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ReV Up Your Improv Scenes
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Thursday, August 7, 2014

RV and the 3-Act Structure


PART 2 of the Series: ReV up Your Improv Scenes
If you missed Part 1 - Click Here

A quick review of the 3-act structure for storytelling, first credited to ancient philosopher and playwright Aristotle. 

According to Aristotle, who authored “The Poetics” circa 350 B.C., all stories follow a simple three -act structure: 

 Act I, also known as the beginning, also known as the set up. 

Act II – also known as the middle, where the hero or protagonist experiences obstacles, triumphs, setbacks, ups and downs on the way to the climactic moment and ultimately to victory, and…

Act III – also known as the resolution, also known as the end.


We’re going to spend most of our time in Act I because that is where the foundation of our bonfire is built, and if done correctly, the rest of the story tends to flow much more easily and with much less effort, so that the joys of story and character and character relationship can unfold without impediment. Besides, in my experience, improvisers have little trouble creating the conflicts and obstacles called for in Act II. In fact, I would say that too many improvisers create conflict too readily and too soon, without having built a scenic foundation that can last them the entire scene.

Act III should be relatively easy as well, but again, way too many improvisers in my opinion are so stuck in creating conflict and more conflict that they not only don’t know how to resolve conflict (and therefore end the scene or story), they’re afraid to.

Don’t be afraid. End it. It just means that this scene or story will be over and we’ll move on to the next one. I think the main problem is that nothing satisfying has come from the conflict played because nothing of substance or consequence has been set up, so the conflict is the only thing of energy in the scene – there is no drama, and it is therefore difficult to finalize as there is no purpose in whatever resolution might come.

ReVeal is 90% about Act I. This is all about the set up. If enough is set up, it will be easier to get to Act II. Revelation is the key. This will be the focus of the entire next post. Why reveal? So there’s somewhere to go. No reveal – no go.


ReVolt refers to the moment the dynamic changes. It does not mean that there has to be a revolt per se. It’s more the thought that we change in a striking way. Not like going on strike. It’s not a revolt or a strike. Okay, now I’m making myself mad. Stop it. That’s it. That’s what I’m talking about. Everything has been going pretty okay and then someone says something or something happens that pushes against the flow – generally positive up to now – that we have experienced so far. But it’s not the second line of the scene generally – that’s too early – we haven’t set enough up yet. The energy of the too early push back will peter out too quickly. Then we’ll be back where we started without having built any momentum, anticipation or suspense.

In the story structure, the ReVolt moment is what launches the story from Act I into Act II. In movies it is sometimes called “Crossing the Threshold,” or the “Inciting Incident” and sometimes a “Call to Action” (The moment of ReVolt would technically be the hero’s response to the Call to Action).

As I mentioned above, Act II can pretty much take care of itself, although sometimes improvisers are challenged to think of what might happen next. We’ll talk about that as well. Undoubtedly though, there comes a moment in the scene where it is time to wrap up the story and move quickly to the climax and resolution. At this point, many improvisers don’t know how to get to it. They get stuck, unable to think of anything. My suggestion to move forward from that sticking place is also the third element, ReVisit. I believe if enough has been properly set up at the beginning, something will easily present (re-present) itself from what has already been established, that will be just the right thing to employ as our saving weapon or idea – that will aid our movement to the climax and the end.

And finally, once the objective has been reached, we want to ResolVe. That is our Act III. At that point we are ready to end it. We don’t want another obstacle to be introduced or conflict to overcome. If the other three elements have been paid attention to, this will be a logical and welcome next step. Many times, new obstacles and conflicts will be offered in stories and scenes because we are not satisfied in the use and playout of conflicts and obstacles that have come before, so resolve somehow doesn’t make sense. The result of this dynamic are scenes that continue on even though they should be ending or should have ended by now. So there they are – the 4 elements to successful scene building – ReVeal, ReVolt, ReVisit, ResolVe. We will discuss each of these more in depth in subsequent blog posts.

4 comments:

Chris Dinger said...

It's a common mistake for a young improviser to make… they're in the home stretch of the scene and suddenly introduce a new conflict that catapults them back to "Act II" again rather than looking for some information to revisit to bring the scene to a close.

David Russell said...

Yes Chris, Thanks for the astute comment. I agree. It happens with seasoned improvisers as well. I think you hit the nail on the head when you say rather than looking for some information to revisit...

I think the solution lies partly in making the objective more clear (which we will discuss in upcoming posts) and partly in the "how to" do the revisiting thing (which we'll also be look at)

Sometimes too, we have revisited properly to find something to help get us to the conclusion and still manage to toss another or new offer out there. That moment of "well, I just revealed something new there, didn't I?" - After the scene seems to have hit it's climactic moment and the main objective has been reached.

I believe that impulse can be wrangled and turned to success as well. In fact, in many stories, there is the new reveal at the end, which becomes the tease or the cliffhanger for the next episode or sequel. If improvisers are hip to that fact and dynamic, perhaps they could capitalize on it and recognize it and still end the scene.

Mike, you friendly neighborhood monster said...

I really enjoyed this read, Dave. I couldn't agree more with this statement:

improvisers have little trouble creating the conflicts and obstacles called for in Act II. In fact, I would say that too many improvisers create conflict too readily and too soon, without having built a scenic foundation that can last them the entire scene.

I see this in many scenes. Players tend to create an issue with their scene partner before they've established any sort of relationship or dynamic to play with in the scene. When I teach or discuss scenes, I make sure to define conflict carefully and make it clear that its not necessarily a think that occurs between the two characters onstage, although it can be.

I also love the ReVisit aspect. Bringing something you've established back later is such a welcome surprise for the audience and sometimes the players as well.

With so many differing approaches to improv and its execution, I think its important to remember that good improv results in the same place, no matter what road you choose to follow to get there. Thanks for a great read and some fun things to think about.

David Russell said...

Thanks Mike. If you find a single idea or direction or suggestion or tool that works for you everytime - use it exclusively. Otherwise, why not try many. Every time I watch a golf tip from a new source, I get something I can use - and I don't even golf!

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