If you’re looking for a fun narrative exercise that explores various ways to disrupt story line routines, Fortunately/Unfortunately should fit the bill!
Players form a circle and someone volunteers to provide the introductory sentence of an original story. As the narrative moves from one player to the next around the circle, narrators alternate beginning their sentences with “Fortunately” or “Unfortunately”. The former preface invites a positive turn in events, while the latter serves as a lead in to a problem, complication or disruption. The story continues in this pattern until a natural conclusion is reached. Several stories can be told in succession depending on the size of the group to facilitate full involvement.
Player A: “It was her first day at her own real estate company, and Kira excitedly turned the door sign to open.”
Player B: “Fortunately, traffic had been surprising light that morning and so Kira got a great parking spot right in front of her new office.”
Player C: “Unfortunately, she didn’t notice the pigeon perched in the oak tree sprawling over her freshly washed car until she looked through the glass door and it was too late.”
Player D: “Fortunately, Kira was always prepared and had wet wipes in her bag that she pulled out to clean up the mess on the roof of her car.”
Player E: “Unfortunately, Kira’s first client arrived early and she became flustered as she tried to minimize the embarrassing site of her dirty car.”
Player F: “Fortunately, Kira’s client, Claire, had parked under the same tree and suffered the same fate so they shared a laugh…”
There is an interesting (though albeit challenging) tension in this game as your lurch from good news to bad news and back again. Subsequently, each established routine will often quickly become disrupted or re-framed. Focusing on this skilled manipulation of the story arc is where the major gift of the game resides, but this might initially require a slightly more cerebral or patient approach.
Traps and Tips
1.) Beware of erasures or cancellations. There is a fine line between inverting the energy of a prior choice and accidentally negating or erasing it. For example, if the prior narrator establishes that it was a beautiful day without a cloud in the sky, and this is followed by an unfortunate thunder storm, we have essentially wiped away the prior choice with our own. Similarly, if it’s established that a window-rattling thunderstorm is occurring and we immediately have the good fortune of it passing in moments, again we haven’t really taken on the weather as an important and essential fact. This may feel like a subtle distinction, but more dynamic stories will evolve if previously established circumstances are fully embraced and weaved into the core of the story arc. New offers should strive to be additive rather than cancelling.
2.) Avoid large narrative leaps or disproportionate problems. The story is more likely to feel successful and dynamic when small but significant choices are made that purposefully allow room for the additional ideas and advances of others. If Kira shows up on her first day to find her real estate office burnt to the ground as the first “unfortunately” complication, this may have the effect of leaping over dozens of smaller offers that could have, in turn, eventually led to this greater catastrophic outcome. You certainly could leap into the middle of a story in this fashion, but there is a value in looking for the subtle and inherent smaller steps that have their genesis in prior ideas. I’ve found players tend to err on the side of making major story leaps especially when they play the exercise for the first time: the game takes on a different energy and finesse when this is discouraged as a general approach.
3.) Endeavor to keep the forward momentum or central goal. This is another nuanced goal that can further sharpen the focus of this storytelling exercise. The abrupt changes between good and bad fortune can easily pull the story away from a driving objective or goal. Again, this is not necessarily problematic and it can be exciting to watch the curve of absurdity exponentially grow as our central character faces one escalating and daunting challenge after another. But as I’ve tried to model in the example above, there can also be a value in applying this narrative technique to a more simple or “slice of life” scenario and then working to see if you can steer your protagonist through a more measured and connected series of events. Can we ultimately help Kira win over her first real estate client in in new office in spite of an ever evolving series of challenges and set backs? If her office immediately burns down, or a meteor destroys her car, or an earthquake consumes her, we are likely to quickly move away from the initial story objective or promise. Using the “fortunately” steps to reconnect the protagonist with their overall objective can help in this regard.
4.) Discourage planning ahead. This is a particular challenge in circle games as players can have the very human tendency to count ahead, determine whether they are going to be “fortunate” or “unfortunate,” and then start composing their “great” choice well before the action actually gets to them. This tactic is often responsible for large story leaps as offers become disconnected from the unique gifts lying dormant in the prior narrative choice. Encourage active listening and a “looking backwards” attitude that seeks the next step in the prior actions. If this planning tendency remains pervasive, you can also randomize the order of the narrative by having players throw the focus to a new player across the circle after each contribution (just make sure everyone is getting a chance to contribute).
I don’t know if I’d necessarily advocate for such a predictable flip-flop of good and bad complications as a common scenic strategy, but the skill of being able to gently make matters better or worse is a critically helpful narrative technique. Played patiently and carefully, this exercise also teaches pacing and the effectiveness of making proportionate choices that enable the game to gradually build as opposed to leaping to a perceived destination.
Connected Concept: Breaking Routines