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Improvising satisfying scenes and stories

In the most basic narrative format a series of events happening to specific people in specific places unfold at a specific time, following the law of cause and effect in a linear progression.

It looks something like this:
Exposition, Development, Resolution, or
Exposition, Development, Crisis, Resolution, or
Exposition, Development, Crisis, Climax, Resolution, Denouement.

This progression can be devised into:
- Beginning
Exposition: who, where, when - Founding Incident: what - Quest: how.
- Middle
Crisis - Dilemma - Confrontation.
- End
Climax - Resolution - Denouement.

Linearity and point of view can be tempered with but you should find that most stories follow this basic pattern, probably because it offers maximum clarity and satisfaction to the listener, and possibly also because this template is almost hard-wired in our brain, which would go some way to explain its universality among our species.

    Take Snow White. Exposition: after being introduced to the characters (who), place (where) and circumstances (when), the story establishes the queen's routine with the mirror before Snow White coming of age interrupts this routine (founding incident). The queen then tasks the huntsman with Snow white's disappearance (quest). Development: the hunter can not resolve to kill Snow White (dilemma) and instead abandons her in the forest (crisis). Snow White founds refuge with the dwarf (new routine) but the queen discovers the betrayal and gives Snow White a poisoned apple (confrontation) which leaves her for dead (climax) until prince charming resuscitates her with a kiss (resolution) and then they live happily ever after (denouement).

This structure can help us to analyse and understand the making of stories but it is not that useful to improvise in the “here and now”. Our cognitive capacities are finite and reflection (what shall I do, what are the rules) can be detrimental to perception (what is already happening, how do I feel about it), especially in the early stage of the training when stress is still a big part of the equation. What's more, it doesn't tell us how to compose a scene.

If we reduce the narrative structure to its most basic components: Exposition, Development, Resolution, we can observe that it is recurring at every level of the story: scenes, segments and the story itself. For example, going back to Snow White, the scene where the huntsman leads Snow White into the forest follows the same Exposition, Development, Resolution structure as the story itself. And so do all the other scenes. And so do the beginning, middle and end segments of the story. This quality is called self-similarity, or fractal, as first theorised by Benoit Mandelbrot. The big advantage of fractals is that they pack a real punch in a tiny initial amount of information. This structure is simple enough to be used by improvisers without bringing them back “inside their head”.

Keith Johnstone called this template “Platform, Tilt and Resolution”. In this model, the Platform is similar to the Exposition segment mentioned above and is where we meet people, places and circumstances. The Tilt turns the situation on its head and the Resolution is what ever the protagonists make of the Tilt. This structure can be improvised at any scale. In a 30 seconds scenes, a gloomy man found a banknote in the street and jump in celebration (exposition), a nearby tramp claims that the money is his (tilt), the man feels obliged to give the money to the tramp and resumes his gloomy walk (resolution). In a two minutes story, a couple move into a new house. They found the old tenant living in the garden shed (exposition). He proposes to guard the house, barking like a dog if he hears suspicious noises at night (tilt). The couple agree to let him stay in the shade (resolution). This last story could also be treated as a long form and each segment subdivided in three sub-sections with each sub-section following the same three parts structure.

There is nothing quite like improvising satisfying scenes and stories but it's a hit and miss affair. Less experienced companies will often get lost in a maze of half-explored and over-laboured ideas wile the most experienced ones might stick to fixed archetypes and narrative progressions which are only half improvised. So be prepared to show infinite patience and forgiveness to yourself and others, keep taking the risk to go where you have never been before and to favour connection over content. This is where the pleasure is.

© Remy Bertrand - Imprology 2006/2015
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