“Beware of the man who won’t be bothered with details.”William Feather, American publisher
Extending (some prefer the synonym expanding) works in conjunction with advancing as a storytelling and narrative construction tool. Advancing refers to the action of a scene, the events that occur one after another moving the characters towards a dynamic outcome. Extending serves the story by providing interest and nuance, painting details that ultimately increase the power of the story along with the likelihood that the audience may actually care or be moved by the journey. A story without sufficient extending will typically feel like a distant echo of the human condition, a mere facsimile or under-nurtured seed in desperate need of development. Arguably there are only so many archetypal stories that we tend to retell again and again: person A meets and falls in love with person B but they come from opposite sides of the tracks; travelers go on a long journey and face monumental hardships just to return home and ultimately discover themselves; an epic character seals their own tragic fate when they are unable to appreciate their deepest flaw… It is in the extending or the peculiar details of each retelling that familiar stories take on new and exciting faces.
The boy walked down the road…
Details Worthy of Your Attention
As we tell and embody stories, almost any facet can benefit from a little additional attention and extending, but here are some of the more obvious targets:
1.) Environment. Whether it’s the weather, the topography, or the scenery, giving some early attention to the greater world of our stories invariably establishes rich details that will inspire our future actions. It is difficult, after all, to reincorporate strong choices later in the process if our improv shelf has been left largely bare. Selecting one or two elements for additional scrutiny will, in turn, make them more rich and memorable. We rarely know exactly where the interest or potential of a story will ultimately lie, so it almost doesn’t matter what facet of the world you chose to feature so much as that you just commit to something with gusto and conviction.
The boy walked down the treacherous mountain path while the harsh wind dashed against his frozen limbs…
2.) Props. Once you’ve considered the bigger picture, shift that lens to the smaller facets of the story. Hand props, pieces of clothing or smaller items that populate the stage space provide rich vehicles for better understanding the world of the play and what might be at stake for our central characters. Any randomly selected object can become worthy of our attention if we merely imbue it with care and specificity. As smaller objects are more likely to move with our characters or reappear in a later setting, they are particularly malleable and useful. They can also reveal the inner life of our personae and promote action as they will often give our characters something to do.
The boy nervously clutched the trembling lamb as he walked down the treacherous mountain path, while the harsh wind dashed against his limbs…
3.) Character. The people that populate our stories are equally worthy of attention and extending. In scenic work, this tendency allies closely with that of endowing where players generously bestow traits upon one another to provide backstory and complex relationships. This function and utility remains in narrative work where the action resides primarily in our verbal choices. As most stories focus on a handful of characters to move the action along, we are much more likely to remember and connect to these people when they are well crafted and nuanced (and on a simple level, have names). Exploring the emotional state of a character further provides information that can jump start the tension or rising action.
The terrified young shepherd, Kwame, nervously clutched the trembling lamb as he walked down the treacherous mountain path while the harsh wind dashed against his limbs…
4.) Mood. Finally, extending can powerfully capture and create a unifying mood or tone for your scenic work. Are we living in a carefree PG-13 world, or a dark and brooding thriller? Does the story assume the fanciful and timeless air of a fairy tale or parable, or is it an urban dystopia populated by hopelessness and decay? Just as specific choices and character traits can be repeated and reflected by improvisers to craft a cohesive whole, so too can mood and atmosphere. All it takes is for someone to elevate the style (perhaps even delightfully accidentally) and for the rest of the team to fully accept that this is now part of the deeper fabric of the story.
The foreboding moon loitered overhead in the cloudy night sky. He knew all-too-well the rumors that had been circulating about the fates of those who stayed out too late, and so the terrified young shepherd, Kwame, nervously clutched the trembling lamb as he walked down the treacherous mountain path, while the harsh wind dashed against his limbs…
Details and joyful extending are the special sauce of improv: they just make everything better!
Connected Game: Advance/Extend Stories