When introduced to the concepts of advancing and Extending many improvisers and storytellers will find these dynamics deeply familiar – even if they previously did not have names for them – as they are so ingrained in our shared narrative traditions. Advance/Extend Stories provides a low-risk opportunity to consciously explore and define these techniques so that they may be more deliberately deployed in future work.
Players work in pairs. One player (A) serves as the first coach, while Player B acts as the first narrator. I have a deck of well-loved flashcards that I use as prompts for this game with each coach receiving a random location, occupation and object, but you can also just provide players with a title or similar inspiration. Player B begins telling a fictitious story based on this title or one of the flashcards, striving to create an interesting and dynamic action. As the narration develops, Player A in their role as coach can offer two forms of quick verbal feedback. They can say “advance” thus signaling that as a listener they are ready for the next step in the rising action, or they can offer “extend” at which point the narrator should flesh out and provide more details about the current element. If you’re using flashcards, the coach can use these as visual prompts (revealing them one at a time as they see fit) in addition to using the two verbal prompts. The exercise continues in this fashion until the story concludes. Players then switch roles and receive a new title or set of flash cards.
Player B uses “The Old House” as inspiration for their story.
Player B: “It was a particularly cold night during a winter of particularly cold nights. Just stepping out onto your porch would result in visible puffs of breath painting patterns in the air. Icicles clung precipitously off the roof eaves, and it seemed that all of nature was in hibernation…”
Player A: “Advance.”
Player B: “Amir wrapped his heavy jacket around him as he continued up the winding path. He checked his cell phone once more. It’s low battery light was blinking but it confirmed that he was heading in the right direction: up. The old house suddenly loomed on the horizon…”
Player A: “Extend on the house”
Player B: “Paint was chipping off the exterior walls and it felt at times as if the wind might knock it off its perch atop the hill…”
Primarily narrators are striving to craft interesting and dynamic stories that are generously shaped by their fellow player and coach. Given the freedom and encouragement to do so, storytellers should explore their own styles and narrative proclivities.
Traps and Tips
1.) Coach with love. It’s important that the coaches value the success and joy of the narrator as their utmost goal. If their suggestions take on a more “gotcha” energy you will likely undermine the story and its teller. Offer the nudges of “advance” and “extend” when you honestly feel they will help the story and maintain or elevate your interest as an audience member. Avoid needless loops or diversions: sure, you could ask them to extend on every facet of the old house on the hill but after a while this will stall the action and bog down the story with minutiae. Coaches should, instead, just trust their honest instincts to help shape a story that appeals to them and maintains their attention.
2.) Explore focused extensions. While the prompt of “advance” contains a consistent message of “I’m ready for something to happen now,” an “extend” can be wielded with a little more precision and finesse. Narrators might stumble across a scenic element, prop or character that has been left largely undefined. Offering the specific target of your “extend” in these situations proves helpful by asking “extend… on the large tree” or “…on the face in the window.” In this way you can gently shift the emphasis of the narrative and possibly unlock a new potential that the storyteller might not have otherwise polished. This is much more useful than just randomly offering “extend” without identifying any particular facet of interest: you don’t want the author to have to guess what you might have in mind.
3.) Don’t overdo it. When serving as the coach it can feel as if you have to keep providing feedback to the storyteller. If the narrator is on a roll there may be no need to do anything other than enjoy the story for large swathes of time – and that’s okay! Remember that the coach’s primary aim is to set the narrator up for success. Often players will find that merely having these terms brought to their attention encourages them to instinctively advance and extend without verbal encouragement. If the narrator is in the zone, an unexpected or unnecessary adjustment from the coach is likely to do more harm than good, so know that as is the case with all improv, sometimes your active presence and listening is the greatest gift the scene needs.
4.) Take narrative risks. This exercise can prove effective with almost any content or style of narrative so enjoy this open playing field when you rotate into the author position. Tell the type of story that you like to read or hear; create characters that represent your own experiences or passions; explore journeys that appeal to your individual sense of adventure and wonder. Don’t aim too low or simple with your narrative voice especially if you have a strong sense of the tools in play. As we investigate paradigmatic devices that often frame or structure stories as we’ve inherited them, we can simultaneously push and question these very traditions and assumptions.
While players may have moments of struggle in terms of a few mechanics or plot stalls, I’ve found that in the vast majority of cases this exercise routinely enables energetic and enjoyable stories. The central premise of balancing action with details clearly applies to all improvisational scenic construction and raising awareness of these techniques will offer an accessible tool for quickly addressing or acknowledging missed opportunities.
I don’t typically comment on the accompanying image but this is taken from It’s All Greek to Me, a fully improvised Greek tragedy. A standard feature of the piece was the use of odes created by a chorus of ten improvisers where, more often than not, the content heavily rested on the ability to deeply extend. This poetic and descriptive function was very much in keeping with choral odes as they have survived in the extant plays.
Connected Concept: Extending