“Once you decide you ignore content it becomes possible to understand exactly what narrative is, because you can concentrate on structure.”Keith Johnstone, Impro. Improvisation and the Theatre. 1979. New York: Routledge, 1992. p.111
While Narrative can reference a style of long-form performance that tends to mirror Aristotelian or linear scripted models (see here) the term can also more simply refer to the spoken (or embodied) story-telling elements of our play. Whether or not your work explicitly incorporates an individual or shared narrator role, narrative skills and techniques serve as the bedrock of improv disciplines committed to convincingly sharing well-crafted stories. Narrative, after all, is the study and application of what gives stories shape, cohesion and power. Subsequently, improvisers are wise to study and closely consider this aspect of their craft. As I unpack here, narrative skills also resonate with many of the strategies deployed by an adept host or emcee in terms of how they structure and steer the course of an improv event or enable the arc of the greater show.
Player A: “The window shutters strained against the relentless chilly breeze as the grand old house stood shivering on the Atlantic beach front…”
Qualities of Strong Narrative
I often base my introductory improv lessons squarely in the domain of story-telling as I’ve found this familiar element facilitates focused and team-oriented play. In such instances I’ll often close workshop sessions with some version of the question, “What did you see or experience that struck you as particularly effective?” The answers are surprisingly consistent from class to class and apply with good measure to both performance style and substance:
1.) Confidence. Johnstone nods towards this quality a little in his observation above in that if we become obsessed with the what or material of improv at the expense of the how or structure the process and results are likely to suffer. It’s rare and perhaps even destructive for an improviser to “know” exactly where a scene or story is heading, especially during the initial moments of inception. As this sense of uncertainty is a given, there is something bracing about watching improvisers face this reality with calm confidence. When we feel that the story is in good hands, we can also relax as audience members as those crafting the action at least appear to know what they are doing. On the other hand, narratives constructed with an air of fear or panic are much less likely to draw the audience into the creative act. The popular adage “fake it until you make it” would seem to directly apply here.
2.) Point of view. Whether a narrative explicitly traces the arc of one character or voice, or is a collective amalgam, a story can quickly lose steam and effectiveness when it lurches inelegantly from one perspective or attitude to another. While confidence embodies an awareness of the “how” or delivery style, a unified point of view invites us to consider the “why” behind a story. Why is this story being told now? Why is this narrator or cast of characters focusing on these particular elements or issues? Why should we be paying attention to this journey? Now in reality, once again, this “why” is rarely known or explicit when the story launches, but as the scene evolves, it’s important that subtle clues are mined and honored. As tentative answers present themselves to these questions above, it’s helpful for team members to keep these front of mind. Pursuing a unified point of view also invites individuals to cede their personal agendas to serve the greater narrative that has become centered.
3.) Detail. Narratives lacking in detail quickly become tiresome or cliché as specifics will imbue the most well-worn scenario or starting point with completely new shades and potentials. Just as a story’s point of view will likely emerge gradually as the scene unfolds, the significance of any one detail is likely to remain obscure until the narrative has had sufficient room to expand. So, as Johnstone notes, it’s less critical to puzzle over the nature of any one specific rather than commit to a story-telling approach that provides an assortment of rich specifics in general. There are certainly moments when we might deliberately add an element of foreboding to the story arc, but it is more common for shelved facts to become dynamically important after-the-fact as we look backwards for options to help us move the narrative forward. Be wary of an over-abundance of buckshot details as this can make a story drown, but a dearth of detail or nuance robs narratives of their generative spark.
4.) Consistency. I write a little about the concept of consistent inconsistency here and I’m not advocating for characters or storylines that are devoid of change, ambiguity or internal contradictions; however, narratives tend to soar to greater heights when they develop and uphold stylistic conventions and behavioral norms. If you have created a world in which animals speak and this is an accepted part of that story universe, then it’s important that this reality remains in play (or if animals now suddenly can’t speak then this is recognized as a really significant plot twist.) If your narrative takes place in an everyday modern world, then be wary of radically shifting the tone and inserting aliens (unless, again, this is a deliberate move that everyone accepts unquestionably and is pitched as an earnt surprise from within the established context.) Stories that are a little of this and a little of that but not a whole lot of one thing in particular (perhaps inadvertently reflecting the competing preferences of the players) rarely coalesce in pleasing ways. As a narrative finds it’s own voice be sure to elevate this quality.
5.) Connection. In terms of connection, I think it is helpful that as storytellers we give at least some attention to our tone and content. I concur with Johnstone that structure unlocks multitudes of options by deemphasizing the stifling need to elevate content to the point that we become imprisoned by the impossible task of finding the one “right” detail. However, I also hold that there is value in understanding your audience’s expectations, experiences and preferences. While a children’s fantastical story might please a younger audience, it could have a limited shelf life in front of a more ribald night-club crowd without adjusting its tonality or focus. And erring in the opposite direction – crafting edgy mature content for a grade school gathering – is more than likely to elicit a parental letter-writing campaign. Know your audience – although this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strategically challenge or surprise them as well. On a simpler level, also truly connect to your audience when it’s appropriate: make eye contact generously through the fourth wall as the narrator if this is in keeping with the format’s premise; play with the audience and not merely in front of them.
One of the most profound gifts of improv narratives (in comparison to our scripted kin) is that they are much more likely to prove porous and multi-vocal. An editor doesn’t go back and cut away the delightful transgressions or messes that may, in all actuality, be some of the moments that most resonated with various sections of the audience. As tellers and players we needn’t ascribe meaning immediately to each choice as it is born; rather, we can let each idea grow at its own pace trusting that if we explore narratives with bravery and attention, our structures of play can do a great deal of the heavy lifting. Allowing our audiences to connect the dots alongside us as performers is part of the appeal of the improvisational craft, as is the tacit understanding that, on some level, we have eschewed the illusion that theatre can produce a singular narrative in favor of an appreciation that ultimately significance is in the eye of the beholder.
Connected Game: Pop-Up Story Book