Instant Trouble vs Instant Tension



I have argued before that I am not a big fan of rules when it comes to improv. That said, in this post I would like to discuss a “rule” that is preached by some: “Steer Away from Instant Trouble”.  The same rule is sometimes referred to as “Steer away from negativity in initiations”.

Instant Trouble is basically when scenes are started with conflict, before the setting and the characters have been properly fleshed out.

An example:

  • A: Morning honey.
  • B: Why are there no honey pops?  You forgot to buy honey pops!

In this example, we have no idea who the characters are (apart from the fact that they are probably husband/wife or boyfriend/girlfriend)  And lacking that, the trouble that is being created – being out of honey pops – is petty and unfounded.

If trouble were founded it would probably not be petty. Or rather, when the characters are properly founded – i.e. we understand what drives them, what they want or not-want, if we understand the dynamics of the characters’ relationships, perhaps get an idea about the characters’ backstory, then coming up with founded (not-petty) trouble becomes somewhat obvious. BTW this is one of the key reasons I preach Character Driven Narrative, but that is a different story.

In the honey pops example: suppose we know that B feels A is constantly neglecting and ignoring her (or him), the forgotten honey pops may turn out to be the final straw, the event that pushes B over the hill and into a breakup with A.    There would be nothing wrong with such a setup.  Except that when a scene starts out like this, we simply do not have that kind of backstory.  Ergo it is wise to establish that first, and then move on to the problem.

Don’t get me wrong: one could imagine the above initiation leading to a great story – it is certainly possible – but 99.9% of the scenes that I have seen starting with instant trouble, struggled to get somewhere.

Bottom line: I agree with the credo that Instant Trouble is probably best avoided.

Instant Tension

Instant tension is a different beast, and I’m all for it.   There is a trivial and a not-so-trivial side to this.   Let’s cover the trivial one first – it is trivial but also a bit tricky.

To explain I’ll recycle an example I used in my post on Character Driven Narrative:

  • 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.

I would argue that here we have tension between the characters, but not petty trouble: we understand what drives both characters.   The opposing qualities of those drives are what generates the tension.  This tension may lead to trouble – but note that the actual trouble has not really arisen – it may or it may not.   Perhaps the Son will – reluctantly – agree to help out Dad and discover he’s a natural born hit man.  That would be fine.  But of course the tension may lead to irreparable damage to the relation (trouble).  That would be fine too for me – because we will understand the roots of this trouble.

I said at the start of this paragraph that this example would be trivial and tricky.  This is tricky, because in these kinds of setups, the difference between trouble and tension is a pretty thin line.  Trivial because the tension is very explicit.   We will return to the tricky aspect in the final section of this post.

Here is another example of a setup (also from my post on Character Driven Narrative):

  •  A: I wish I were blonde.  If I were blonde Heather & Julie would let me in their little club.

This example is less tricky: it steers further away from the possibility of Instant Trouble, but it does create tension, be it less explicit than in the previous example.  The tension here is more like questions that automatically arise in the audience’s heads:  Will A ever become a blonde?  And if so will she become a member of H&J’s little club?  And if not, will A plot revenge?  Or what is so special about that club?  And will that remain so important for A, or will she find out there are more important or rewarding things in life than H&J’s club?

There is also a less-trivial approach to tension, and it entails a dirty little secret.

A Dirty Little Secret:  Harmony & Happiness Imply Tension

I’ll explain first by means of some scripted examples; we’ll return to application in improv after that.

Scripted Examples of Tension by Harmony

Consider the 1988 movie “Betrayed” starring Debra Winger as an undercover FBI agent Catherine Weaver. She is sent out, posing as Katie Philips, to investigate farmer Gary Simmons. She soon believes the FBI lead is erroneous: Simmons is a Vietnam veteran, well respected in his church and community, a widower with 2 lovely daughters. When Gary has to put down a horse with a broken leg, he is heartbroken – and Katie/Catherine falls in love with him. At this point in the story, all is peachy, everybody is happy and in love. And then a bombshell drops: one night Gary takes Katie out hunting, and it turns out Gary and his friends hunt – and kill – a black man.  Gary turns out to be is the leader of a KKK-like white supremacy group. In the movie, we do not know that Katie is an undercover FBI agent until after Gary has been portrayed as a likable, respected guy, and we only learn about his supremacist beliefs after Katie has fallen for him.


Here’s the thing: all the way during the – positive – portrayal of Gary there is tension building. Perhaps subconsciously for you as a viewer. But when this “great guy, great love” situation is unfolding, somewhere the viewer knows that somehow, the idyllic picture will somehow get broken or disturbed.

I  used “Betrayed” as an example because when I first saw the movie, the moment it became clear that Gary is a Bad Guy, it went “I knew it – things were simply too happy” in my head.

There are plenty of other examples of great stories and movies that use the same storytelling trick.  Some more examples:

  • In Fatal Attraction, the first part of the movie is the portrayal of Dan Gallaher (played by Michael Douglas) as a successful Manhattan lawyer. He has a great life and is happily married to his beautiful wife. All is hunky dory until he has a one-night stand with Alex Forrest – who turns out to be a bit of a psychopath. To Dan the affair was a one-time thing; it did not imply he does not love his wife. And now his perfect little life is being threatened by Alex.
  • The – very disturbing – french movie “Irréversible” uses the same ploy, but takes things backward. The movie works back chronologically, i.e. the first scenes happen last. The movie has 11 parts or scenes, but here are the first 4 (text roughly based on the movie synopsis on Wikipedia):  1) A beautiful girl – named Alex – is in a park, surrounded by playing children, the weather is beautiful  2) Alex sits on the bed, her hand on her belly; 3) Alex lies in bed with her boyfriend Marcus after having sex. She reveals she might be pregnant and Marcus is happy about the possibility. They prepare to go to a party, 4) Marcus leaves first and after that Alex takes a pregnancy test which confirms she is with child. She is elated.  The remainder of the story is pretty disturbing:  on her way to the party Alex is brutally assaulted, raped and beaten to unconsciousness. She is found by Marcus and his friend Pierre, who both decide on revenge, after which things get even more horribly out of hand. The story is told backwards, so the happy life of Alex and Marcus is only revealed at the end – but the storytelling device is the same: set up harmony and happiness, and then disturb it.
  • Tolkien used a similar same device twice; both in The Hobbit and in Lord of the Rings. In both cases, Bilbo and Frodo had perfect, happy lives, which get disturbed by Gandalf who takes them on a quest which will a) take them way out of their comfort zone and b) change their lives forever.

There are plenty more examples, but I think I have made the point.

Tension by Harmony in Improv

Based on the above examples, I believe that setting harmony is a great way to start off an improvised performance.  The audience simply knows that something is going to disrupt the harmony.  The audience does perhaps not know this consciously, but they know.  And that is tension.

Knowing and understanding this as an improviser has an additional benefit:  if (as a player, not as a character) you understand the roots of harmony between the characters, it becomes easy to think of logical (i.e. not far fetched) ways of destroying or disturbing that harmony.  And this is when your story really sets off.  Furthermore, because the destruction or disturbance of the harmony is kind of “logical” (because founded) you won’t lose your audience; your disruption won’t come across as forced or unnatural.

Story Arcs

You are probably familiar with the concept of story arcs.  If not check the link – let me use graphics to illustrate (image from

Story Arc

The establishment of harmony is the “stasis” or “exposition” part of the graph. Exposition anchors the arc – without that anchor the arc risks tipping over and break.

I believe it is important for improvisers to be familiar with this idea:  if improvisers know that the better harmony is established, the easier it will be to muck about with that harmony (destroy or disrupt it) in a way the audience can relate with. Not understanding this – in my experience – often pushes actors into creating Instant Trouble. Instant Trouble is like diving into the “rising” part of the arc, skipping the exposition.

Another reason why improvisers should be familiar with this is that is creates a bit of serenity: in my experience a lot of Instant Trouble is created by improvisers panicking: they have a feeling the “something must happen or we’ll bore the audience”.  Knowing that establishment – even establishment of harmony – does create tension and will engage an audience in anticipation of the “rising” of the story arc.

“Mommy is Never Coming Back”

To end this post, here is an opening offer that I once got from a fellow player, at a rehearsal almost 20 years ago:

  • A: Mommy is never coming back
  • Me:  What?  I knew it.  I am going to kill uncle Bill.  How dare he take my wife.

The scene that followed went nowhere and was mainly talking heads.  I got a note: being found guilty of creating instant trouble.  Which admittedly I was.  This was an offer that bugged me for several years, and for 2 reasons:

  1. In my mind the original offer constituted instant trouble.
  2. Given the offer, I could think of no responses that would not be instant trouble, or not be adding to the trouble that I perceived was there in the first place.

I think I know better now, and can think of lots of constructive options.  Here is one:

  • Son: Mommy is never coming back.
  • Dad: Yeah buddy, that’s true.  And I really miss her too.  But you know what, I’m sure she can still see us from heaven.  And I’m sure she is proud of us, about how well you and I manage to get by without her.  We’re a great team, you and me.

This one establishes 3 things:

  1. Dad’s reply defuses the risk of the offer being turned into Instant Trouble.  Today, I still feel that the seeds of instant trouble are present in the offer.  But the offer itself is not quite Instant Trouble, so a seed of trouble does not imply trouble must sprout.
  2. It establishes a certain harmony.
  3. It implies future trouble – i.e. if this harmony persists there will be no story.  A possible plot option would be Dad get a new girlfriend who perhaps disrupts the relationship between Son and Father (trouble).  Or implicit tension within character Dad or Son (or both) : will the new girlfriend replace deceased mom?  Will the characters find a way to fit in the new girlfriend?  And will both of them, or will this lead to a conflict between Dad and Son?  Once one these situations arises it becomes explicit tension – tension which was foreshadowed (but not predicted) by the harmony created in the initiation.

Happily Ever After

There is a reason fairy tales end with “and they lived happily ever after”: the happily ever after is not interesting.  What happened before the characters could go back/on with their happy lives is the meat of the story.   

In the example of Mommy not coming back above: a one hour performance that just shows how well Dad and Son cope after mommy’s death is simple not interesting.  How they might deal with a new Mom, so they can perhaps live happily ever after,  is a recipe for a great story.  At least in my eyes.  Feel free to disagree in the comments!









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