I encountered this narrative exercise during my Theatresports days and so it likely traces back to the teachings and writings of Keith Johnstone. The rather clumsy name I jotted down, Word Association Reincorporation Story, essentially defines the constituent elements. This is a great workout of your memory, along with your shelving and Reincorporation muscles.
Players work in pairs with one serving as the brainstormer (A) and the other as the first narrator (B). Player A is given approximately thirty seconds to free associate a random collection of phrases and images. Player B must then construct a narrative that reincorporates as many of these story fragments as they can recall. Upon the completion of the first story, Player A and B exchange roles and the process repeats.
Player A: “A dripping ice cream cone. The smell of dried roses. A small shoe box. A couple laughing at a restaurant table. A dog sprinting across a lawn. A rusty key turning in a lock…”
The caller or instructor signals that 30 seconds has finished.
Player B: “It was the kind of summer day that you always hope for. The sun was high in the cloudless sky, dogs – freed from their leashes – were joyously sprinting away from their humans, and Raj and Sarla soaked in the sights from their quaint outdoors restaurant table. In simpler times they had frequented this bistro often, but it had been a year full of challenges and obligations, and this beautiful day was the first time their schedules had aligned and brought them back to their favorite haunt. They shared another laugh as the waitstaff refilled their cups…”
The narrator should strive to weave Player A’s ideas into an interesting and coherent story finding opportune moments to include shelved elements and then incorporate (and reincorporate) them into the mix.
Traps and Tips
1.) Randomness generally helps. As Player A crafts their list of elements it can become challenging not to have them all center around a common theme or energy. As best you can, aim to include some randomness and disparateness as this will more likely inspire and challenge the storyteller. To aid in this regard it can be helpful to deploy the concept of the third thought or skipping a step. If the ice cream cone makes me then think of the summer heat I can “skip” this image and move onto the dried roses (a result of too much heat.) Although perhaps avoid going out of your way to needlessly include glaringly anachronistic or stylistically incompatible choices – a laced corset, a space ship’s tractor beam, the first brick’s of an ancient Egyptian pyramid… The exercise has enough innate challenges as it is!
2.) Think images rather than just words. As modeled in the example, images will generally inspire more dynamic adventures than just a list of simple words – dog, coffee, flowers. This is a less common approach to word associating but it is worth practicing as it provides choices with richer details and potentials. It’s also helpful if your image associations don’t all belong to the same category: if everything is a different feature of the landscape, or a new character, or a detailed hand prop then you are listing in a way that could hamper the resulting narrative. If this happens organically then so be it, but if you have the wherewithal to spot the trend as it’s unfolding, then perhaps jolt yourself onto a new thought pathway.
3.) Use what stands out to you. It can feel as if the contract of the exercise is that the story teller must use all of the first player’s thoughts. While this is certainly an admirable ability, at least initially narrators should feel empowered to focus on the specific choices that intrigued or inspired them. If narrators rush through the list in the hopes of checking everything off it’s possible that rich offers won’t get enough time to develop and bloom. It’s more than okay to loiter around a few choices that feel dynamic and worthy of your time as the storyteller, especially when you’re setting up the foundation of your narrative. Even at my computer I felt a pressure to move past the laughing couple so as to get to something else, but they are likely to emerge as the story’s protagonists, so it’s helpful to give them sufficient time “on stage.”
4.) There are many ways to make the images important. While I caution against a “quick hit” mentality of just mentioning an associated image and then moving on, there are many different ways to make each offered detail significant. For example, while it’s possible that the leash-less dog will make a return (perhaps they knocked over a child holding the ice cream cone) their initial appearance did a lot in terms of setting the mood and tone of the story. Don’t feel obliged to use each offer with the same storytelling brush stroke. That being said, as I’ve partnered this exercise with the concept of reincorporation, do remain open to strategic reappearances when they present themselves. Especially if you’re searching for the next step, it’s a tried and tested narrative tool to reach back onto the improv shelf to repurpose a dormant detail.
It can prove helpful for pairs to have a short debrief after each experience perhaps with a guiding question such as “what was a particularly successful or memorable use of an associated element?” Much like its similar counterpart, Advance/Extend Stories here, this exercise typically results in joyful and rich stories that remind us as players to simply use what we’ve been given! If you use a random word or image generator, this is also a good solo improvising exercise that can sharpen your story skills and confidence.
Connected Concept: Reincorporation