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The keys to doing long-form Narrative Improv

"Do it Now" book cover
Here are some key ingredients for full-length improvised plays known as Narrative Improv. Providing tips on story structure, normalcy, the protagonist, consequences and clarity. [4 minutes]

In Narrative Improv the group creates a full-length play with a more-or-less coherent story that runs all the way through from "once upon a time" through to the "happily ever after" (or not so happily). It's a flexible form that stands in contrast to both highly structured forms like the Armando or Harold, and to the unstructured "montage" improv of possibly-connected scenes with once-off characters.

The following tips are summarised from the excellent little book, Do It Now: Essays on Narrative Improv by Parallelogramophonograph ("Pgraph" for short), especially the "What comes next?" conclusion on page 73:

1. Build the story spine

The story spine is a generic story structure: "Once Upon A Time ... And Every Day ... Until One Day ... And Because Of That ... And Because Of That (repeat to taste) ... Until Finally ... And Ever Since Then". Virtually any plot can be arranged or rearranged into a story spine form, and you can practice making story spines in a group exercise where each person, in turn, adds an element to the story.

2. Invest in normalcy

It's almost impossible to spend too much time on the "once upon a time ... and every day" part of the show where everything that happens is stuff that always happens. Even if two characters start in a sword fight, that's just something they do every day. Normalcy builds the world, the characters, the relationships. Take up multiple scenes, a large fraction of your show, just showing different parts of the everyday world of these people. If someone brings in the plot too soon just act like their proposed plot is something that happens all the time. One day, when the "One Day" finally happens, you will have loads of material to work with!

3. Identify the protagonist

Around the "Until One Day" point, different characters will be making offers of goals and desires. As a group, you gradually home in with a "spotlight" on different characters to settle on one with a strong offer, who will become the protagonist for the rest of the story. Give the protagonist a strong and simple desire - even if it's just to get their rug back (it really tied the room together!). Then the rest of the story becomes scenes that either help or hurt the protagonist in pursuit of their goal.

4. Make scenes have clear consequences

More than "making bold choices", by giving actions and scenes clear, strong consequences, the "And Because Of That" will come naturally, and you get a feel for where the story is going. This frees you from "oh no, where are we going?" scrambling for the next step, giving you space to have playful moments in your scenes.

5. Be clunky but clear

Be overt and clear about the details of scenes and relationships, particularly early in your group's development. It's the opposite of being vague and hoping that the others figure out what you're getting at or fill in the gaps. "My dear brother Kevin, what a dank cave this is!" comes out clunky but makes the relationship and location clear! Subtlety will develop over time.

6. Use a range of acting styles and tones

Deliberately try out new genres, and new acting styles from everyday realism, to stage realism, to over-the-top stylized acting. Try out new character tropes from movies and theatre. These deepen your stories and make your shows distinct, taking your improv to new places.

Conclusion: PGraph advise us to "play, practice, enjoy getting it horribly wrong - that's how you learn! -and revel in getting it right." I hope this taste inspires you to get the book or take the class on Narrative Improv!

P.S. I bought and read "Do It Now" as preparation for a 6-week class on Narrative Improv facilitated by Neil Curran of Lower The Tone, and have no affiliation with Parallelogramophonograph.

Do you have some advice to share on doing Narrative Improv? Comment below!


  1. And when your actors don't want to be controlled?

    1. Hi Alan, it's improv - no control! If the team doesn't want to do narrative improv, or wants to do it differently, go with it.

  2. Great summmary, this really helpful, thanks!


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