There are few short-form games that are more simple or elegant than Shared Story. It’s a story-telling game stripped of most gimmicks and excess so there is very little room to hide in this structure and players must work closely together to literally and metaphorically stay on the same page. I’ve diagnostically paired the game with the concept of Chapter Two-ing (leaping over small steps into the future) as this tendency will quickly undermine the narrative flow and pay-off.
A team of players (four or five works well) form a line in front of the audience and a title for an original story is obtained. Each player holds a mimed copy of the proffered storybook. One at a time, generally starting with the player most stage right and moving in order across the stage, players step forward and read (that is, improvise) the next small passage of the story. When their contribution is complete they step back into the line and the next player in sequence picks up exactly where their predecessor left off. The story continues moving swiftly from reader to reader until a natural conclusion is reached.
Players receive “The Persistent Parrot” as their story prompt and form a line.
Player A: (stepping forward and reading from their copy of the “book”) “It was a humid afternoon in the tropical rain forest. A thunderous storm had just swept through the dense canopy, drenching the forest with its powerful might.”
Player B: (stepping forward and reading from their book) “The once-frightened creatures slowly made their way out of hiding, assessing the damage of the unwelcome but all-too-frequent visitor. Soon the air was filled with the sound of wildlife once more.”
Player C: (stepping forward and reading) “Atop one of the tallest trees that stood proudly in the center of the forest, a particularly colorful parrot perched, looking studiously at the scene below.”
Player D: “(stepping forward and reading) “He called out with a piercing cry, his eyes darting anxiously from tree branch to tree branch, all the while looking…
Player A: (stepping forward) “…for the young chick that had once shared his nest. He cried out into the wind again, but with no avail…”
In a nutshell, the focus of the game is strong and collaborative story telling. Players should seek to craft one unified story with small and logical steps, avoiding unnecessary leaps by generously utilizing the specific choices and ideas offered up by their teammates. Consider the emerging tone and style of the piece as well – the format can function as a simple whimsical children’s story, a more robustly poetic Gothic tragedy, and anything in between; but it requires players to carefully listen to each other and reflect back these tonalities.
Traps and Tips
1.) Confidence is key. Make sure you truly sell your contribution each time you step forward to add to the story. One of the fun aspects of the central conceit that everyone is reading from the same story book is that players are not really “responsible” for any weirdness that ensues: those choices were just in the book after all! A simple story told with energy, excitement and conviction will nearly always land well, while a more complex piece can struggle if the players’ anxiousness is clearly evident. Exuding confidence is good advice for all improv, but is particularly the case for such a gimmick-free game as this.
2.) Prioritize the story. Don’t avoid the fact that story is the priority for this game. Players can tend to insert unearned gags or gimmicks in an effort to evade the challenge at hand, so be wary of such choices eclipsing the narrative arc. While it’s certainly appropriate for a player to end their offer in an ellipses, for example (as Player D does above), such choices should set up your scene partners for success and joy. When these moments become wimps – deferring the responsibility of making a detailed offer – they can quickly diminish the momentum of the story, especially if this then becomes a recurring gag. Pass offs such as “And then something completely unexpected happened…” or “And that’s when she solved everything with one simple sentence…” may work well when utilized sparingly by teams with high levels of trust and bravery, but are more likely to scuttle the story if the team is struggling or just starting to find its stride.
3.) Contributions come in all shapes and sizes. There is ample room within this game to explore and honor a wide range of narrative gifts and inclinations. Not all excerpts need be the same length; in fact, it can provide a great energy shift to dynamically move from several sentences to a few carefully chosen words and back again. The ideal length of any given contribution is whatever is needed to make the current choice rich and helpful. Players can utilize their moment to largely extend on and enrich a detail or moment offered by a fellow teammate, or opt to advance the story with a dynamic next step. Or, obviously, they may do a little of both. Encourage and nurture this variety and individuality as each story unfolds.
4.) Commit to the physicality. The physical components of Shared Story are minimal but important and will add a great deal to the polish and flow of the story. Make sure players step forward and backwards with energy and conviction if they’re able. Sluggish movement during these moments will quickly allow the momentum and interest to dissipate resulting in a narrative that never really seems to build steam. I also like the device of everyone committing to holding their own copies of the mimed book as this also gives a nice physical presence. Occasionally I’ve seen players pass along one copy up and down the line but this inevitably results in lulls and stalls as players fumble with the logistics of a mimed prop, especially when Player D needs to get it back to Player A at the end of each round. A fun finesse (that is a little gimmicky I’ll confess) is that players can all turn the story book pages at appropriate moments to punctuate important actions, although be careful of overusing this motion or it quickly becomes distracting.
5.) Explore story structure. This game is a great receptacle for polishing other story-telling and construction skills. I’ll often pair it with the exercise Four Sentence Story, noting that we may now spend several sentences honoring a singular story component: in the above example, the first three narratives could all be considered part of the “introduction” function, with a “problem” not clearly emerging until the fourth and fifth additions. Shared Stories tend to succeed when they err on the shorter side, perhaps two to four minutes in length, so this also necessitates that they do not become needlessly meandering nor expansive. I’ve found that stories that don’t have a very clear here and now or struggle to focus on the path of one particular protagonist can quickly become unwieldy and ultimately unsatisfying. Small connected steps are critical as there is rarely time to successfully build beyond the current “chapter”; leaps in the narrative to a Chapter Two rarely reap rewards as, by definition, they tend to erase the utility of earlier choices and demand a new array of story elements and specifics.
I will confess that I don’t program this game in my short-form shows as much as I’d like to as players and audience members alike don’t always fully appreciate the substantial skill required to make such an unadorned narrative structure shine. Compared to “flashier” games it can feel a little naked. But this is a much loved standard in my classes and workshops as it is a great way to sharpen narrative skills and quickly diagnose tendencies that might be tripping up players as they strive to build effective stories together.
Connected Concept: Chapter Two