Obviousness

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Introduction

“Be more obvious” (or “be less original”) and “be more boring” are 2 famous phrases by Keith Johnstone – I picked up these phrases almost 20 years ago.  Back then I had trouble understanding them:  I would be seeing great improv, and marvel at the “originality” of what the performers pulled out of their hats.  Great improv certainly did not seem “boring” to me, so the improv advice “be more boring” always puzzled me.

However, these days “be less original” is a phrase I find myself using in workshops; it  has started to make sense to me.  Perhaps not the way intended by Keith, but sense nonetheless.  In this post I will try and explain what it means to me.  But first let’s cover what can be found on the topic. If that is <TL;DR> hop on to my take.

What Keith Says

When I first read Keith’s book, it confused the heck out of me.  Here is an example, paraphrased from his book Impro For Storytellers:

  • A player is scratching her leg. And that’s all she does.
  • Keith suggests she proceeds by doing something “obvious”, like “rub lotion into it and discover it’s made your entire leg numb and you walk weirdly. Or discover a lump and find out you are growing a second head”.
  • When asked whether “growing a second head” would not be “original” Keith’s reaction is “If you’ve discovered the lump, then it’s obviously growing. And it would obviously be good if it were to grow into something you can communicate with”.

If that confuses you: great and read on. It confuses me (though I think I get what he’s getting at).

Sidetrack warning: in the same book Keith talks having bicycle horns used to honk boring players off the scene.  Nobody ever claimed geniuses are always consistent in their writings :).

What Others Say

Apart from the notion in Keith’s books, there is not all that much information to find about it, apart from folks mentioning it as “good advice”.  Here is what I could find.

Chad Elliot’s take on the subject :

People constantly try to be interesting, and it makes them boring. There are at least 3 ways that happens:

  1. You edit out anything you think wouldn’t be interesting. By doing so you edit out your own creativity and only say what you think is safe. (You block your own ideas.)
  2. You try to create interest through conflict and merely become combative. (You wind up blocking other’s ideas.)
  3. You get stuck in your head and wind up missing what’s going on around you. You become a missing person, so to speak. (You block out reality.)

By trying to be boring, you’ll usually become more interesting because you’ll be more present and spontaneous.

This did not make all that much sense to me either when I first read it. Points 1 and 3 actually do make sense, and I’ll explain later.      As for point #2  I’ll be the first to argue against gratuitous conflict, I don’t immediately see why that would be related to obviousness. The trouble with Elloitt’s article is that it does not explain why the phrase actually makes sense – he tries to explain the phrase.

This post by Chelley Pyatt basically equates being obvious with being truthful. I didn’t find that very helpful either (but admittedly this just has one short paragraph on the subject).

Tom’s Take

Here’s my take.  If you have no clue where you character is, and what drives your character, you have to make up dialog and actions.

So for me, you do need originality in exposition.  You do need to “creatively” create your character, it’s needs/wants/ambitions/fears/preferences, as well as the world in which your character is set.   You perhaps need to create an antagonist.  And yes, that is “creation” and yes that might ask for some creativity.

Butonce you have established all that, there should be no need for originality: your character’s actions should be logical and obvious.  Feel free to “create” new shit – but the shit you create should make sense within the boundaries of the reality that you have set.  You stay within the circle of expectations.

I would even go as far as this: if at any point, you have no clue as to how your characters should react to what is going on, of you have no clue as to what your character’s next move should be, then your exposition has been weak.  You might want to take a step back and work on that.

If nothing strong or particular/unusual has been established, you have basically no expectations (and neither has your audience).  Trying to create something “interesting” based on nothing – is hard – and if you do, you often end up either with absurdities or instant conflict.  And several players all trying to create something interesting, all at the same time, usually leads to some kind of clusterfuck.

There are (oversimplifying now) 2 schools of improv: narrative and game (or pattern based).  I do not believe these are mutually exclusive (I’ll give an example at the end of this blog) but for the sake of this argument:

  • In the narrative school you’ll establish the characters (protagonists and antagonists), their relationships and some sort of tension of conflict. See this blog post (instant tension) for more about what I mean by that.  Point here his that the creation of those characters and their motives is mostly a conscious process: it is a matter of making strong choices.  Most of my improv writings happen to be about strong choices.
  • In the game-based school you’ll try and find the first unusual thing in the scene, and heighten that (see e.g. this article by Kevin Mullaney ). It’s the reason why I underlined “unusual” in the paragraph above.    In most cases what is “unusual” will not even be created consciously, they are not strong choices, but tend to happen accidentally.  Or by mistake.

The thing is: both are equally useful. And if exploited, alleviate the need to be original! Obviousness is nothing more than “if this is true, then what else might be true”.

When I stated the during exposition there is a certain amount of creativity (or choices) involved, that is speaking from a narrative school.  In a game-based school of improv you’d even do away with that altogether and use the first unusual element that happens and react – logically – to that.

Why It Breaks Down

So when does this break down?  I can see several kinds of situations.

First is when players don’t seem to register or detect the reality that has been established, and the promises it holds.  Or perhaps they do, but for some reason they decide that what has been established “is not interesting enough” (Elliot’s bullet point #1).

When that happens the urge is to “add something new” (i.e.  the urge to be “creative” in order to move stuff forward.   The solution to that is training: players can learn to use what is there, rather than to “creatively” add stuff.

Another situation is where players do register the realities created, but remain too caught up with their own ideas,  conclude “my idea is better”, and pile up offers (related to Elliot’s bullet point #3).

In both of the above cases the result is the same: a clusterfuck of unnecessary offers – quite often leading nowhere, and an overload of complexity – leading to players loosing track and  scenes leading nowhere.

Example: The Princess with the Long Hair

Just this weekend I had a nice example in a workshop.  We asked for a simple day to day activity and the suggestion was “washing your hair”.  We saw a scene in which a high status female character (perhaps a princess – though that was never stated as such) was about to marry, and her servant was to wash her hair.   The princess remarked that as a child she had vowed not to wash or cut her hair until marriage.  Her servant went about untying her hair, and discovered a hidden note in it, referring to a hidden treasure at which point I interrupted the play: in my eyes the hidden note was an example of “too much originality”, as well as ignoring of “what is already there”.   On top of that, there was also the failure the exploit “the first unusual thing” – the fact that the female character had neither washed nor cut her hair for over a decade.  I’m going to bet that was not a conscious decision – it was just a remark by the female player.

The scene was restarted from the point just before the “treasure note” was found.  Here’s what happened:

  • The servant untied the princess’ hair.
  • Given she had not cut it for over a decade, that turned out into an enormous amount of hair, filling the whole room. (heightening the unusual).  That gave the whole a bit of a fairy tale character (which is why I labeled the female character a princess).
  • The servant kept commenting about how strong; how beautiful this hair was. The princess remarked that the need to washing one’s hair daily is a “modern misconception” – healthy hair maintains itself.  Which lead to the servant note (heightening)  how well the hair smelled.
  • The hair smelled so nice the odor became so intoxicating, it made the servant fell in love with the princess.  At the same time, sort of organically, the princess character was clearly enamored with the flood of compliments about the hair she had been receiving from her servant.

At that point the train is on the track: there are only 2 outcomes: she will marry her fiancee (and perhaps get rid of the servant, or the heartbroken servant throws himself off a cliff or whatever), or she will choose the servant (and perhaps losing her kingdom, her family and whatnot).

I said earlier I’d give an example of why narrative improv and game-based improv are not mutually exclusive – well here it is: although the players in the above example were used to narrative improv, they did turn the hair comment into a game, and heightened it to the absurd!

The group had a little discussion about whether it would be a good idea to have the princess’s mom enter the scene.  This is improv, there is no right or wrong.  But in terms of “being obvious” my choice would be to have the fiancee enter the scene.   For 2 reasons:

  • That character had already been established (implicitly).  Why create yet another character?
  • If we know the princess might decide to run from her fiancee – what would be the worst person to run into?  Her mom or her fiancee ? I would choose the worst option – if she decides to flee then at some point she is going to have his wrath – that’s pretty “obvious”.  And it’s the heightening of the tension that had been created.

Wrapup

So, after over 20 years of doing improv, the phrases “be more boring” and “be obvious” finally make sense to me.    What is obvious to a superhero character is different from what is obvious to a babysitter character.

Obviously (pun intended) this is just my way of looking at it – chime in to let me know if you agree or disagree.

And this makes me think of another phrase that had puzzled me for a long time: “Play to the top of your intelligence“.  It’s actually related to obviousness – but that’s subject for next month’s blog post.

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