This week’s addition to the Game Library pairs with the story concept of Advancing. Because embodies the concepts of making small steps and always looking backwards as we endeavor to move our scenes and stories forward.
Players form a circle and one volunteers to provide the launching statement for the narrative, such as “Jamaica opened the refrigerator door.” The next player (typically moving in a clockwise direction) makes the next small step by first repeating the prior statement, “Because Jamaica opened the refrigerator door…” and then adds their own story piece, “her nose was hit by a terrible smell.” The next player continues the same process, repeating the prior action before adding their own. The story moves around the circle until it finds an organic conclusion.
Player A: “Jamaica opened the refrigerator door.”
Player B: “Because Jamaica opened the refrigerator door, her nose was hit by a terrible smell.”
Player C: “Because her nose was hit by a terrible smell, Jamaica took a step backwards and retched.”
Player D: “Because Jamaica retched, she covered her face with her hand.”
Player E: “Because she covered her face with her hand, she didn’t see the rotten cantaloupe teetering precariously on the fridge shelf…”
As noted in the introduction, this is a great narrative exercise to practice the skill of making small connected steps that fully utilize the ideas that have come before. Players should be wary of trying to push the story in their own preconceived direction, but rather embrace the flow that organically emerges as each sequential player adds a small new detail or nuance.
Traps and Tips
1.) Make sure sentences start with “Because”. This is a small but critical detail. As the story starts to take off, players can accidentally omit this word or place it in the middle of their offer which can have the undesired effect of moving the story backwards (rather than using previous choices to move the story forward). It’s worth pausing the story and correcting the phrasing when and if this occurs. Obviously this rule doesn’t apply to the first narrator.
2.) Third person stories tend to work best. The story can stumble if it’s told through the perspective of an “I” as the identifiers of the protagonist will now change as the action moves from speaker to speaker. It’s easier to assume a third person voice and to provide a definitive name for your primary character. I think it’s also helpful to get into the practice of keeping this name alive as the story develops (as well as the names of any other characters that may appear) so that later contributors don’t needlessly struggle to identify the various people involved.
3.) Discourage large leaps in the narrative. It’s surprisingly easy and tempting to push the story multiple beats ahead with one offer, especially if you have a sense of where you want the narrative to end up. For example, Jamaica could go running out of her front door and drive to her sister’s house as one suggestion, but this large move leaps over the possibly dozens of smaller beats that would happen along the way, many of which could unlock new paths and potentials. If such a leap is offered, invite the narrator to isolate and offer the first smaller constituent action: “Jamaica took a step towards her front door to escape the smell…” This can feel a little pedantic initially, but I think the exercise benefits from erring on the side of embracing the minutiae. The exception to this rule would be players stalling the action through passive “thinking” and “deciding” choices which can almost always be rephrased more actively: we don’t need to offer that “Jamaica decided to take a step towards her front door,” for example.
4.) Encourage strong connections to prior choices. Sure, Jamaica could grab a mop right after opening the refrigerator door, but this choice doesn’t fully unpack the initial suggestion of the refrigerator. As the narrative grows, opportunities to re-incorporate previously mentioned or shelved ideas will appear as well, which is another good example of moving forward by using what has come before. In this sense, naming the source of the smell as the rotten cantaloupe is a way of referencing an earlier choice and keeping that reality at the forefront of the story.
5.) Balance momentum with side-coaching. I can struggle with this a little as nearly every contribution could warrant some discussion, feedback or perhaps a tweak. If your group is playing this for the first time, this is a little unavoidable initially as you explore the intent and gift of the exercise, but strive to let the action find some build and energy, allowing some time for thoughts at the completion of the exercise. Similarly, my preference is to play the game standing to try and keep the group’s energy up although this can be challenging in larger ensembles when players are waiting considerably longer between their contributions. I’m also intrigued by the thought of performing the story with “Jamaica” in the above example now acting out each step in the middle of the circle. (This would be similar to the conceit of What Happens Next? if you’re familiar with that game.)
The lessons of this exercise easily apply to our scenic work as improvisers: games that involve story-telling and narrative devices, in particular, would make for a logical next step. When played patiently and attentively, Because also reminds us how joyful it can be to construct a simple and tight story collaboratively, making sure every idea is suitably received and celebrated.
Connected Concept: Advancing