Longform Narrative Improvisation

This past weekend I attended one of the most amazing workshops I’ve ever been a part of (which isn’t a lot but I know this one was really good).  The 2nd Parallelogramophonograph Narrative Intensive.  This workshop focused on longform narratives in improvisation.  This is on the opposite end of the improv spectrum from my last post about short form game improv in that you are establishing a coherent story with a protagonist, plot, coherent growth and development of character, and (hopefully) a conclusion.  While this is difficult to pull off when you are just thinking about it from a montage standpoint, there are some tricks and techniques you can use as an improviser to establish the storyline of the main character and help lead to their development and conclusion.  Though we work to build a coherent story throughout the show, it is still improvised.  There should not be anything decided already before the show begins.  The establishment of the protagonist and the story should be completely organic.  Following are some techniques we worked on in the intensive to help us establish who the protagonist is and what the story that we are trying to tell is about.

We talked a lot about the “Story Spine” in the workshop.  This is the blueprint of which all stories are made from.  You can take any story (film, play, literature) and almost always you can break down the plot into these categories:

  • Once upon a time…
  • And every day…
  • Until one day…
  • And because of that…
  • And because of that…
  • And because of that…
  • Until finally…
  • And ever since that day…
Once Upon A Time…

This is the establishing scene of the story.  Everyone is familiar with the concept of “once upon a time”, we have heard it hundreds of times growing up and hearing fairy tales and such.  This introduces us to the protagonist and establishes location.  On stage this is also the time we use to identify which of the players will be the protagonist for the story.  Some techniques we used to identify the protagonist include:

  1. If a player wants or needs something from the other players
  2. they have something to lose
  3. they are separated by the rest of the group and may even be put down by them
  4. they are often center stage
  5. they are writing in a diary or narrating
  6. the person plays low status

We want to get as much pertinent information during the first part of the initial scene as possible.  Character names, location, wants, needs, etc.  The more details you can establish in this scene the easier it will be to build the world for the characters throughout the show.

And Every Day…

This establishes the daily routine of the character(s) in this world.  It helps establish normalcy in the world of the characters.  This part is informative, it allows us to see how the protagonist interacts with the other characters and gives us some more background on the people we are seeing.  One thing we did that helped establish the routine of the protagonist was using short heightening scenes to show what the protagonist goes through during a usual day.  This can be pushed together with “Once upon a time”.

Until One Day…

The disruption.  This is the part that throws the normalcy of the protagonist’s world upside down.  Finding something the protagonist cares about and will be affected by greatly is very helpful here.  This is the meat of the show, the plot development, the beginning of the “adventure” you might say.

And Because of That…

This shows how the protagonist is affected by “until one day”.  The job of the supporting characters is doubly important during this part of the story.  They offer the protagonist strong moral choices to help move the story.  The protagonist should be affected in a way by the choices presented here.

The following “And Because of That…” sections just work to build on what happened in the first section.  Each one should be how the protagonist is affected by the previous “And because of that”.  There is no limit to the number of “And because of that” you can have in a story.

Until One Day…

Many things have happened to the protagonist during the previous sections, affecting them in various ways.  This section acts in the same vein of “Until one day” in that it is a disruption to the “And because of that” in a way.  This is the section where the characters might have a realization of some type and may change something about themselves.  This change leads directly to the next section.

And Ever Since That Day…

The End.  It establishes a new platform for the protagonist and shows how the protagonist has been changed in new ways.

That is the overall blueprint of plot for any story.  It might vary slightly but you can break down almost any story into those sections.  As an improvisor this gives you some structure to building your longform scene.  It makes it easier to remember structure and plot line as long as you follow those basic principles mentioned before.  The Story Spine is awesome for narrative improv because it takes the guess work out of what part of the story should come next and frees you up to come up with character traits and such.

This intensive was, well, intense and we went through a lot of ideas, techniques, and exercises of which I will talk about more in later posts.  Right now I’m done with this one though as I’m sure the 5 of you that came through to read this blog are tired of my babbling now.  Please comment on your thoughts about this post or longform improv itself.

May the Force be with you.


4 thoughts on “Longform Narrative Improvisation

  1. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and your summary of Story Spine. Teaching those classes is so invigorating, and it really helps clarify what exactly our techniques are. It’s a cliche’ that teachers learn as much as their students, but it’s totally true.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I was trying to come up with something similar, and then bam, here this is! I used this in a workshop yesterday and it was immensely helpful.

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