagonists. Take the time to really ground those characters. We need to know what drives them, what they need, like and dislike, and why. We need to know where they are (both in terms of location and in terms of time period). And we need to know the dynamics of the relationships between the characters.

All that is like building a train, and putting it on a piece of track.

In above metaphor, the journey is the story, the narrative. Once you have a clear train, and a piece of track, the story basically runs itself, and the track will lead to a clear destination.

That is not to say that the storyline is pre-defined, far from. You only need a “piece of track”, solidly supporting the train, and the remainder of the track (upon which the journey will unfold) will lay itself almost magically, and effortlessly. The end of the journey remains unknown until the journey is over. A solid foundation (the train on the track) will provide or imply “logical” story options or journey outcomes – you only have to play, respecting the foundation, and you will get somewhere, and that somewhere will make sense.

A real train track leads ‘from’  somewhere ‘to’ somewhere; it goes from point A to B, and on the same track you might take take the journey from B to A.   For this metaphor consider that we put a train on a piece of track, and we might continue the track in one direction (say ‘uphill’) or the other (say ‘downhill’).    Suppose we have established that an evil character wants to destroy the world as we know it (Sauron in Lord of the Rings) then the directions of the story are obvious: Sauron succeeds (‘downhill’) or he doesn’t (‘uphill’).  And the same holds for Frodo: once we have established that Frodo can save the world by taking the Ring to Mordor (in which case Frodo becomes the protagonist and Sauron the antagonist), there are 2 directions of track possible: Frodo succeeds (‘uphill’) or Frodo fails (‘downhill’).  Along the track, in any direction, there may be little split points that imply variations to the outcome.  A story option in LOTR might have been that Frodo fails but Sam delivers the Ring.  Which is merely a little branch along one of the directions – the Sam option does not change the overall direction.

To return to the “Fragility of long form” comment that triggered this post: in my experience, if the foundation of our scenes is solid enough, no player will – by accident or because of incompetence – ruin it.    This does not only hold for long form;  the metaphor applies equally well to short form.

Relevance to other posts in this blog

The “train on a track” metaphor fits wonderfully well in some other ideas or opinions I have been preaching here:

  • Steering away from Martha Stewart improv provides a path to faster establishment of more solid trains & tracks.
  • The metaphor kind of sums up my notion of Character-driven Narrative in which we try not to engage in explicit storytelling (i.e. we steer away from explicitly spelling out a large piece of track or even the possible destinations)
  • Antifactual Storytelling is an alternative & fun way to clearly define characters and the relationships between them, adding additional color and tension.

And that’s why I like this metaphor! If you like the idea, post in the comments below.  If you dislike the idea, post as well.


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