Game Library: “Alphabet Game”

Accepting bold choices, delivering each fearless gift, honoring instinctual justifications, keeping letters mindfully near or purposefully – quickly – rigidly sequenced, that’s unequivocally vital when x, y, z… come around. This is Alphabet Game, a short-form classic designed to test your Verbal Skills.

The Basics

Players perform a scene in which the first word of each line of dialogue must begin with the next successive letter of the alphabet (not every word as painfully demonstrated in my belabored introduction!)


A scene is based on the premise of a “builder.” Player A and B begin…

Player A: (pushing on a wheelbarrow) “Another beautiful day – we’re making great progress!”

Player B: (surveying the progress) “Believe it! We’ll have finished our own prairie home in no time at this rate.”

Player A: “Crib will look perfect in this little corner…”

Player B: (surprised) “…Don’t think we’ve had that conversation yet…”

An awkward but light pause as they both build for a moment. Player A looks to B lovingly…

Player A: “Every house is made a home with children…”

Player B: (now a little rattled) “First one crib, now plural children: how big a family are we talking about here…?”

The Focus

Verbal restrictions challenge players to craft a well-balanced scene in spite of the distraction of sequentially moving through the alphabet. However, when potentially brain-stumping handles are played with a fearless spirit, these restrictions can actually create as much rich content as they thwart.

Traps and Tips

1.) Alternate dialogue. A standard “rule” for Alphabet Game is for alternating players to take on the challenge of justifying the next required letter. If one player rattles off several sentences in a row starting with the pertinent letters – especially as an expression of panic or in an effort to shine – the game quickly feels lopsided or just unclear. Rigorously change speakers for each letter. In addition to sharing the work and rewards of the scene, this also gives your partner a second to have the next needed letter front of mind for when it’s their turn. Avoiding an overcrowded stage further helps in this regard as with only two or three characters activated at a time, it’s easier to determine who will be talking next.

2.) Bold each step. If you’ll forgive the oxymoron, it’s important to exaggerate or emphasize your featured alphabetized word just a little. Habitual “ums,” “wells,” or other introductory utterances prior to the officially needed first word will just confuse your audience and teammates while reducing the effectiveness of the scenic enterprise as a whole. Make sure the word that corresponds with the required letter unequivocally launches your speech act. And consider giving this word a little extra emboldened punch: perhaps it’s the operative or most important word in your sentence or laced with extra subtext or passion. If you throw away the featured word or obfuscate it with a messy preamble, the alphabet train often derails quickly.

3.) Condense your exchanges. Just as scrolling through multiple letters in a row as a singular character tends to muddy the waters, it can prove similarly challenging if players are routinely voluminous in their offers. If it’s been forty seconds since your “sentence” started, the chances are quite high that everyone will forget your first letter by the time you finally hit that final punctuation. There are obviously exceptions: if you enjoy adding style – Shakespeare or similar – into the mix, a monologue or soliloquy, especially at a climactic moment, certainly honors your source material. I don’t tend to impose a rule that only one sentence can be uttered for each letter as, frankly, that’ll likely cause unhelpful confusion as players try to parse each other’s intended punctuation with little added value to the scene. But if you always take a paragraph to your partners’ concise five-word sentences, then consider breaking up your preferred pattern if only for the sake of variety.

4.) Don’t just stand there. Don’t let the prescribed verbal game pull you exclusively into your head as an improviser. Yes, it’s almost unavoidable that there will be times of struggle – often attributed to a forgotten letter or an unsuccessful search for the right word – and yet it’s part of the performance value to relish these struggles a little. After all, if the game is too seamless the audience may not fully appreciate the skill they have just witnessed. But also make sure you’re not just improvising from the “neck up.” Create a dynamic world complete with interesting scenic elements and potentials for activity and action. In this manner, when a silence hits, your character can fill this time with justified movement and energy while the audience can simultaneously enjoy the sight of the improviser squirming underneath. Which also reminds me that you also shouldn’t be afraid of a little strategic silence in general. When players just immediately bark out their dialogue because they have the next needed letter, the scene can start to feel oddly inhuman.

In Performance

There is some debate – at least in my own improv circles – about whether to always start the scene with the letter “A,” or if it facilitates stronger work to elicit a random letter to serve as the impetus for the first line of dialogue and then pick up the sequence from there. When you start with “A” you’re setting up a climax of “X,” “Y,” and “Z.” (Although some companies will then return to “A” as needed if there’s still a little more scene required to reach a satisfying button.) The rationale for and against the “A” start hinges on whether or not repeatedly facing this climactic language challenge seems appealing or routinely bears fruit. There is no question that “X” and “Z” have very few options, and if every Alphabet Game ends in “Zipper’s down…” then shaking it up will hopefully rescue you from the pit of desperate bits. But, if players remain playfully present and open to new discoveries, I find this seemingly insurmountable hurdle a glorious pinnacle for the scene.

Also avoid “x-treme,” ”x-cited,” or “x-tra” approaches to that formidable “X” position as these often won’t fly with a more discerning audience. It’s probably worth your while to at least glance at the half page of available options in a dictionary if you play this game with any frequency!

Cheers, David Charles.
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Photo Credit: Tony Firriolo
© 2023 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Concept: Verbal Skills

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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