Ask a volunteer to start by suggesting the opening sentence of a ‘fictional’ story, eg “I was walking down the street, when suddenly…”
Then, when someone can add to the story, ask them to link elbows with the first person and share what happened next, eg “… I saw a massive moose blocking my path.”
The story continues with new people joining the end of the line, building the story sentence by sentence, one person at a time.
Encourage your group to keep the storyline moving forward.
The game continues until everyone has contributed to the story and linked elbows with the group.
If possible, encourage the last few members of your group to bring the story to a natural conclusion.
Video Transcript for Build A Story
presented by Mark Collard
A big part of many programs often involves many interpersonal skills and creativity is one that is often required or in demand. We’re wanting to inspire and develop people. And so this is an exercise that actually inspires that level of creativity.
It will start with one person, a volunteer in a moment who will effectively just stand to my left-hand side and start telling a story.
And it’s effectively the first part of a story. So the first part of a story might be “I went down the street, I turned the corner and…” That would be the first part of the story.
In an improvisational approach someone else then from the rest of the group will then step forward, link arms or elbows with the person who started with the first part of that sentence and continue the story.
So if the first person said “I turned the corner and then…” and the next person said “I saw someone lying on the ground”, and then… So it’s in small snippets. We don’t need an essay, a soliloquy, or anything of that nature. It’s something often only about a sentence or less long.
The object is that eventually everyone will be connected as we’ve built that story all the way around.
If you happen to be some of the last three or four people, you have a special task. Your objective is not only to continue the story but like all good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, I want you to bring the story home, not necessarily bring us back to where we started although that’s really cool, but to actually complete the story. Whether it’s a happily ever after or not it doesn’t matter. Got the basic idea?
Starting with one person, they get to kick it off any way they choose, but make it A. fun, and B. possible to add to. If you’re familiar with the rules of improvisation it’s all about ‘and’ and not ‘but’, so it’s about the how you can add something to it rather than taking it away.
Who has something they might like to start with?
You’ve got it. Okay so Rosa, in a nice good voice start with…
(Okay. I was driving along the road in Daylesford in the dark at midnight and all of a sudden the car broke down…)
And then put your arm to your side. It’s actually your arm. That’s it. I’m not connected but it’s just that arm. That’s it. Off to your side, like a teacup handle. That’s it. Now someone who wanted to follow on from that part of the story. So tell us again, briefly.
(I was driving along the road in Daylesford at midnight and suddenly the car broke down…)
Who would like to add to that? Alright, Mike.
(It was then I realised that I did not want to go to Daylesford and I had read my GPS wrong.)
You got the idea.
(But here I was stranded. My mind went to the RACV which unfortunately membership had run out.)
Oh, expired. Arm to your side, Con.
(So what was I to do but I was to start walking. When I started walking this is what I saw.)
Arm to your side. What did they see? Welcome by the way.
(A rainbow. I followed my way to the end of it. I was just coming to the end of it and suddenly…)
Go in there, Aiden.
(A leprechaun jumped up.)
(And then he offered me his gold if I…)
(Sung three songs but I couldn’t decide which songs to sing. I was thinking madly when…)
(When I heard a voice far below….)
Alright, we’re down to our last few people now. So we’re going to form a circle. So bring yourselves around a little bit and the last few people need to complete the story. Give it a conclusion somehow.
(You can do it)
(He told me that I should sing three songs by Madonna to the leprechaun and then he would grant my wish. And so I…)
Bring it home, Thomas.
(Oh my God)
(So my lover was actually Madonna singing I made it by myself. Madonna came over the rainbow.)
Yeah. Give yourselves a hand, folks. Well done. Good job. Good job.
Would you expect ordinarily the ability just to think up stuff on the spot to be challenging or not challenging?
It depends. Yeah, it’s always going to depend, but typically in the beginning of a program when you’re putting people on the spot, how are they more often than not going to feel?
Pressured, yes. Like I don’t know anybody, I don’t know your name, and now I’m on the spot and I have to do something. And in my experience a lot of exercises that often come under the heading of icebreakers or getting to know you sort of exercises often ask for too much too soon.
So think back. What we’ve just done does sit outside for some people their Comfort zone. If you felt your heart race for a moment when you’re about that point, about to join, that was you stepping outside of your Comfort zone into what’s referred to as the Stretch zone.
And I find that it’s very, very important to help create an environment in which people feel comfortable through fun to actually step outside of their Comfort zone in order to do that.
If they feel threatened or they feel they’re going to be embarrassed they’re less likely to go and want to have to do that.
How To Play Narrative
If your group has a vivid imagination, or you’d like to inspire some creativity, this is the perfect exercise.
There are two possible ways to start.
You may choose to explain that as a whole group, you would like them to help you create a very unique, never-been-told-before, story. Or, you simply ask for a volunteer to suggest the opening line of a (made-up, fictional) story with no further explanation.
Either way, you need one person, a volunteer, to proffer the opening line of a story.
There are a billion different ways to do this, so it’s very hard to get it wrong. Ask for something short and sweet, no longer than a sentence perhaps.
Invite this volunteer to step forward, in front of the group. Then, let’s say this (first) person says “I was walking down the street, when suddenly …” A perfect start – simple, yet classically suspenseful.
Next, invite a second volunteer to step forward and link arms (elbows) with the first person and then offer the second short snippet of the story, which logically follows on from the opening line. Continuing our example, this second person may say “… I saw a massive moose blocking my path…”
You can probably work out the rest from here.
A third person steps forward, links elbows with the second person, and adds his or her part of the story. For purposes of flow and enjoyment, encourage your group to always move the story forward, allowing the storyline to progress.
Don’t let your group get too bogged down in the detail. A liberal suspension of belief is often very helpful here.
Person by person, sentence by sentence, the story continues to build until everyone has contributed to the story and formed a physical part of the group.
Ideally, and if at all possible, challenge your group – indeed the last few members of your group – to bring the story to a natural conclusion.
If your group enjoys this journey enough, challenge them to do it again, or try a variation described below (see Variations tab.)
Practical Leadership Tips
As the story develops, be aware of lines or sentences which make it difficult for someone to progress the story forward. If you’re not careful, the story may become so bizarre that some people find it hard to contribute any value.
On occasions, it can be useful to prepare your group to think creatively by introducing one or more simple, improvisational exercises beforehand. The zanier the better.
Have a few opening lines up your sleeve in case your group needs some initial guidance. Here are three good examples to build a story upon:
“Once upon a time in a third-storey apartment…”
“The crowd gathered around to see what I had caught…”
“The door-bell rang in the middle of my favourite TV show…”
If someone gets stuck, not knowing how to progress the story, rather than you or the group offering suggestions, ask some questions to prompt a response.
Consider any question starting with a Why, How, Who, Where or When which helps to elaborate some part of the story, hoping to move it along.
It makes no difference which arm (belonging to the first person) the second person chooses to link with. However, from that point on, ask everyone to follow suit.
You could integrate Build A Story as part of a well-designed SEL program to develop your group’s ability to manage their thoughts and behaviours in different situations and to achieve goals.
Specifically, this activity offers opportunities to explore and practice the following social & interpersonal skills:
Identifying Personal, Cultural & Linguistic Assets
Setting Personal & Group Goals
Taking Other’s Perspectives
Communicate & Listen Effectively
Seeking and/or Offering Support
Build Positive Relationships
Demonstrate Cultural Competency
Demonstrating Curiosity & Open-Mindedness
Making Reasoned Judgements
Anticipating & Evaluating the Consequences of One’s Actions
Promoting Personal & Collective Well-Being
You can learn more about SEL and how it can support character education here.
Health & Wellness Programming
There is no specific health & wellness perspective to this activity other than promoting the benefits of exercising one’s improvisational skills and enjoying a good laugh.
To some extent, you could argue that the focus required to successfully play Build A Story speaks to the benefits of being mindful as much as demonstrating adaptability and emotional intelligence. For example, the activity involves an invitation to engage with a ‘safe’ physical touch, reducing inhibitions by expressing oneself in public as well as listening and responding to the contributions of others.
If you can think of more explicit ways in which Build A Story could be purposefully integrated into a health and wellness program, please leave a comment at the base of this page.
Build A Story Circle: Encourage your group to connect (or associate) the very end of the story with the very first line of the story (effectively creating one wholly-linked circle). This takes some vivid imaginations and careful word-smithing, but it is often worth the effort.
Reflection Tool: This exercise can be used as a powerful reflection tool, whereby your group is asked to recount the most significant moments or events of a particular experience in chronological order.
Start With The End: For your seriously inventive/creative groups, start with the end in mind. That is, ask a volunteer to suggest the final sentence of the story, and then start from the beginning (as above.) Everything about the story and how it progresses must eventually lead neatly to the suggested conclusion.
Open the Virtual Adaptation tab to learn how to present this activity online.
Invite the first person (a volunteer?) to type the start of their story into the chat room facility. My tip, limit any contribution to one sentence, lest some people will get bored (waiting for the typing.) Once read, invite anyone who would like to add to the story to ‘raise their hand’ (or otherwise indicate that they would like to go next.) This person then adds to the story, etc. When everybody has added their contribution, re-read the entire story (from the chat room) to your group.
Note, owing to difficulties in lag time across some internet connections, it may be difficult to accurately asses who was prepared to add to the story next.
Simple ice-breaker to connect group members to others.
Creative & tactile reflection strategy with fun props.
The Story Game
Hilarious story-telling game to involve the whole group.
Useful Framing Ideas
Did you know that some authors do not know exactly how the story they are about to write will end? This seems curious, but in reality, this is how our lives are often played out. We never know what’s going to happen next. This next exercise celebrates this ‘adventure’ principle in a really fun way…
How quick are you at ‘thinking on your feet?’ If I was to feed you a line, would you be able to think of something to say immediately that would make sense as if it was a story. Let’s find out…
Sometimes it can be hard to get started, but every book must begin with its first words or sentence. Let’s build a story shall we?
Reflection Tips & Strategies
Coupled with one or more reflection strategies, here are some sample questions you could use to process your group’s experience after playing this creative, build a story-telling game:
As people were sharing, what did you observe in others? In yourself?
What did it feel like to be on the spot to ‘make-up’ a part of the story?
Was there any pressure to perform? Why?
Where else does this pressure occur in our lives? What impact does it have?
What did the little voice in your mind say as you were waiting your turn?
What does it take to foster a safe and supportive space in which to create? How often does this occur for you/your group?
How would you describe the touching that was involved in this exercise? Did you even think about this?
How did we collaborate or cooperate? What’s an example?
The inspiration for Build A Story was sourced from fellow group facilitator Jen Stanchfield, who introduced this exercise in a conference session I attended in 2016.