Tag Archives: Keith Johnstone

Ideas

In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman #17 ‘Calliope’, Morpheus punishes a writer by overwhelming him with ideas for stories. ‘They’re coming so fast,’ gasps the writer, ‘swamping me, overwhelming me…’

Like most writers, I occasionally wonder what I’ve done to offend Morpheus.

Margaret Atwood seems to have the same problem. She recently responded to the question, ‘How do you generate ideas for stories?’ with the pithy comment ‘I have too many ideas – no need to generate them!’ (http://www.waterstones.com/blog/2014/08/ask-atwood-the-answers/)

newt in a fountainIt’s the classic clichéd reader-to-writer question: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ As if ideas are rare and precious things – diamonds – we must scratch and search and dig for, and hoard once we find them. Keith Johnstone, granddaddy of performance improvisation, points out that ideas are all around us, inside and out, flowing through us every minute of every day – we exist in a gushing torrent of ideas, like newts in a fountain. Being ‘stuck for an idea’, Keith says, means we’re blocking our own creativity: judging and rejecting perfectly good ideas before we’ve even let them into consciousness.

The real question is not ‘Where do you get ideas?’ but ‘What happens to turn ideas into stories?’ Well, a lot of things.

Capturing

John Gregory Dunne said the thing most necessary to being a writer is always having the means at hand to record an idea when it strikes you. Joan Diderot, in her 1996 essay ‘On Keeping a Notebook’, said her notebooks were full of ‘bits of the mind’s string too short to use’ – moments, impressions, that later might get woven into something substantial. I use the voice recorder function on my phone; I have friends who use Google Docs. Find tools that work for you, and catch those passing ideas.

Prioritising

I don’t know about you, but my time and energy are limited. Sometimes a story idea seizes my brain and won’t let go: it saves me the trouble of prioritising by insisting, ‘I go first!’ Unfortunately, the initial flush of energy rarely lasts long enough to finish the story before a new idea starts pushing and shoving, demanding attention. I do as much as I can with one idea – making sure it’s all written down or recorded – before I get distracted. That way at least I’ve got something to come back to when time and brainspace allow.

Sometimes, a particular competition or publication opportunity looms. That makes prioritisation easier: if you know one idea is more suitable than others for the length of story required, the theme, or the judges, you can focus on it.

Matching

You have an idea you really like. Now, what form will best serve the communication of this idea? Is it a poem? A prose poem or a sestina? Is it a song lyric? A rap or an anthem? A rap anthem? Maybe it’s a huge idea with lots of ramifications to unpack. A novel, then? Or is it a delicate, intricate, tiny but powerful idea, perfect for a piece of flash fiction? You might not be sure until you begin to write, but often the idea itself suggests certain forms and gives the thumbs-down to others.

Combining

One idea does not a story make. I have a colleague who won’t begin a story until he has three unrelated ‘elements’, or ideas, to combine. He writes about these elements with the aim of drawing them together, and the process of doing this generates new ideas.

This is where it’s useful to have lots of ideas sitting around in various stages of development. Maybe Idea X isn’t strong enough to drive a whole story on its own – but combined with Y and Z, it’s a winner.

Expanding and exploring

An idea just popped into your head – in the shower, at the theatre, over dinner with your in-laws. What is it about this idea that’s triggered your writerly instincts? Different writers explore ideas in different ways. I like to brainstorm a fresh idea, with pen and paper or onto the voice recorder, before trying to write about it. My writing buddy will mull the idea over while walking the dog, then sit down and begin slowly and thoughtfully writing the story. Whatever your process, what you’re doing at this point is exploring and expanding the idea – ‘extending’, in impro theatre terms. See where it goes. Investigate what other ideas it brings in its train. Decide where you want to put the limits around it, for the purposes of this particular tale. The process will continue as you write, rewrite and edit the story, but it’s nice to devote some serious time to ‘exploring the idea’ right at the start.

Expressing

Yup, the bit where the rubber meets the road. One of my uni lecturers memorably told the class, ‘Ideas are beautiful. They live in a beautiful place called Ideas-Land. As soon as you start trying to wrestle them through to the plane we live on, they inevitably get mangled. Your skill as a writer lies in your ability to unmangle them, and return them to a semblance of their original beauty.’ I was profoundly relieved to discover I was not the only idea-mangler.ideas land

You get a choice of exercises this week. Select freely, according to your current need.

  1. Review how you capture ideas. Do you have a system? Could it work better, perhaps by using different tools?
  2. Practise prioritising. Are you dithering around among too many projects, too many ideas? Pick one and make some real progress on it. Capture intrusive competing ideas and set them aside until you get a tangible outcome from Idea Number One.
  3. Go through your Random Ideas file and note down at least 3-4 different forms in which you could imagine this idea at home (e.g. flash fiction piece with a satirical tone, murder mystery, sit-com episode, sonnet, etc.) Cast your net wide. Which of these are you interested in writing? Note down one form you think definitely wouldn’t suit this idea. Why not? You might be surprised what you learn about the idea itself through doing this exercise.
  4. If you’re feeling playful, pick three ideas that seem completely unrelated. Give yourself a time limit (5 or 10 minutes). Write the first draft of a piece that brings those seemingly disparate ideas together.
  5. Take one idea and explore it in a way you normally wouldn’t. Go for a walk (or a bike-ride, drive, kayak etc.) and dedicate your brain to exploring that idea until you get back. Flip through magazines looking for images that illustrate the idea in some way, and create a collage. Use butcher’s paper and coloured pens to make a concept map. Assemble a soundtrack that explores various facets of the idea. Improvise an expressive dance. The point is to try something you haven’t tried before, and in doing so equip yourself with new techniques for creating the idea-to-story bridge. Feel free to Comment and share your own techniques. Happy writing!

Want more content like this? Andrea also writes for Fiction Southeast – check out her column, “Write Now”, under Essays/Articles at http://fictionsoutheast.com

 

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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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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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