There are lots of different styles and forms of improvisation (as you already know) and one of those is telling a linear story. I’m certainly not the voice of narrative improv, being more Del Close in my schooling than Keith Johnstone, but I love and use narrative in some of the shows I perform. Without getting too bogged down in the Hero’s Journey and hitting story structure hard, you can use simple approaches in your improv show to create a narrative where you aren’t furiously trying to remember a lot of information or awkwardly struggling to tie everything up in the last five minutes.
1. Tell one story
It’s very tempting to have an A, B and sometimes a C story when you get excited. You can enjoy other characters you meet along the way without having to tell their individual stories too.
2. Make or discover your protagonist
The easiest way to keep it simple and tell one story is to make a that story fits around one character. Make it very clear who that character is and follow them. Maybe put them in every scene just to be sure.
3. Find a want for your protagonist
An emotional need gives us a very clear route through any story. Even if it's a physical object they want, there will be an emotional reason for the desire. What they are searching for will lead them to people and places.
4. Do it now
It feels like it would be fun to save the Prom or the Explosion or Getting the Diamond for the end of the show, but why do filler for 40 minutes and hope everyone else is on the same page for the ending? Do it now. Have the Prom in scene two and see what happens afterwards.
5. Be super obvious
To avoid confusion, state what you think is true and what you think is going on. If this is your father, call him Dad a lot, if this lady seems mean; tell her that she seems really mean. Keeping secrets or being subtle about an idea will have people drawing different conclusions.
6. Start recycling half way through
Once you hit the halfway point in your story you don’t need to add anything else. Pick up any character, location, object or idea that has already been mentioned and use it again. Think of your story in the shape of a diamond; wider, wider, wider, then halfway through you make it narrower again until it all ends in one point.
7. Weird shit will happen anyway
You’re improvising, not writing, so some odd things will happen in your story even if you try hard to stop them. You really don’t need to work hard to put in strange and interesting ideas. Be obvious. Do the next most obvious thing and justify oddness when it arises organically.
8. Let it go
The story may well go in a completely different direction than you thought it might. That is GREAT. Improv is art by committee; making a collective story that any one of you couldn’t have written on your own. Relax and enjoy the new journey rather than forcing your own story agenda.
Good luck and thanks for reading!
If you do want to get nerdy about story structure, my favourite structure nerd is Dan Harmon. You can find his story structure blogs here.
My book The Improviser’s Way: A Longform Workbook will be published by Nick Hern Books later this year. To find out more and learn about my classes and shows all over the world, join my (monthly) mail out here.
There are many blogs! Search here for unlisted topics or contact me.
Katy Schutte is a London-based improviser who teaches improv classes in London, Europe and the States. Katy performs with Project2, The Maydays and Destination. See her live show dates for upcoming shows.
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