Everyone loves to hate acronyms. Learn Improv’s acronym for narrative is STEPS. Setting. Ties. Explore. Propel. Sort.
Narrative is a fancy word for story. Scripted works pay attention to narrative and employ narrative enhancing tools. Good scripted work, whether a play, movie, sketch, or stand up, has been written an re-written many times. Excellent scripted works have to focus on the details of settings, characters, plot(s), point of view, style, climax, and denouement.
The narrative of an improv comedy scene is created in a very different way. An improv comedy scene is built on a series of offers. These stories find their comedy by accident. The setting does not get to be rewritten. The characters are created in an instant. The plot is built on a series of unplanned offers. When an improv comedy scene has complete narrative you have witnessed a little miracle.
The players on stage are writing a scene. However many of the classic elements of narrative described above do not translate well into improv comedy. Setting and characters are common to both narrative methods. However in an improv comedy scene plot, point of view, climax are all built on a series of unplanned offers. The plot literally happens in real time and the none of the players know where it is going to go next.
A scene, game, handle, long form works best when all the elements of a narrative are present. The comedy happens by accident but is most believable and rewarding when the narrative goals of STEPS are hit.
A scene is stronger when there are characters for the audience to relate to. A scene is more real when there is an environment for the characters to explore. Think of STEPS as a set of goals specific to improv comedy scene narration.
Most important rule of improv is that there are no rules. However there are goals. STEPS is an example of a collection of goals that players will try to use in their narrative for a scene. Choosing the terminology of goals creates a more supportive and caring learning milieu.
When a narrative goes wrong it can usually be traced back to an element of STEPS missing from the scene. Players should never be told that scene “failed” because the setting was poorly constructed. The narrative STEPS are goals and excellent scenes can happen when parts are missing.
Setting. Ties. Explore. Propel. Sort.
The setting is composed of two key elements: the environment and mime objects.
The environment is the setting in which a scene takes place. If new player were to enter the scene their character would appear in the existing environment. The environment is most commonly created with mime actions. Every character in the scene would embrace the environment in the same fashion. If a player mimes a cupboard door, the next player to use the cupboard door should mime it the same. Meaning that the cupboard door will be in same location, same height, and open in the same direction as previous.
Every item mimed in an environment is an offer. Players must listen to these offers. The audience will notice of a character walks through a table, wall or door. A good environment is built on offers that have been listened to and accepted. An environment could be as simple as a central sink, or a living room couch.
An environment does not make a scene, but it can be a helpful tool. Many scenes work without an established environment. The kitchen table could be used express anger, or joy.
The mime object is a tool for the player. The mime object is owned by the character. For example a character may have a glass of water in their right hand. This glass of water can be sipped from, swirled a bit, looked into, or thrown across the room. Mime objects are for the character to work with. They can express emotion through their mime object, or buy a bit of time to engage the silence of a scene.
The classic improv comedy mime phone.
The classic improv comedy mime hand gun.
The classic improv comedy mime cup.
These classic mime objects are included for fun. If someone is not liking these mimes they might be taking things a tad too serious.
An environment can inform the mime objects in a scene, but mime objects can also create an environment. For example, a cocktail party is often created with just a few characters gently nursing glasses.
A unique form of mime object is the weather. Cold or hot weather work as mime objects because they can affect each character differently. One character can be overwhelmed by the cold while a
Ties has two main elements: characters and relationships. A scene can work with either. A scene will rarely work with neither.
Improv comedy characters are created by the player in an instant. The player has complete control over the creation of their character on stage. An author can slowly develop a character over months or even years. A director can infuse a character with a rich history to explain their motives and reactions. Not so much in improv.
The audience immediately connects with a character by what they see on stage. Improv characters are quickly built on three common elements: how they move, how they sound, how they think. Beyond these three elements usually requires more time than a usual improv scene has. Long form styles can allow for more in depth characters, however the characters are expanded on a series of unplanned offers.
Holy Trinity of the Character
- gait, handedness, physicality
- voice, volume, pace, or accent
- desires, triggers, emotions
Even more important than characters are the relationships that the characters have. Scenes with characters that know each other are usually stronger than scenes with strangers. Not a rule just a goal.
These relationships allow characters to explore situations, emotions, or status. Character relationships are what audiences connect with. We all have parents, most of us have siblings. We have all worked with tradespeople, cashiers, serving staff.
In scripted narratives this is called the plot. In an improv scene the plot is built by a series of back and forth offers that create a narrative. The players do not know where the narrative is going to go. Other times the offer from the audience is so strong that the exploration can be about nothing else.
If LACE is being employed each offer will be met with smallish expansions until eventually the exploration is exposed. There are a collection of challenges that recur in written and improvised scenes:
- character vs. self
- character vs. character
- character vs. environment
- character vs. the unknown
- character vs. mime objects
Thankfully improv comedy explorations are endlessly diverse. Scenes that “go nowhere” can be wonderfully enjoyable if the characters are interesting to watch. As with all of STEPS Exploration is a goal, not a rule.
Propel has two main elements: advance and expand. An offer either advances the exploration or expands the exploration. A scene will be mix of both.
An advance is an offer that moves the exploration along. It takes it to a new place. Most commonly and advance would move the narrative along in time. For example if two characters were painting a fence a character could advance the scene by saying “finally the fence is done”, “let’s take a water break”, or “ouch I have a sore wrist.” These offers move the scene along. The move along may be in another direction or further along the same direction, but it is based on what was being explored. Propelling a scene by advancing can be done in small steps or large ones, but it should never ignore what went before.
Propel has historically been called raising the stakes. While the term raising the stakes could be either positive or negative it overwhelmingly has led to negative or worsening of what is being explored. Propel is more neutral than raise the stakes. Things need not get worse to become more interesting.
Propel also indicates that the exploration is what needs to be propelled. Propel does not mean add more new things. This helps keep a scene on target. There is nothing wrong with a space alien scene. Space alien scenes just needs to get there by propelling the original exploration.
If the scene is being propelled by expansion this means that the exploration is being described in greater detail. When a scene is expanded the narrative does not move along to a new direction, it deepens the knowledge about the exploration.
For example, if two characters are painting a fence one character may say “this shade of blue makes me feel happy”, “I love the sound that paint drying makes”, or “your sweat smells like victory.” None of these comments move the narrative along, but they all make the scene more interesting.
Is there a way to sort out the scene? This does not mean a solution. This could be as simple as a character leaving. Or a simple transaction has been completed. Humans like to solve things. A scene could end on a plateau, a reveal, or a comedy beat. Sorting a scene works best if it comes from what went before. For example sorting out a scene from elements within the environment, mime objects, relationship, or exploration. Bringing in a new and unexpected solution can take away from the narrative.
Explore and Propel Cycle
A scene will start with one explorations and have many propels. This may lead to a different exploration which itself has many expands and advances. There is nothing to say that something can be explored for long periods of time. This is one of the narrative concepts of long form (among many others).