Tag Archives: improvisation

Extending and Advancing

Once again, Improvisational Theatre waves its hand from the back row – “Miss, miss!”

“Yes Impro, do you have something to contribute to this discussion on storytelling in flash fiction?”

“Extend and advance, Miss!”

Ah yes.

When I was an improviser, I was enchanted by Keith Johnstone’s concept of extending and advancing. Extending means staying with “what you’ve got” – elaborating, exploring, going deeper, resisting the pressure to move forward. Advancing means deliberately yielding to the narrative pressure and taking a step.

Inexperienced improvisers tend to rush the story – advance, advance, advance – without investing the time to evoke setting, build character, or enlist the audience’s emotions. Timed impro games (especially 1 and 2 minute games) often encourage this breathless rushing that leaves nobody feeling satisfied.

I think that, for writers, there’s a risk that flash fiction can encourage the same strategy – trying to pack in as much “action” as quickly as possible. However, the best flash fiction I’ve read – like some of the best improvisation I’ve seen – creates a sense of deep engagement, of taking its time, of bringing the reader/audience along.

My favourite improvisation exercise for developing extending/advancing skills is played in pairs.

Person A starts an activity (eg. “going fishing”), and Person B asks “What are you doing?”

A must check, and report what she’s doing right at this moment – “walking”, “breathing”, “sliding the worm onto the hook”, “swinging my rod backwards”.

Then B says “Extend … (that action)”. A lets go of whatever she’s vaguely intending to do in the future (eg. hook such a big fish she gets hauled into the water), and focuses on extending the identified moment of walking, breathing, sliding the worm, or swinging the rod.

All kinds of possibilities can develop out of any of these actions. From “breathing”, for example, A might find herself suddenly struggling for breath, or smell something foul or beautiful and start sniffing the air. A bug might fly up her nose, she might find herself filling up like a balloon, etc. etc.

B observes carefully, and encourages A to extend on her immediate action – “Extend trying to snort the bug out of your nose”. The story gradually develops – it does move forward – but with much more tension, physicality, emotion, and interest, than if A had simply ploughed ahead with the ideas she had in mind. It’s a little like a collected canter in dressage, where the horse is moving forward but in an “intensified” kind of way, because momentum is working against restraint.

After a while, if A starts feeling uncreative in her extending and the story hasn’t reached a satisfying conclusion, B might say “Advance”. This gives A permission to let something new happen.  The sense of release from the intensity of extending usually results in quite a big leap or twist. For example, since A has blown up like a balloon and is floating helplessly, the enormous fish might mistake her for a fly and leap up out of the water. This advancement is immediately reined in by the instruction to “Extend” (eg. “What are you doing?” “Being eaten by the fish!” “Extend being eaten”). And again we get a rich, satisfying, entertaining chunk of story.

I’ve noticed most if not all of my favourite flash pieces work the same way as the game Extend and Advance. The storyteller starts us off somewhere, and extends on what’s happening, tiny detail by tiny detail, developing the picture. Then there’ll be a leap, twist or turning point that’s quite dramatic, if subtle. Some stories are two-act (one turning point, maybe half or 2/3 of the way through), some are three-act (one turning point at the 1/3 mark, another around the 2/3 mark or later). After the turning point (advance), the dominant mode might return to extension, but the story usually seems to move more quickly because the details are now invested with new meaning.

Some exercises:

1. Look at several pieces of flash fiction by different authors (I’ve been looking at pieces up to 300 words, but the uses of extending and advancing are usually very clear up to about 1000 words).

Using a couple of different colour highlighting pens, mark each sentence according to whether it’s “extending” or “advancing”.

Notice where the points of advancement occur. Do they delineate “acts” in the story? What impact does each advancement have on what comes after? Does the author then go back to extending, or leap from advance to advance? Are there different degrees of advancement – big leaps versus small but significant ones? How does the author manage extending without becoming boring? How does she manage advancing without leaving the reader behind?

For this exercise it’s great if you can get some pieces you feel “work”, and some you feel “don’t quite work”, and analyse the weaker stories by comparing them with the stronger.

2. Write a piece of flash fiction. Give yourself a time limit (5 minutes). Start with a title, topic or idea (use a prompt from a writing site if you need one). Write the first sentence. Then “Extend” on the first sentence/idea. Extend and extend as long as you can, resisting the pressure to advance the story until you a. reach a satisfying conclusion, b. run out of time, c. start feeling uncreative, or d. have such a good idea for an advancement you can’t resist.

If a., read over the first draft and decide what else the story needs. Did an advancement creep in without you even noticing? Did you extend all the way to the end, but nothing much happened? Is it a good story but a bit “samey” in terms of pace, tone, etc.? Use the concepts of advancing and extending to rewrite.

If b., pretty much the same as for a. Did you reach a conclusion? What does the story need? Go back and rewrite, using the concepts of advancing and extending.

If c. or d., allow yourself to Advance. Now you’ll have to decide whether (and what) to extend. Maybe the path to the end of your story is now in a series of advancements, like stepping stones. When you run out of time, start your rewriting process, paying particular attention to the concepts of advancing and extending.

When you’ve rewritten your piece to your satisfaction, go through the finished story with your highlighters and identify the sentences that extend and those that advance. Ask yourself the questions from 1.

I know this is a very analytical exercise, but it should be quite an informative one 🙂

 

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Filed under Fiction Techniques, Narratology, Writing Exercises

Relative status of characters

I used to be an improviser. I started with Theatresports, then branched out into other forms of performance impro. If you have a good coach, you can learn a lot about storymaking through theatrical improvisation. (If not, you’ll just learn to gag, block, and cheat the audience out of wonderful experiences they don’t know they could have had – but meanwhile back at the point…)

I did have a good coach, in Keith Johnstone of Loose Moose Theatre Company, Calgary, Canada. One of the key story drivers Keith emphasised was status. Improvised scenes for performance tend to be short, so you need a reliable means of engaging the audience and making sure the story goes somewhere. A good way to do this is to play with characters’ status, and we used to play status games to develop these skills.

In one game, A starts with high status and B with low (eg. school principal and student, queen and butler, police officer and criminal, etc.) The events of the scene must cause the high status character to lose status, and the low status character to gain status – that is, by the end, the status positions are reversed.

In another exercise, two characters each try to get higher status than the other. For example, A shows off an expensive watch, B claims to have three just like it, A shakes her head pityingly and asks if B is still having trouble with those old delusions, B says not since she invented the world’s most successful anti-psychotic and became a billionnaire, and offers to take A out to dinner to tell her all about it, and so on. Or, the two characters can work to get lower status than the other. Experienced improvisers play a version where they try to maintain equal status – Keith points out that this is what we usually do with our friends.

In writing fiction, it’s quite useful to bear in mind the status relationships between characters. Improvisation scenes often suffer because two characters have the same status (two students, two road-workers, two friends at a nightclub) and although the improvisors are struggling to create a story, they won’t let anything happen that changes the status relationship. Inexplicable torpor or “flatness” in a piece of fiction is sometimes traceable to the same problem.

Status can be conceptualised in terms of power, social standing, respect accorded the character by others. A character whose job or social position might be seen as low status (eg. a swagman) can be high status in a given situation (when he is the only person who knows how to treat a snakebite), or he might just “play” high status and be accorded respect as a result. And, of course, vice versa – the British comedic tradition, for example, is full of put-upon lords and ineffectual politicians who think their position entitles them to a level of respect they don’t actually deserve or get. Humorous effects can be obtained when a character thinks of himself as high status when everyone else sees him as low (common in the commedia dell’Arte), and touching moments can result when a character who sees herself as low status is suddenly elevated to high (a stock technique in romantic comedy, the Cinderella story arc being a classic example).

I’m just beginning a new novella, where the whole story will turn on a change in the status relationship between my two main characters. I think this is very common, but I don’t often hear it discussed in the terms I learnt from Keith Johnstone. So if this idea of status, status hierarchies, status battles, and changes in status relationships, is useful to you in your writing, by all means go ahead and use it. (I was fascinated to discover just now, looking up Keith’s entry on Wikipedia, that his teaching on status seems to be considered his most influential contribution to theatrical storytelling. Pop over and have a look here).

An exercise: read through a piece you’ve written, and analyse what happens to the relative status of the main characters in it, particularly the protagonist. Does the status of the protagonist change – in her own eyes, in the eyes of the people in her world, and/or in the eyes of the reader, over the course of the story? How does that come about? Does another character start out higher status than the protagonist, and end lower, or vice versa? Does a battle for higher (or lower) status drive some (or all) of the action? What are the emotions, conflicts, tensions, which contribute to and arise from that battle? Would more careful attention to status and status relationships enhance the story at all?

 

 

 

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