“The improvising process often makes the improvisor concentrate on small elements because (s)he cannot see the overall whole. This means that a multiplicity of elements is likely to build up, especially where a number of different improvisors are interacting with each others’ small units.”Hazel Smith and Roger Dean, Improvisation, Hypermedia and the Arts since 1945. Amsterdam: Overseas Publishing Association, 1997.p.33
This is another phrase that I’ve adopted that may not be in wide circulation. To Chapter Two primarily refers to a narrative or story building inclination where players leap over the promise of the current moment in the action (our shared Chapter One, if you will) to move attention elsewhere, typically in the more distant future. Such a move will often – deliberately or otherwise – ignore the current story or contracts in favor of something perceived as newer or more interesting. When players engage in a “Chapter Two” it’s generally emblematic of not deeply listening to the subtle or hidden potentials of the current moment, or perhaps not fully investing in these established details. It can feel like a re-set, “do over” or sudden shift in the mood or flow of the story. In other instances, this concept embodies advancing run amok, with the potential of several interconnected smaller choices being preempted or eclipsed by a leap to the beginning of a new but generally loosely-related idea. In yet other cases it describes the act of missing a strong ending by carelessly initiating another journey particularly in a timed scenic environment where such an extension could prove problematic. I’ve come to use this phrase as a short-hand way of acknowledging that a needlessly large leap may have just squelched something of interest that was already percolating and worthy of our attention.
A team is taking turns providing for narration for a story based on the suggestion of “train”.
Player A: “The rickety train was slowly and steadily making it’s way along the mountainous track, weaving through narrow valleys and winding trails deep within the dense forest.”
Player B: “Inside, a collection of wary people huddled. The cold mountain breeze pushed against the train cars, occasionally intruding through an open door or cracked window, jolting the passengers back to reality with each chilly blast.”
Player C: “The train engine started to audibly strain as the mountainous path ahead became increasingly steep. The steady rhythm quickly giving way to less predictable shudders and stammers.”
Player D: “Jim excitedly met his younger brother on the train platform. He had a great day planned for their reunion, revisiting all of their favorite childhood haunts.”
How to Keep Your Story on the Same Page
1.) Know who your story is about. The likelihood of a Chapter Two moment increases exponentially if we’re unsure whose story we are telling or following (noting, that especially in the long form tradition, we may be weaving multiple arcs together). In the above example a strong sense of mood and environment was created but we were pretty deep into the introduction without having any particular character of note. It is certainly possible that we might follow an unexpected protagonist – such as the train itself or the weather enveloping the mountains – but it’s important that the team arrives at agreement as to this focus as soon as possible or else the story becomes more prone to the potential for a sudden and probably unhelpful shift in focus. Especially in narrative games, just clearly naming your protagonist early and often can dramatically reduce this risk.
2.) Know what your story is about. Related to the above, if we’ve all embraced and added to a common goal or energy for the story, we’re less likely to upend our scene partner’s efforts accidentally with a sudden ill-timed tonal shift. Player D’s offer, while helpfully providing a specific character for us to follow and focus on, neglected to accept the overarching theme and energy of the train and its passengers struggling against nature. It’s inevitable that the particular focus or theme of the story will continue to morph and develop, but jolting the scene out of the very energies that have inspired and defined the action thus far will typically confuse or disappoint your collaborators (and audience). Siblings reuniting is a choice rich with potential, but in this instance it has largely erased or cancelled what has come before.
3.) Know when your story is set. My experience would suggest that a Chapter Two moment is also more likely to occur when the story is set in a “somewhere” or “general” time rather than a clear and specific here and now. If you’re talking about trains or mountains in general or weather patterns over an unspecified landscape or period of time, it can often prove challenging to satisfy the above recommendations which, in turn, makes it more likely participants might be on radically different pages. On the other end of the spectrum, if the scene or story rushes through every moment, leaping from what happened a month ago, to what happened last week, to what’s happening today, it can also prove challenging to craft a unified arc. Sure, successful stories can exist under these circumstances, especially in more thematic or non-linear long-form modalities, but in more contained narratives narrowing your focus to a clear now will keep your story train on the tracks.
4.) Know where your story is set. Similarly, darting between multiple or unrelated locations dissipates the momentum of the scene (unless, again, this is the very style of play you’re engaging in). The above example includes such a leap in place. While Player D has provided us with “train proximity” through the creation of the station, this move leapt us through the potentially arduous journey that was only just starting to unfold. There are unquestionably times when scenes or shows essentially demand a location change in order to unlock the maximum potentials of the story in the most dynamic way possible, but every time you leap to a new locale, you might be leaving the most interesting thing that you’ve created behind you, especially if the location has almost become a or the character in and of itself.
5.) A possible exception (or two). As with most improv strategies or dynamics there are always some pertinent exceptions. I would rarely advocate a Chapter Two move but have seen and used it myself when the story has meandered into needlessly problematic or potentially offensive material, especially when improvising in front of young or corporate audiences. In such instances, a reset might actually serve the cast and audience to honor prior content expectations and parameters. Non-linear forms can also benefit from sudden tonal and focus shifts especially when there is a shared understanding that established elements have only been temporarily suspended and will be retrieved and recycled from the communal improv shelf later in the performance.
In general, a Chapter Two moment tends to be a symptom of vague-prov, poor listening or competing visions for the “best” path forward. As always, dynamic improv is nearly always the journey rather than the destination, and we should resist leaping ahead at the expense of the here and now.
Connected Game: Shared Story