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Photo © Kevin Thom

Photo © Kevin Thom

There are many different, passionate schools of thought on plot in improv. If you’re doing a narrative form like The Quest, or a musical format that requires you to hit certain plot points, it can lead to great shows. But for “regular” long form, it’s always been a stumbling block for me. So when this appeared in my newsfeed via David Razowsky, I had to share:

Hey, improvisers. I’m reading Stephen King’s On Writing, and he has a great paragraph on the need for plot. As many of you might remember, I’ve said “Fuck plot.” He, of course, said it in a more elegant way. (At the final sentence, please replace “writer” with “improviser.”):

“I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible. It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can –– I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow…”

Improviser Dave Clapper added:

Both as a writer and as an improviser, I couldn’t agree with this more. Here’s another favorite quote that applies to both:
“Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all Plot ever should be. It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic. So, stand aside, forget targets, let the characters, your fingers, body, blood, and heart do.” – Ray Bradbury

Thanks, guys!

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  1. Kenny Madison #
    January 11, 2017

    Interesting thoughts to ponder. Here’s my question for you people and chairs, though.

    What does plot mean to you? What qualifies as plot and plot points in improv?

    • January 11, 2017

      Hey Kenny, great question. When we talk about plot in this post, we’re referring to pre-planning actions or events. In a narrative form such as “The Quest,” there are pre-decided plot moves, like scene one being a Banisher sending the Protagonist on a quest.

      We’re not referring to story, or the natural cause and effect of moves that create a ripple effect. You have a choice: to address the ramifications or not address them.

      TJ and Dave perform moment by moment, reacting to each and every thing that’s said or done or noticed and doing the next thing after that. They don’t pre-plan, but looking back after a show, you may see a story arc in the scenes.

      Speaking for myself, if I step on stage with even a whiff of thinking, even something as loose as “story,” it’s a surefire road to Headville. That doesn’t mean that when I’m in a scene, listening and reacting, that I won’t forward the story organically. I just prefer to play with a blank slate and mind if at all possible. Which is a really long-winded answer that I’m not sure answered your question. : )

      • Kenny Madison #
        January 30, 2017

        This is an excellent explanation.

        This is a semantics issue, as I would completely switch your definitions of plot and story for completely arbitrary reasons except for me wanting it to be flipped.

        For me, story seems like a complete construct. I can read a story from beginning to end. But plot happens beat by beat. No one reads a plot (except to get a synopsis)?

        Arbitrary reasons from me.

      • January 31, 2017

        Interesting! Hadn’t thought of it from that perspective. Certainly you’ve made a case for the opposite being true. : )

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