Game Library: “Narrator”

Narrator, also known as Dimestore Detective, places one player at the center of the action and empowers them to comment on the events and their own character’s feelings through the sporadic use of asides. Typically, these shared thoughts express the fictional point of view of the character, but they can also be used to directly communicate needs and choices to fellow players. Subsequently, the mechanics of the game provide a simple means for rehearsing Speaking Your Truth onstage.

The Basics

One player serves as the internal narrator which may take on a detective function or pursue a more “everyday” persona as is the case with classic series such as Malcolm in the Middle, Everybody Hates Chris, or Clarissa Explains It All. This character periodically utilizes first-person narration through asides to contextualize the action. The remainder of the scene plays out in the traditional fashion through dialogue and action.


Player A, the narrator, starts the scene miming a downstage high-school bank of lockers. As they unload their school bag for the start of the day, they talk directly to the audience.

Player A: “It’s been three days since the mysterious unsigned Valentine’s day card showed up in my locker. Now I’m certainly well liked at this high school, Mount Cooks, but I’ve been wrestling all weekend while working on my debate speech as to the unknown author. I was lost in a bit of a daydream when I heard their familiar voice from the other side of the locker door.”

Player B has entered and started using the locker beside the narrator.

Player B: “I hope you had a good weekend! Or were you thinking about that card the whole time?”

Player A slams their locker shut to talk directly to their friend.

Player A: “It was a little bit of both! Nicole, I’m just at a loss as to who it could be…”

Player A leans against their locker clinging to an over-sized mathematics textbook, forlorn.

Player B: “You are the smartest person in this high school – smarter than half the teachers! You’re the captain of the debate team, after all! If anyone can figure this out…”

Player A: (narrating to the audience) “Nicole is my best friend, and she’s usually right, especially when it comes to assessments of my intelligence. I have Ms. Rosendahl’s pre-calculus first period so we had to walk and talk…”

They both start down the hallway.

Player B: “And you know my theory anyway. That transfer student seems to be oddly interested in everything you do…”

As soon as this new character is mentioned, Player C assumes their identity and leans on the classroom door.

Player C: “I wondered if you were going to break your perfect attendance record…”

The Focus

The requisite skills for Narrator draw liberally from the canon of other well-loved short-form games. Make sure your featured character both shapes and enables the play of others. It’s a frightening part to explore if there’s any sense that your teammates expect you to make all the significant offers.

Traps and Tips

1.) Think Prologue. Much like the short-form game Prologue, the narrator function provides a great opportunity to establish the mood or style of the scene that can, in turn, set up the team for considerable success. It’s by no means necessary for this character to hit the stage first in order to provide such a preamble, although the game will feel a little odd if they don’t arrive on the scene reasonably quickly. As an omniscient character, it’s typical for this character to be privy to most, if not all, significant events. The narrator has the unique option of utilizing overt storytelling techniques, so don’t overlook this chance to really craft a playful stylistic landscape that the team can then reflect and expand.

2.) Think Typewriter. In Typewriter the author usually sits at the side of the stage; Narrator brings this presence (and all their tools) into the action proper. While there may not be time to deploy all of the typist’s “tricks,” look for chances to provide backstory details, add environmental influences, or embellish the location through descriptive scene painting. By telling the audience your history with a featured character, intensifying the mood with weather features, or strategically placing a pertinent prop within arm’s reach, you can do much to raise the stakes and interest of the scene. And you also have the power to facilitate quick shifts in time or location as they’re needed just by announcing them: “An hour later, I was sitting in the cafeteria…”

3.) Think They Said, They Said. The role of the narrator also shares some of the staging devices that are central to They Said, They Said. It’s important that fellow players retain agency and are not treated merely as empty-headed puppets, but gentle adjustments or options can also be pitched from the narrator position. These may be purely dramatic in nature, seeking to reinforce current traits and games, or can take on a little bit more of a diagnostic vibe. In the first category the narrator could encourage a character to double down on their own choice that may have inadvertently fallen by the wayside: “Nicole is the most relentlessly positive person I know.” In the second, the narrator can gently address staging problems such as a crowded stage, uninspired stage pictures or cajole activity in a scene that has devolved into talking heads: “She waked over the chalkboard and started to diagram the possibilities.”

4.) Think Asides. The physical gimmick of the game draws very much from the theatrical tradition (and improv game of the same name) Asides. The narrator should quickly establish the rules of this game that help the audience and fellow players discern when they are taking a private moment with their thoughts as opposed to engaging in public dialogue. Often, a simple but clear change in stature and tonality will suffice: turning flat to the audience and assuming a slightly more confidential air. Other players should continue gentle activity and avoid eye contact with the narrator in these moments, and although the improvisers should very much hear, process, and apply any offers from the aside, it’s important that their characters don’t gag by commenting on this theatrical conceit or it’ll lose its agency: “Who were you just talking to…?”

5.) Think Conscience. And just as the game Conscience plays with the concept of text and subtext, so too can the narrator on multiple levels. Contrasts and contradictions provide rich gifts on the improv stage, and the narrator is uniquely situated to endow and reveal lies and tensions. In their own dialogue, they can share their truth before or after providing its antithesis in the dialogue: “Ms. Rosendahl isn’t just going to let me leave class early so Nicole and I came up with a ruse.” Similarly, narrators can contextualize another character’s words by elucidating juicy prior actions or motivations that they have discovered. If your scene partner is treating you with treacle-like affection, noting to the audience that they always do this when they want something will encourage new games and tactics from your fellow player.

In Performance

The intersections this game shares with so many others reveals the numerous potentials and challenges that await the improviser who assumes the central role. While they might have more tools at their disposal than their scene partners, there is little these tools can do without exciting and rich materials. Non-narrating players should enter bravely and with purpose, trusting in their own instincts and the narrator’s ability to adjust the direction as needed. Speaking Your Truth informs each of the above strategies as it is through an honest exchange of needs that the narration and narrator can best serve the scene.

Cheers, David Charles.
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Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo
© 2022 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Speaking Your Truth

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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