“The key to realizing a dream is to focus not on success but significance – and then even the small steps and little victories along your path will take on greater meaning.”Oprah Winfrey, O Magazine, September 2002
Advancing is a key narrative and story construction term that defines the forward momentum of a scene. To advance is to take the next logical step in the rising action as our characters pursue their underlying goals or objectives. In simple terms, each advance in the story is another beat or plot point and when we string them all together you have a description of the scene’s dramatic arc. The companion term, extending, adds detail and nuance as opposed to the skeleton of the story itself. I don’t tend to think of extending as an opposite as good story telling and scenic construction require a thoughtful balance and tension between both elements.
Player A enters the kitchen and notices a broken glass on the floor.
Reaching down to pick it up, they cut their hand on the glass and begin to bleed.
In discomfort, they move to the sink and start to rinse their hand under the faucet.
The cold water shocks them, instinctively making them step back carelessly in response.
The sudden movement makes Player A slip on the blood on the kitchen floor, and they fall, hitting their head on the kitchen table…
Some Thoughts on Advancing your Advancing
I tend to frame advancing as a story-telling tool, but it clearly applies to all our scenic work as improvisers.
1.) Small steps are key. As Oprah observes, if we take small steps in our stories, the events that unfold are likely to take on greater significance and meaning. Sometimes our excitement as improvisers can make us rush through the narrative arc, especially if a sense of where the story is heading has become clear. Fight this instinct to leap ahead. So much of the joy and dynamism of improvisational story-telling is true discovery in the moment, and we don’t want to lose sight of the gifts of the here and now. In the example above we could have easily just had Player A clean up the broken glass in one generic sentence. By breaking this larger action down into smaller steps, we invite the possibility of new discoveries in the smaller actions. As the oft-quoted adage notes, so often in improv the scene occurs on your way to what you thought was going to happen.
2.) Reduce, reuse, recycle. In addition to making needlessly large steps I often observe improvisers cramming in too many ideas, actions and events into their scenes probably from the fear of being too boring or obvious. I would offer that stories, in general, suffer from excess rather than lack. This may be the result of each player wanting to make sure they’ve made a significantly noticeable contribution, or not trusting that there are enough elements already in play, or perhaps just an inability to actively listen so that rich ideas are carelessly dropped or missed. Regardless of the cause, the result is typically the same: a story that becomes overburdened with increasingly disconnected and competing actions. If you are improvising the first scene of a two-hour long-form, some excess might be helpful and warranted as you’ll have ample time to get back to it later, but if your goal is to craft a cohesive arc in a shorter amount of stage time, less is almost always more.
3.) Pursue the “inherent” move. To return to the above example, after Player A stoops to pick up the glass, a flying saucer could pull the roof off the house and teleport them inside. This could certainly result in an interesting scene, but this offer could be inserted as a later move in almost any scene. You’ll go on much more interesting, varied and dynamic journeys if you privilege and honor the scenic ingredients that have already been established. It’s helpful to ask ourselves what elements are already known or what are the rules of this particular snapshot of the world that are in play. The arrival of a flying saucer would also be an example of offering a giant leap rather than a small step. Consider instead how you can elevate or heighten ingredients that are already present, which brings us to my last suggestion…
4.) If in doubt, look backwards. In our efforts to push a scene to the next moment we can often lose sight of all the gifts and ideas that are already at our disposal. This Johnstonian philosophy of looking backwards to move forwards in many ways links all of the prior advancing observations. If we’re rushing too quickly through the actions, we’re likely to miss nuance and potentials. If we are anxiously bringing too much to the improv table, it will probably be at the expense of choices that have already been crafted and developed. If our offers are too “original” or disconnected from the given circumstances, then it’s foreseeable that we might be erasing rich or nascent ideas that would benefit from patient focus and attention.
The above strategies emphasize the need for us to take our time with our story telling and give every choice its moment in the sun. In our efforts to craft interesting stories and scenes, we can fail to trust that exciting actions can emerge gradually and organically. These suggestions are somewhat predicated on the assumption that specific and nuanced work is occurring, which is where the companion concept of extending very much comes into play. But I’m constantly reminded in the improv workshop how captivated I can quickly become by a team deeply listening and moving the action along one small obvious step at a time. So while the very concept of advancing suggests momentum and progression, keep in mind that it doesn’t mandate that you need to rush to the end of each scene; in fact, I would offer that it encourages us to take our time to enjoy the unfolding process along with our audience, savoring each “little victory” along the way.
Connected Game: Because