Storytelling shapes.

Though it’s been a while since I’ve done onstage improv on a consistent basis, I’ve been performing since 1999. I’ve also been writing during that time, though I’ve realized that when I’m improvising more, I write less and vice versa (lately, it’s the case of vice versa). One thing I dig about improv and writing are its commonalities, and one major piece is storytelling.

Jerome Stern presents his concept that each work of fiction has a certain shape which lends itself to a distinct style of storytelling. I’m reading his book, Making Shapely Fiction, and am enjoying the concepts he lays out. Stern presents sixteen story “shapes,” each presents the story shape, explain why it’s effective and what pitfalls to avoid, gives an original example of the story shape (all written by Stern, as far as I can tell), and asks the reader to try writing a story in that style. It’s a quick read, a good shelf resource, and nice and cheap – what more does one need from a good writing book?

A few of Stern’s shapes remind me of what can make a good improv scene successful. For example, in “Bear at the Door,” Stern asks the reader to write a story where the character has a problem, a significant problem, a pressing problem. The example problem he uses is a bear at the door: “The bear demands action. (Stern, 46)” To go beyond the bear example, the story demands action. A healthy improv scene will constantly raise the stakes; the actors won’t hesitate, even if their characters do, to take action. Another of Stern’s story shapes is “Blue Moon,” describing how to make the unreal acceptable in story (think fantasy, science fiction, legends and myths, etc.). These are the stories which rely on the reader’s willingness to suspend belief, and it all begins at the beginning. Let’s say there’s an improv scene where Actor A proclaims his favorite taxi drivers are chipmunks. Actor B has two choices: embrace it and declare something which raises the stakes (“Yes, and they drive better than those stinkin’ squirrel drivers!”) or try to justify the crazy claim with something that breaks the reality (“Oh, grandpa, take your pills!”). They’re both responses, but the first one is a healthier choice. It accepts and supports the reality of the scene laid out by Actor A. With this choice, Actor B is not afraid to let the scene’s reality be different than the reality of his own world, and the characters – and the audience – is in for a real treat.

Stern’s story shapes are aimed at fiction writers (always know your intended audience, dear reader!), but the crossover to other forms of storytelling art is hard to ignore.

~ nm

[tags]jerome stern, fiction, improv, storytelling, making shapely fiction, writing advice[/tags]

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