Monday, June 2, 2014

David Shepherd's Strategies for Writing Scenarios


A recently discovered  item from David Shepherd's archives, written in 1982.   


A “scenario” is a sequence of events, such as “the scenario for the outbreak of war was different in 1914 from 1939.”

When we write a scenario, we’re creating a sequence of events for a group of players to play. To make real.

Reality in the scenario for World War I includes the assassination of an Arch Duke, Germany’s bid for colonies, etc. Conflicts in real Wheres.

Reality in a scenario we write must be different. Why?  Because on our stage there is no real Where. Only an imagined one.

So for us writing a scenario becomes making Wheres.  Because we can’t show what happens until we provide the context in which it’s happening.

Compass scenario play "Enterprise" (1955)

For instance, a husband and wife arguing becomes a totally different happening when set against different Wheres. If they’re arguing in a baby’s bedroom, it’s happening differently than it would in the bedroom of children who’ve left for college. If the argument takes place in a concentration camp, it’s not the same as an argument on Miami Beach.

How does the writer of scenarios define the Where?

By describing it’s color or shape?  No, because we have no set – except what the player can create through activities, physical response or emotional response.

Notice: words don’t count for much in creating a Where. We describe a Where better by interacting with it than by talking about it.

We can ask the players to interact with a Where by cleaning it, building it, using it, destroying it even, rather than describing it. In fact, we don’t sit around in real life describing our Wheres unless we are interior decorators.

Here are some guidelines for writing a scenario:

Activity: cooking, playing cards, dancing, laying carpet……
Physical: it’s freezing, there’s a smell of soup cooking, it’s dark……
Emotional: they’re afraid of each other, they love the sun…..

Finally, tell us What Happens by the end of the improvisation.  In other words, tell us what goes into the improvisation at the top, and what comes out at the end.

Don’t tell us what happens in the middle.  Don’t give us a blow-by-blow account. Don’t give us a dozen Exits and Entrances. Don’t write dialogue. All of that is for the players to improvise.

To help the players understand the scenario in your head, make sure we understand the time sequence of the improvisations. For instance, one improv could take place “at midnight on the couple’s tenth anniversary.” Another might take place “two martini’s later” or “twenty years before.”

Think of your scenario as pieces snipped out of time, out of the fabric of our lives together.  It takes only 3-10 such pieces to tell a story.

Remember: Just as a poem or story, your scenario will probably have to be rewritten several times before it expresses your deepest and most dramatic insights.

Scenario sample by David Shepherd



Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at migaluch@yahoo.com. Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games.  Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development.