Game Library: “Pop-Up Story Book”

Look no further if you’re searching for a short-form game that can exercise your Narrative muscles while also stretching your literal muscles a little too! Pop-Up Story Book offers a lively frame for creating a delightfully theatrical story. You’ll just need a wide and recently mopped stage space!

The Basics

One player serves as the storyteller while their remaining teammates become the characters “trapped” in the pages of an oversized story book. The mechanics of the game are similar to Freeze Frame (which you can read about here) with the notable exception of the image transitions. The game begins with the narrator introducing today’s story (probably inspired by an audience elicited title) as they stand to one side of the performance space. One or more other players pre-set themselves by lying on the floor as if they are squeezed between the pages of the book. When the narrator is ready to begin, they jauntily zip across the stage (usually starting from stage left) and mime turning an enormous page as they go. When the narrator passes any waiting actor they immediately spring to life and assume a static pose as if they were a cardboard cutout. From their new perch stage right, the narrator now provides the first step of a story that fully justifies the poses of their teammates. When they are ready for a new image, they stroll back across the stage thereby signaling any standing actors to once more lie down in preparation. (At this point, any player waiting in the wings can roll onstage to prepare for the next image, or an onstage actor wishing to leave the action can roll offstage out of sightlines.) Once more, the narrator dashes stage right, turning the giant page as they go, and any stowed player quickly springs up to form a new pose. In this fashion, the narrator moves through multiple tableaux – justifying each one as they go – until the story reaches a natural conclusion. Narrators can also deploy “pull tabs” (discussed below) to briefly animate the current image.


The team acquires “The Lonely Alligator” as the title for their story. Player A dons the role of the narrator and pre-sets themselves stage left while a fellow player (B) lies down on the stage in preparation. The remaining players stow themselves in the wings.

Player A: (to the audience) “I’m so glad to see so many familiar faces at today’s reading session with Librarian AraBella! Is everyone ready to visit the everglades?”

Player A encourages the audience to assume the role of children and some react with fitting excitement.

Player A: “I’m excited to read today’s story which is all about a lonely alligator. Let’s look at the first page…”

Player A mimes turning an oversized page as she jogs from stage left to stage right. As she does so, Player B jumps up and assumes the titular role, their arms extending before them as giant jaws.

Player A: (assessing the image as she continues) “It had been a strangely hot summer, and all the creatures in the everglades were particularly wary, and particularly moody, especially one irritable alligator by the name of Allie that lay quietly in the waving tall grass…”

Player A moves downstage of the image signaling a page turn is imminent and begins to walk stage left as Player B (Allie) lies back down and another player (C) quickly rolls onto the stage. Player A grabs another imaginary page edge and runs across the stage as Player B and C assume new frozen positions.

Player A: “On sweltering days such as these Allie the Alligator always turned to her trusted friend, Bella the Pelican” (justifying Player C’s bird-like demeanor.) “Though the two animals seemingly had little in common, they both shared a distaste for the scorching summer sun, and Allie liked to cool herself beneath the great bird’s wings.” (Looking to the audience) “Let’s see Allie enjoy Bella’s shade…”

Player A steps into the image and mimes grabbing a giant pull-tab. With a self-provided creaking sound, Player A pulls and then retracts the tab three times causing both frozen players to sharply shift their positions and then return to their original poses three times as well. Player A then steps back to the side of the image…

Player A: (as she moves in front of the image once more so that the onstage players can drop to the floor) “Let’s see what happens on the next page…”

The Focus

Concentrate on the give and take between the narrator and those crafting the images. Ideally both the verbal and physical components of the game will work together to inspire a cohesive (although potentially unpredictable) story arc. There are several critical physical conceits that need polish in order to elevate the game’s entertainment value – clumsy staging will quickly diminish the charm and effectiveness. On a simple but important level, you need to have performers who are comfortable and able to safely and joyously roll around the stage and leap up and down. If this level of attack is of concern, you might want to consider a related format such as Freeze Frame instead.

Traps and Tips

1.) Practice the logistics. While I’ve endeavored to paint as explicit a picture as possible of the needed techniques and tempos, it’s unlikely this game will soar without some focused workshopping and, frankly, some spaces just aren’t conducive to the heightened physicality that the game demands. Make sure that tableau players are able to roll on and off the stage without necessitating collisions and bumps. There should also be ample room for the narrator to clear these transitions downstage of the commotion. When executed well, the transitions between pages can look quite simple, but in reality there are a lot of moving pieces that need to be in alignment. The narrator needs a set pattern for striking prior images (generally walking downstage of the image from stage right to left) and then a clear prep for turning the next page (spryly jogging from stage left to right while holding the lip of the imaginary page.) Tableau players need to drop quickly on the first cue, and spring to life with an unequivocal physical choice on the second. None of this is particularly challenging, but it typically takes a few rotations for it to become second nature for the company. For this reason, this format isn’t a great choice for a team thrown together on the night that has never workshopped the basics of the game together.

2.) Pull-tabs need predictability. Firstly, don’t feel the need to insert pull-tabs into every page; in fact, there is a great value to holding off on this element a little until the story has found its footing. (I’ve used one on my second page in the example above so as to provide a walk-through of some of the finesses but in performance I’d usually wait until the third page or later unless the team has stumbled upon an image that simply demands animation!) There is some pull-tab etiquette forged in the improv trenches that I would highly recommend. As the narrator, it’s extremely helpful to verbalize a clear intent for the pull-tab, even if you’re not pitching a specific choice. By this I mean, which characters (all, some or one?) are you hoping to see in action, and how does this connect to the story at hand. Phrases such as “Let’s see Allie defend her territory…,” “Let’s see how the panther responds…” or “Let’s enjoy the couple and their celebration” offer clear clues to your teammates. This is particularly important if you’re hoping to break up the stage picture into two or more isolated pull-tabs. Narrators should provide a clear verbal cue (I use a creaky floor-board type sound) that has a distinct pull and then release energy so that actions can be matched to this tempo accordingly. Often posed players won’t be able to see these cues so a distinct verbal offer is key. Making three such cues in a row provides a helpful template and establishes a norm even if you decide to break this later in the scene. It can also prove tricky in terms of staging for the narrator during these moments: I like the conceit of stepping slightly into the image when you’re cueing the tab device, and then at least briefly returning to the narrator’s perch stage right afterwards so that you don’t accidentally muddy the signal for everyone to drop to the ground between page turns.

3.) Justify for inspiration. Underneath the rather pleasing staging bells and whistles Pop-Up Story Book is a justification game at heart. It’s helpful to launch the game as the narrator with a strong sense of character and style, but be sure to truly elevate and embrace surprises and gifts that should invariably come from the tableaux. So while it may seem helpful to frame each new page with clear directions – “Let’s see Allie venture into the everglades and then stumble upon her arch enemy the panther devouring its prey” – such choices, especially if this heavy-handedness becomes the norm, will greatly impinge upon your teammates’ ability to shape the action. The other side of the coin is that tableau actors need to fearlessly leap into strong and dynamic poses. There truly isn’t time to consult with other players as the page turns, so part of the appeal is seeing how disparate (desperate?) choices become incorporated by the narrator. Physical players should also be sure to balance helpfulness with a little playful mischievousness. Once Allie has been established, for example, it won’t typically prove helpful to have this character disappear for multiple pages in a row. But it could be joyful to suddenly see this character in an inexplicable pose. Just don’t let a little joyful torture or shivving scuttle the story needs.

4.) Enjoy the unique presentation. Pop-Up Story Books tend to appeal to younger readers and so this reality provides a common frame for the game. Savor the opportunities such an approach affords. Endow your audience and encourage their involvement when and if it feels appropriate. Play with language and storylines that might appeal to a younger demographic (even if you’re doing so with a satiric or more knowing wink.) Explore a narrator persona and narrative devices that can maximize the potentials of this more youthful genre. When you’re playing an evening of short-form, scenes can all start to feel a little alike in terms of content and approach; including Pop-Up in the mix can really add a different texture, especially when the physical players truly attack their roles with excitement and playfulness. There is something ridiculously magical about watching improvisers roll all over the floor – and perhaps each other – in their efforts to honor the conceit of the ludicrously oversized story book. If these mechanics are executed with a sense of jadedness, much of the spirit and appeal of the game is quickly lost.

In Performance

This game provides ample opportunities for the exploration of narrative as the storyteller must pleasingly and instantaneously combine unexpected elements in a way that utilizes the images and charts a journey of note. As this format is a little technically complex, many of my pointers have focused on best staging practices. I’ve referenced an earlier Game Library entry several times in this description, Freeze Frame, and it’s definitely worth visiting this post here for additional narrative pointers as both games draw from a similar creative well.

Cheers, David Charles.
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© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Narrative

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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