Four Sentence Story provides a helpful narrative exercise that breaks down the constituent elements of a basic story arc. In terms of Balance (definition #1), it uncovers some helpful dynamics and trends when considering how to initiate scenes rich with potential and interest. I use this or a slightly more robust variant in most of my rehearsal processes as it clearly unpacks the foundational features of a simple story progression while allowing players to rotate into the various functions.
Depending on the size of your ensemble and the time you have available, you can play this is one large circle or break into smaller groups of 4 to 6 members, although I’ll usually model it once for the group as a whole if this is their first time working with the exercise. Four players participate in each sequence, working together to craft a single story with four distinct sentences: the first provides an introduction, the second continues by developing a problem, the third wraps up the action with a solution, and the final sentences tags the narrative with a moral or resolution. After the story has been completed (and perhaps quickly debriefed) the roles switch around one position, so that now the “second” player assumes the role of beginning a new tale with an introduction. The process ideally continues until everyone in the group has had the opportunity to play in each position at least once.
Player A: (Introduction) “It was a cold and stormy night as Stacy drove down the windy country road in her rental car.”
Player B: (Problem) “All of a sudden she heard a loud popping sound as the car lurched, sending her hurtling off the road heading dangerously toward a giant oak tree.”
Player C: (Solution) “Fortunately, Stacy was able to regain control of the car just in time, bringing it to a halt just inches from the giant tree’s trunk.”
Player D: (Resolution) “As Stacy sat sheltered from the storm under the tree’s mighty branches, she took out her cell phone, relieved that she had opted for the premium insurance on her rental.”
Keep your attention on building a coherent story that fully utilizes the elements that have already been established or implied. Stories told in the third person tend to work best especially if we follow a clearly identified protagonist (and use their name repeatedly). In terms of balance, the first player should strive to set a strong tone that is specific enough to spark the imaginations of those who will follow. If it is too simple, “Joe was a little child,” it can make it difficult for later players to avoid inventive or overly-original choices.
Traps and Tips
1.) Play at the top of your intelligence. When you first tackle this game it can be helpful to do a round with slightly simpler content in order to make sure everyone fully understands the obligations of each narrative position. Once you have a sense of these roles, however, raise the bar in terms of your language use. If you deploy more dynamic or poetic words and images, the stories are likely to inspire your teammates and take on deeper meaning. With only four sentences these stories will likely feel a little abridged, but you should still strive to make them eloquent and well told.
2.) Pursue strong story telling techniques. This could be a substantial list, so I’ll hit some major points here and recommend you review other entries such as Advancing here and Extending. Look to give the action a grounded sense of time and place (rather than summarizing events that have occurred over a wide period of time). To this end, small steps can be helpful, and each subsequent action should have a clear and “logical” connection to those that have gone before (“logical” in that the connection should at least make clear sense to the current teller). The most satisfying stories are often those that have most judiciously used the established elements, weaving them throughout the four sentences as needed.
3.) Avoid fulfilling others’ story functions. As this exercise offers an elegant but concise story model, it can be problematic if narrators start to fulfill other assigned functions. This most often occurs in the first “introduction” position as it can be tempting to inadvertently foreshadow or offer a problematic element. (The “cold and stormy” night in my example above is arguably on the verge of this, although I think here it is providing mood and stakes rather than a problem per se.) Discourage this as best you can. It’s important to establish the value of a stasis or balance in and of itself as this creates a snapshot of the world in equilibrium. When you rush to the problem often there are fewer details established in the given circumstances from which later elements of the story can gain inspiration. If a fellow player does inadvertently step into your terrain (and a re-start seems inappropriate) I’d advise extending or heightening in order to satisfy the requirements of your assigned sentence rather than offering up an alternative or secondary choice.
4.) Embrace the details and style. Details are everything in this exercise and it can keep the game interesting and fresh after multiple re-visits if players are keenly exploring different voices, moods and styles. I tend to facilitate the game without providing a launching title so there is a lot of freedom in that first position to craft some unique rules for your world. As players become more adept it can be joyful to seek to fully embrace not only the specific elements and offers, but also mirror and expand the established tone of the piece. Are we in a typical modern world, or are there supernatural elements at play? Is this a teenage love story, or a gritty crime drama? Leaning into adjectives and nuanced images alone can add a whole new level of challenge and specificity. While the game is called Four Sentence Story, once the basics are mastered, it’s certainly in the spirit of the exercise to encourage each speaker to expand upon their contribution beyond a simple or run-on sentence.
There are a lot of storytelling games that explore some form of story structure or spine, but this remains one of my favorites as in spite of its seeming simplicity it can house a wide variety of surprisingly detailed narratives. If you move from this narrative exercise into scenic work, it can be helpful to consciously consider where you are in this four element structure and what particular role performers may be fulfilling. For example, if two players begin a scene and are struggling to move beyond the stasis or introduction, it is not uncommon for the gift of the third arriving player to be that of the problem. Similarly, if the scene has essentially solved it’s crisis, this should be an impetus for the team to look for a resolution (a loose equivalent to a scenic button).
Connected Concept: Balance