Getting Yourself Into Trouble

Feb 27, 2010 08:52 pm by b.j.swank in Without Annette

Instant Trouble
“Instant Trouble” is any problem or conflict that occurs abruptly at the beginning of a scene. Because the problem happens so early in the scene, the players typically spend the rest of the scene trying to fix the problem.

E.g. Sarah is in the shower, relaxing, when suddenly the water turns cold. She jumps out of the shower and sets about finding the cause of the problem. She tries turning another faucet.. same problem. She calls in her husband who tries using a wrench on various pipes to no avail. They call a plumber but it’s the weekend. Finally, she boils some water, puts it in a bucket, and has her husband pour it over her slowly as she takes a “shower”.

In this example, the players have managed to tell a nice little story with a quirky ending; but ultimately, the story was about fixing the shower, not about the people involved. Sarah is completed unchanged in her relationship to herself and everyone around her. There isn’t any obvious follow-up scene to this one, because the problem is fixed.

Getting Yourself Into Trouble
While the natural urge in improv is to fix a problem, it’s much more interesting to get the person deeper and deeper into trouble by raising the stakes. This means taking active choices to amp up the tension.

E.g. Sarah is in the shower, relaxing, when suddenly the fire alarm goes off. She rushes outside, then realizes she’s naked. She tries to go back inside but discovers she’s locked out. She looks under the welcome mat for her key, but doesn’t find it. She looks up to discover that the next door neighbour’s kid is smirking, dangling the key in front of her. Sarah chases after the kid, and finally tackles him. With the key finally in hand, she looks up to see 2 cops standing over her, still naked and straddling a boy.

In this example, while there is still instant trouble, the players didn’t try to fix the problem by looking to put out the fire or find the source of the alarm. They raised the stakes and made the scene about Sarah’s humiliation. There are many possibilities for a follow-up scene: Sarah at the police station, Sarah trying to explain herself to the neighbours, a town council meeting where Sarah is discussed, etc.

This example came straight from a game of “Yes, Let’s” by my level 1 class. Pretty amazing given that I had just explained the concept of getting into trouble.

Advancing without advancing
It’s hard to get yourself into trouble. Often, improvisors fall into patterns where the trouble is just a series of obstacles keeping them from what they want. In the first example, Sarah is thwarted at every turn, but the trouble isn’t moving the story forward. If the husband is of no help, and the plumber isn’t at work, and the wrench is useless, what is happening? Nothing is happening. If the wrench fixes the problem, but then the shower no longer drains properly, what is happening? Nothing–we just put up another obstacle and are still trying to fix the shower problem.

Certified organic trouble
The most satisfying trouble is trouble that arises organically from the platform of your scene. If we know the character and what they care about, it will be much easier to get them into trouble with stakes that matter.

Trouble can come in many shapes, but physical injury is not usually helpful, because physical injuries usually require you to fix them. Here is another example from class where the students dealt with injury well:

E.g. A chef is preparing chicken in the kitchen of his restaurant. He has some wine. He nicks himself with his knife. He can’t find anything to stop the bleeding, and starts to feel faint. As he’s about to pass out, he grabs the chicken and uses it to apply pressure to the wound. (In class, this unfortunately fixed the problem, but what if…) Someone walks in to find the chef treating his wound with food… or it’s his last piece of chicken and he serves it to someone and they notice.

Let the trouble find you
Don’t look for trouble early in the scene. Establish your whos, whats and wheres and let the trouble find you.

When does the trouble end?
Once the stakes are high, it’s time for something BIG to happen. Don’t wimp out with an easy fix–the outcome of that something BIG should ideally alter your relationships and mean that you can no longer go back to the way things were before.

Finding the game
Getting into trouble is just one kind of game, that is, a pattern in the scene that gets repeated and amplified. By no means is getting into trouble the only way to approach a scene, but when trouble finds you, resist the temptation to fix it.


  • By Ian, February 27, 2010 @ 10:19 pm

    This is simply awesome. Simple and efficient way to explain and analyze A LOT of scenes.

  • By mark, February 28, 2010 @ 11:00 pm

    Nice post.
    I gor myself also in trouble since I’m in Ottawa and can’t attend Brian’s Montreal Improv class on Monday…
    I hate that.
    (If Brian doesn’t get these comments, can someone please forward it to him? I don’t have his email address.)

  • By b.j.swank, February 28, 2010 @ 11:57 pm

    Thanks, Ian! Nice to know someone is reading.

    No problem about class, Mark.

  • By Preston Smith, March 6, 2010 @ 3:04 am

    Great post… i really like improv comedy scenes when you look for trouble and it never finds you, but it is still awesome!

  • By Procrustes, March 8, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

    There’s also the insight of Greek tragedy that to every protagonist corresponds just the right trouble to bring out who he or she really is. Not to say that there’s a need for more self-blinding, incest and consumption of one’s children in improv.

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    I will wait until it has been available for a while before I pull the trigger, as I don’t like getting involved in lines in the store or dealing with artificial inventory shortages at launch.

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