A mainstay narrative and team-building exercise, Word at a Time Story reinforces many important improv lessons about ceding control, accepting others’ offers and trusting small obvious steps. In addition to the traditional version which serves as a great rehearsal warmup in its own right, I’ve included a variant that I use to reinforce the importance of Looking Backwards and the intentional use of reincorporation when it comes to story construction.
While I might initially model this exercise with the whole class or ensemble in one circle, I’ve found that it generally works best in smaller groups of six to eight players so that there isn’t too long a wait between each player’s contribution. One player in each circle volunteers to speak first and the narrative generally moves around the group quickly in a clockwise direction. Each player provides one word each in this established order to construct complete sentences that tell a story. Stories may be inspired from a title or prompt (less experienced groups tend to find this helpful) or, alternatively, just start from glorious “nothing.” Players can indicate end punctuation with a pointing gesture and suitable “boop” sound effect – it’s advisable to let the “next” person in the sequence make this call in case they intend to keep a sentence growing. Such punctuations also do not count as a player’s “word.” A series of sentences are made in this fashion until the story reaches its conclusion.
Phase One – Traditional: Players initially create stories with no language restrictions (other than exercising good taste!) Emphasis should be placed on achieving a steady and jaunty tempo, and allowing the narrative to evolve according to the whims of the group, as opposed to the agenda of any individual.
Phase Two – No Repeats: In this second version players are now instructed that they are no longer allowed to repeat or reference any previously established elements or characters. This restriction includes alluding to former ingredients in a generic sense, so if the first sentence is “Susan… walked… down… the… street… on… a… sunny… day…” future sentences can’t use “she” to allude to Susan, or “it” to bring back the street (or reuse the walking, sun or fact that the story takes place during the daytime.)
Phase Three – Traditional: Upon experiencing the second variant it can prove liberating to at least briefly return to the original iteration.
Both versions of the game provide opportunities to reflect on how stories are successfully engineered. The first (and third) iterations are challenging, but can allow for simple and elegant narratives when teams embrace the organic flow. The second iteration shows via negativa the importance of looking backwards and reusing previously established offers. When this tactic is restricted, the narrative quickly starts to resemble a poetic stream of consciousness or collaged image (perhaps beautiful in its own way) rather than a cohesive story.
Traps and Tips
1.) Contribute rather than direct. If you’re not diligent, there can be a tendency to stop the emerging narrative in order to discuss challenges, consider fumbles, or brainstorm possibilities for others’ contributions. While such pauses are nearly always well-intended, they will invariable grind the story to a halt. Weave missteps into the narrative and avoid the temptation to direct the story or the verbal offers of your teammates. There will nearly always be moments of irregular grammar or syntax: let them go and do the best that you can to right the ship while it’s in motion. Once the story has made it to the finish line it’s appropriate to quickly discuss any technical issues, but critiquing the process as it’s unfolding or creating an energy of judgment (as opposed to playful acceptance) is unlikely to do anyone any good. I’d only amend this approach slightly when playing the second phase if players continue to reference previously used items as this undermines the experiment.
2.) Consider narrative style and voice. Third person narratives tend to work best in this format (“Eroni opened up the box…” instead of “I opened up the box…”) as this gives a clearer focus and prevents the protagonist’s identifiers changing from speaker to speaker. It can prove wise to establish some broad content parameters as well so that stories don’t become needlessly “adult” – most improvisers find it easier to add racier content if it’s suited to the venue than they do to make content more family-appropriate when it’s required if they have rarely exercised these “PG” creative muscles. To this end, I’ll often offer that the stories are being told to a young relative or similar just to encourage an inclusive tone. Players should also strive to set and maintain a brisk tempo as this helps the flow of the story while simultaneously discourages individuals from escaping into their heads to find the “best” or most “original” word. Technically, it can also prove helpful for players to take their breath one or two words before it’s their turn so that every offer isn’t preceded by a delaying pause.
3.) Surrender your individual. Whether it emerges as a well-intended director voice helping others to get it “right,” as a “helpful” but ultimately stubborn contributor trying to pull the story in a preferred direction, or as an unhappy critic rolling their eyes when the story moves into unexpected terrain, the more you try to control a Word at a Time Story, the more likely you are to ultimately undermine it. I write about this inability to cede control when I previously briefly discussed this exercise here. Not every contribution will always feel the most blazingly radical, but the story needs players who are willing to provide the pedestrian but structurally critical words (“the,” “an,” “there…”) The group also needs players to step up when it comes time to name that object, advance to the next plot point, or offer up a specific discovery. The randomness of the word-at-a-time dynamic means that you will quickly move back and forth between these extremes as the needs of the story dictate. Serve the story; serve the team.
The second version of this exercise is undeniably frustrating but for a helpful purpose (so if you’re the exercise leader, don’t rush through this one.) Removing the ability to use prior story threads and elements clearly reinforces just how crucial it is for storytelling to recycle what has already been established. When we become too focused on what might happen next we can lose track of all the possibilities at our fingertips that have already been created and are just waiting to find a new purpose or moment to shine.
Connected Concept: Looking Backwards