In the beginning there was nothing, nothing but the silence of infinite darkness. The breath of the Creator flooded against the face of the void whispering "let there be light" and light was, and it was good. The first day. And then the formless light began to take on substance and shape the second day, and the whole world was born, our beautiful, fragile home. And a great warming light nurtured its days, and a lesser light ruled the nights, and there was evening and morning, another day.
- Darren Aronofsky's Noah
There's a lot of pressure in beginnings.
The first few moves in a scene are vastly more influential than the rest. They set the direction, tone, and pace of the entire thing. It's where momentum is established. A scene that starts as an argument will probably stay one. A scene with dark content will probably stay dark. A scene that starts slowly will probably stay relatively slow. The longer the scene the more likely it will evolve, but for the vast majority of scenes (those <5 minutes) those first 3-5 moves will dictate the style of the rest. There are also all the rules to consider - Say yes. Listen. Define the relationship. Name the location. Endow your scene partner with an attribute. Say how you feel. Don't ask questions. Don't talk about what you're doing. Emote. Look for the first unusual thing. Interact with the environment. Don't think.
The combination of choice significance and checklist of things to remember can make the beginning of a scene feel daunting and overwhelming. It can be easy to get into a tentative mindset where we act from a place of playing to not mess up instead of playing to discover. Often we'll find ourselves making vague, open-ended moves that buy us some time while we think of something interesting or that can easily slot into whatever idea our scene partner might have. This is being "in your head", a dreaded zone of doubt and fear that can compound upon itself if we recognize that we're in it and panic. Common advice to "get out of your head" is to go external - to shift our focus to the environment or our scene partner in the hopes we'll find something to latch onto there. This tactic can be helpful, but it doesn't solve the problem so much as avoid it. We're still not confident. We still don't trust our own brains. It puts all the attention on one thing or character, which often quickly causes the scene to be lopsided or fizzle out. A scene needs to be somewhat balanced to sustain itself. Eventually we need to have something we can hold onto for ourselves.
The key is to still operate internally but not from our brain. Playing a foot lower, from the gut (right between the heart and the stomach), will force us to stay in the moment and compel us to act on our first instinct instead of overthinking our moves. This is easier said than done, simply because a lot of our training has been rule-based and therefore mental. It will feel like we're playing from behind instead of a step ahead. But it gets us out of our heads specifically because we're making choices without considering their effects first. Our brain is good enough to keep up and it will take care of us, but we have to let it. And we do that by acting without telling it first.
Ultimately it'll be a balance of brain and gut play that will make us consistently successful, but we can emphasize one or the other if we find that leaning too far in one direction is hindering our performance. In order to lean toward the gut instead of the brain we need to change how we approach our relationship with the scene. Acting from the brain involves a more formulaic approach. What rules can we apply to the current scenario that will more likely increase our chances of success? Acting from the gut involves considering how the scene feels. It means reading the scene's energy, tone, and pace and making adjustments to each as necessary.
For the most part, gut adjustments will be moment-specific so it's tough to give any broad practical advice other than "if it's not working, try something else". But for the beginning of scenes where there are fewer variables there are a couple things we can look for that will increase our chances of a successfully engaging scene - Clarity & Motion.
We see in order to move; we move in order to see.
- William Gibson, author
Improv is an art form wherein we ask the audience to do a lot of heavy lifting. We ask them to invest in scenarios that are intentionally ridiculous in environments they can't see for characters that often don't look anything like the actors appear. As a bonus, we tell them we haven't preplanned any of the material and have no idea what's about to happen. By simply agreeing to watch the show they are giving us an immense amount of trust. But this trust is conditional. It requires constant upkeep and maintenance over the course of the show.
One way to maintain that trust is by committing fully to the reality of the scene. Another, and what we'll talk about here, is by being very clear about what is happening at all times.
In a universe built from nothing, ambiguity doesn't play.
The audience will happily do the mental work required to fill in the appearance of the environment, props, character, and suspend their disbelief enough to invest in ridiculous scenarios, but they draw the line at making our decisions for us. We have to tell them what they should be imagining. We have to be specific. We might find ourselves using undefined pronouns like "it" or "that" or "they", which can make it seem like we're talking about something. In reality, if we haven't yet defined what "it" or "that" or "they" is, we're actually talking about nothing. This usually comes from a place of indecisiveness or politeness. We're afraid of making a wrong move or we're deferring to our scene partner who we think might have something in mind or make a better choice. But we're not doing ourselves any favors by avoiding or delaying specificity this way. What exact type of space are we in? What exactly are we holding? What exact physical features are relevant to our characters? Both the performers and the audience need to know and they need to know as soon as possible. The more specific we can be the more likely we are to get everyone on the same page and avoid scenic dissonance.
Here's something I stumbled across that I've found to be very helpful with storytelling:
Kurt Vonnegut's 8 rules for Writing Fiction:
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Although intended for traditional writing I believe all of these are directly applicable to improv (we are writing fiction after all, just in the moment from the inside as a team), but the one I'd like to emphasize here is #8. Providing "as much information as possible as soon as possible" in the first 3-5 moves creates Clarity, and in order to understand how we need to first recognize the important difference between information and details.
Details and information both fall under the umbrella of specificity, but the key difference is that details may or may not be relevant to what is happening. There might be a lamp in the room, but do we really need to know about it? Does it inform the scene or is it simply a detail? If the lamp is mentioned, it should be for good reason. There should be something relevant about the lamp that adds to the scene more than simply conjuring a more specific image of the location. This is the tricky difference that a lot of improvisers miss when we are noted to "be more specific". We assume we're being asked to add details when we're really being asked to add information. The ideal scene will be one in which nothing is wasted. Every bit of specificity is important and used to its fullest informative capacity. So when Vonnegut is urging us to give "as much information as possible as soon as possible", he is not suggesting we describe every detail of the scene. He's saying to immediately provide everything about context and character that is relevant for the reader to completely and perfectly understand exactly what is going on at all times. Details are irrelevant. Information informs.
It's important to note that information is not limited to dialogue. Body language, attitude, emotional response, and action can all inform the scene. It's also completely possible to turn details into information by looking behind them for meaning retroactively. We might make a move at the top, like washing dishes, with no idea what it might mean as we're doing it. It'll tell us that we're probably in a kitchen, which is a nice way to narrow down context, but can we go even further by looking at how we're doing it? Are we rushing? Does that mean we're running late for something? Are we washing the same plate nonstop? Maybe that means we're distracted. Furthermore, words and actions that don't necessarily have built-in associations can be just as informative if we create new associations for them by reacting to them in unusual ways. For example, hiccups in our universe are a trivial annoyance while in another they might indicate looming disaster. We might have to explain a little more about that universe's rules if they differ from ours, but it doesn't make it any less effective or informative.
In summary, there are several ways we can provide "as much information as possible as soon as possible" at the top of a scene to create Clarity:
- Avoid ambiguity. (watch out for undefined pronouns like "it", "that", "they", etc)
- Be more specific. ("A cat crossed in front of us." vs. "A black cat crossed in front of us.")
- Use words that have associations and implications. ("Your shirt is red." vs. "Your shirt is bloody.")
- Find meaning by taking a closer look. ("You're being a little twitchy. Nervous about your date?")
- Create meaning by reacting to ordinary things in unusual ways. ("My hair is longer? Oh no, I'm shrinking!")
If the beginning of a scene feels a little too vague and unclear, we can pull one of these moves out of our pocket to provide some information and set ourselves in the right direction.
Everything changes and nothing stands still.
- Heraclitus of Ephesus, philosopher
Everything moves. Even the most still-appearing objects are actually moving. Zoom in and we see they are made up of constantly and rapidly vibrating atoms. Zoom out and we see they sit on a planet shooting through space at 67,000 miles an hour. Motion is a natural state of being. It's literally impossible to not do it. As such, motion is inherently satisfying both to feel and observe. Things that appear motionless usually don't hold our attention for long. Things that appear to move grab it immediately. For humans this attraction applies not just to observable motion through physical space, but also the motion of social and emotional energies to which we're naturally attuned. Just as a bird flying across our view will immediately draw our attention, so will the sudden change in energy when a room full of people talking abruptly goes silent.
This gravitation toward movement applies to our entertainment as much as anything else. There's a reason classic story structure looks like this:
Stories need Motion, both physical and emotional. And that Motion is never a straight line. Bad stuff happens. Good stuff happens. More bad stuff happens. More good stuff happens. Overall hopefully more good stuff happens than bad stuff, but maybe not. The point is that stuff happens and it's not always the same kind of stuff. Things change. Energies and emotions constantly morph and flow and end up somewhere totally different from where they began. It's this ever-present Motion that makes stories constantly hold our attention. It's the tension between Vonnegut's #2 and his #6 that keeps us enraptured.
The point is not to say that improv should follow traditional story structure. Though some longer narrative shows will, the majority of standalone scenes don't have the time. More likely they will be a condensed version or small segments of a larger story that we'll never get to see. The point is that things need to happen to our characters. Things need to change for them. Their circumstances, their relationships, their emotions - whatever it is, something needs to change. That change won't always be positive for them and it absolutely should not be. It's natural for us to try to avoid bad stuff, but we are not our character. We should always be open to letting bad things happen to our characters because that will create that will create Motion and Motion is captivating.
Ideally we'll want to use combination of character Motion and scenic Motion to make the scene as compelling as possible. Character Motion is how our character moves in space and time. This could be as simple as doing some object work or moving around in the environment, or made more complex by changing locations mid-scene or traveling. In more complicated cases, the addition of side support can help create the illusion of movement. For example, if the characters in focus are driving a car, improvisers on the sides can start downstage and move up (starting closer to the audience and moving to the back wall) to show that the car is moving forward. Changing how quickly the side performers move can create the appearance of the car speeding up, slowing down, or stopping. Whenever we notice ourselves standing and talking for more than a few lines (a "talking heads" scene) is a good time to inject some character Motion. Of course, any character Motion we add should fit the needs of the scene. We shouldn't force our characters to change locations for the sake of it, but even some simple object work can create some much-needed Motion while simultaneously adding Clarity to the environment.
Scenic Motion has more to do with broader changes in energy and emotion that encompass all the characters in the scene. It's how the words and actions of our character create a reaction in others, and vice versa. We can create scenic Motion in our first 3-5 lines by saying Yes, not just by accepting information as true, but by pursuing opportunities for action. We're taught Yes on day one of our first improv class, but it's usually in the context of informational agreement (Yes, you're my cousin, Yes, we're in the back yard, etc). But especially early in the scene when we want to create some energy and momentum, saying Yes to action is essential. An immensely common pitfall for early performers is to agree to information but say No to the first opportunity for action ("I don't want to [whatever]"). We do it because we're told to make strong choices and putting our foot down about something feels like a strong choice. While this move can be a useful way to begin to uncover a character's worldview, it usually halts any scenic momentum before it can even get started. It's perfectly fine for our character to not want to do something and if so they should absolutely explain why, but in the end they need to either do it reluctantly or offer an alternative action.
We're allowed to not want to do something but we're not allowed to do nothing.
A huge percentage of improv scenes end up being arguments because of this reason. When we push back against our scene partner it feels like we're creating Motion because we're exerting force. But when our scene partner exerts the same amount of force in the equal and opposite direction, we end up not moving anywhere. That initial collision of desires might be interesting and may even get a laugh, but that laugh usually hurts more than it helps because it leads us down a dead end. We think if we both double down it will keep working when instead it simply halts any potential scenic Motion. It's up to one of us to recognize this and give. Lose. Say "okay, fine" and drop your position. In the moment it can be scary because we might not know what to do next, but we'll figure it out soon enough. How does that change the dynamic between characters? How do each of us react to winning and losing? As the winner, resist the urge to try to get the loser to re-tread the same argument in order to feel safe back in the conflict. Use what we've already established to determine which direction to head next.
The best way to understand scenic Motion is to play around with it. Let one character win a little bit, then lose a little bit. Mix it up. Let stuff happen to our characters. Let them get hurt. Let them change. Depending on the length of the scene will depend on how much of that we get to see, but Motion, especially in those first 3-5 lines, is essential to a successfully compelling scene. Improv is a dance. It's not about where our characters end up, it's about the moves they make as they encounter others.
In summary, there are several things we can do at the top of the scene to create Motion:
- Let bad stuff happen to our characters.
- Move in space & time.
- Say Yes to action.
- Create new opportunities for action.
- Lose on purpose.
If the beginning of a scene feels like it isn't moving, we can use one of these choices to create some Motion and start building scenic momentum.
In the beginning, when there is nothing, our initial focus should be on the implications and associations of our words and actions. If our gut tells us things are a little too vague, it's time to add some Clarity. Once we've shed some light on the scene, it's about letting momentum build. If our gut tells us things are moving too slow or not at all, we know to create Motion. This early combination of Clarity & Motion will set the direction, tone, and pace of the rest of the scene.
And it will be good.