When I was a young writer, I attended an improvisational storytelling workshop run by members of Improbable Theatre. I was enamored of their stunning productions of 70 Hill Lane and Shockheaded Peter, and jumped at the opportunity to learn about their approach.
One of their techniques came from Keith Johnstone’s book Impro – an alternating word story. You stand shoulder to shoulder with someone, arms around each other, and tell a story about yourself while alternating words. Left, right, left, right. One word at a time, ideally while it acting out. For example:
Once upon a time I went to the store. I bought some pickles and saw a zombie.
This technique is great because it’s impossible to steer the narrative toward any one writer’s goal. It also exposes all sort of authorial pitfalls. People try all sorts of techniques to control the story. Some would blurt out more than one word, or accidentally jump ahead of prepositions to reach the precious nouns and verbs. Others used lots of adverbs, adjectives, lists, and other filler words in an attempt to forestall action. And many pairings told stories that were nonsensical and episodic, thing to thing without through-line.
The Improbable Theatre guys took this in stride, and gave tips for overcoming each of these roadblocks. Move toward action; think about what came before; don’t try to steer the story; listen to the other person; focus on one word at a time; find the ends of sentences; and so forth.
Once we started to get comfortable they invited two people up in front of the group to tell a story while acting it out. I volunteered, put my arms around my partner’s shoulders, and we began.
We were a farmer, dealing an influx of rabbits in the yard. We kept finding new ways to successfully kill or remove the bunnies, until finally, we turned the corner and saw a FIERCE, GIGANTIC RABBIT. After a fearful description of our massive foe, we slowly turned away and said:
“…but first I think I need to get a bigger net.”
“Wait. Hold up!”
“You’ve established the conflict. We know who your enemy is. Why are you running away? The audience doesn’t want to see you go dig in your closet for a net. We want you to confront that rabbit, grapple with it, climb into its ear, stab it in the brain and emerge – bloody, gross and victorious – aaaaaaahhhh! That’s where the story is.”
As a young writer, I often wanted to enjoy the company of my characters without changing them. Even now it can be easy to fall into this trap. But stasis doesn’t make a compelling narrative, and good writers play for keeps. So whenever I get stuck making an easy choice instead of moving toward the harder one, I simply remind myself:
CONFRONT THAT RABBIT.