3D.2 – Subsequent Beats

Pop quiz, hotshot. What do you take as inspiration in initiating subsequent beats of a scene during a long-form show?
A. This makes me think of that
B. If this then what
C. If first beat is “a day in the life,” then second beat is “the day when X happens”
D. If a character was at work, show her at home. If a character was at home, show him at work.
E. If that makes him feel that emotion, this should make him feel this emotion.
F. If that makes her feel that emotion, more of that should make her feel more of that emotion.
G. A place/event/time was mentioned – let’s go there.
H. That same character dynamic would be funny mapped over these new characters
I. That same theme would be heightened through this context
J. The theme of this whole piece would be sharpened if I callback that scene with this focus

The answer, if you know your 3D.1, is, of course, serve the show. And we serve the scenes of our show, and the show of our scenes, by heightening the emotionally derived games at play.

Any of the approaches above are valid sculptors of subsequent beats – they leverage an aspect of an originating scene in setting up a new scene. But… As our goal in any scene is establishing and heightening patterns of emotional behavior, initiations that clearly focus attention on emotional reaction get us to our meat faster and leverage the power of pacing and pattern in building a show. Any of the outlined options can get us to emotional reaction, but the mindsets of E and F hone us in quickest.

Using NONE of the approaches is also an option. We don’t need to revisit earlier scenes with subsequent beats during our long-form shows, unless, as with the Harold, the long form’s structure dictates that we do. We could perform an entire montage without characters, relationships, worlds or themes ever recurring. We could. But… Too many unconnected scenes will fatigue the audience’s desire and ability to follow and care. And… By not connecting subsequent scenes for the audience we are denying ourselves the powers of recall and pattern that only improvisation before a live audience can wield.

In any single scene we work to establish patterns of emotional behavior. With subsequent beats of that scene we can expand and heighten those patterns to great effect.


No, wait. First…


There are three reasons the “two” players in the originating scene should not bear the onus of having to initiate the subsequent beat of their own Offer scene. One, those “two” players need to be focused on their moment – reacting to their specific stimuli and establishing their personal and scenic games – they can’t be expected to devote brain power to thinking about how games can be heightened with subsequent scene initiations. Two, players on the wings have the advantage of perspective and time to understand established personal and scenic games from the outside and focus on how one or more of those games can be heightened with a focused initiation. Three, by itself, the injection of a new player into the world of the originating scene helps protect against a simple retreading of the same, unheightened ground.

When players from the originating scene initiate their own subsequent beats, it is too likely that they will over-prioritize plot or simply repeat what they did originally. A focus on plot too often renders the emotional behavior of the initiating character shallow and inconsistent – or, worse, tentative – by following the “sense” of the situation. Without a clear progression of how an originating scene’s games are being heightened, players resort to flatly rehashing old games or desperately clutching for new, unrelated material.

If an originating character delivers a heightening initiation great. But, I prefer to put the onus on initiating subsequent beats of an originating scene on those standing on the wings. Especially in a classroom setting, it forces those not participating in the scene on stage to pay attention, damnit.

Players on the wings are better positioned to suss out the personal and scenic games of the originating scene and think about initiating lines of subsequent beats that aim to heighten those patterns of emotional behavior without reliance on the “plot” and/or simple rehashing.

And, when it comes to initiating subsequent beats off an Offer scene, heightening the personal game of one of the originating characters beyond the originating scene’s premise, or heightening the scenic game of the originating characters – even excluding the originating players to heighten theme – is…


Pay attention to characters’ reactions. How do they react? What do they react to? Why do they react? Reread that. That’s important. As a player on the wings we need to be watching and listening to what originates in the Offer scene that has the greatest emotional stakes, either to a particular character and/or to the relationship established between characters. On the wings we can think about the initiating line that clearly sets the progression of a game by elliciting a heightened sense of an established reaction.

Pay attention to names and details. It’s easier to call back an earlier scene if you can call it out by name. Players on stage, you know details are important. You know characters have names (it’s what separate them from the caricatures). Details – especially names – are helpful in first beats and critical to subsequent beats. Players on stage, name each other so a third player can call you back to stage and so the audience has help remembering you. Thoroughly describe the baseball game you and your scene partner are watching so it’ll be clear that the two new characters are attending that same game scenes later.

Play attention to the progression. We’re building patterns of patterns on patterns.

Players on the wings, pay attention.

Player 1, Bobby, is obsessed with working out – exercise makes her feel vital and alive, and not working out makes her feel that she’s deteriorating. Player 2, Sam, loves watching movies but his enjoyment stems from watching with another person and making comments; watching by himself is not as satisfying. Sam hints to Bobby that he’s not satisfied with their relationship and is thinking about breaking up, but Bobby is oblivious, thinking Sam’s restlessness stems from not exercising enough.

It’s a solid, active scene with emotional stakes and clearly established patterns of emotional behavior that define players personally and scenically.

So how can the scene be heightened through subsequent beats?

The players could just do more of the same, showing Bobby intensely engaged in P90X and Sam intensely engaged in Angela’s Ashes. Following plot, they could show the audience the day when they actually breakup and we could see if they care enough to stay together or go their separate ways.

Or instead – in pursuing improv as improv does best – players could honor the patterns of emotional behavior established in the originating scene by establishing a new progression of personal games, scenic games, and themes.


In learning To The Ether games, we focused on one thing to clearly set the progression of heightening. In learning Help Desk games, we found focus through the repetition of dynamics and language. And in learning Hey Everybody games, we practiced heightening a series of reactions. Those same guiding principles can help us in initiating subsequent beats.

Bobby, is obsessed with working out – exercise makes her feel vital and alive, and not working out makes her feel that she’s deteriorating.

One thing.

Bobby, is obsessed with working out. Player 3 initiates with, “Bobby, if we lose the Johnson account, we lose our jobs; and you’re doing push-ups?”

Exercise makes Bobby feel vital and alive. Player 3 initiates with, “Dude, Bobby, herbal supplements make me feel vital and alive.”

Not working out makes Bobby feel that she’s deteriorating. Player 3 initiates with, “Now, Little Miss Bobby, if you can’t sit still you won’t learn how Sam-I-Am finally sells green eggs and ham.”

As To The Ether teaches, if we focus on one thing it’s easier to heighten that one thing in the Set and subsequent moves. In the first example, Bobby’s obsession that ruined her personal life now threatens her professional life. Focusing on this one aspect of the originating scene sets a progression for the subsequent beats based on a pattern of emotional behavior. A third beat could have Player 4’s St. Peter initiate with, “I’m tallying your karma for admittance to Heaven, and you’re doing squat thrusts?”

As Help Desk teaches, we sharpen triggers by honing language, helping evoke Pavlovian reactions from both scene partners and the audience. In the second example, the initiation makes the resultant pissing match between exercise and supplements clear. Bobby knows how to react because she knows that it’s exercise that makes her feel vital. We also have a clear progression set up in this initiating move – lazier activities making people feel vital. A third beat could further heighten Bobby’s personal games with, “Oooohhhhhmmmmm, mediation makes me feel vital and alive.”

As Hey Everybody teaches, there’s power in recreating sequences of reaction. In the third example, Player 3 heightens the stimulus that defines who Bobby is. And Bobby knows how to react to characters who seek to confine her need to be active. And again, a progression is established by this set move. A third beat could be initiated by a pregnant player shouting at her belly, “Damnit, Bobby, stop the scissor kicks.”

In each example, Player 3 has initiated in service of an aspect of Bobby’s character, clearly leveraging the details of the originating scene to incite an established reaction. Focused on one thing, the moves set a progression for heightening that can be quickly seized upon in the second beat and leveraged for the third.

We can also set a progression by holding a mirror to an established character.


It’s one of my most favorite moves. Want to heighten a character from an earlier scene? Be him or her bigger.

Player 2, Sam, loves watching movies but his enjoyment stems from watching with another person and making comments; watching by himself is not as satisfying.

Several scenes later…

Player 3, miming a phone since the moment he enters, says, “Oh, my gawd, Sam; are you watching?” Player 2 returns to stage as called for, also miming a phone, and reacts to his own set-up; “You kiddin’ me, filmfriend; that T2000 just pulled himself together.”

Player 3 shines the spotlight on Player 2’s personal game by adopting the same emotional perspective. The move triggers an established reaction instead of recalling plot. And, in and of itself, the addition of Player 3 keeps the beat from rehashing.

And, focused around Player 2, this subsequent beat initiation could facilitate a run of walk-ons or tag-outs to further stoke the powers of pattern and pacing.

Player 3 walks off – He tells Sam through the phone, “That’s the kids’ school beeping in. Gotta go,” leaving Sam to a less satisfying viewing of Terminator 2. That is until…Player 4 walks on, dialing a phone and then saying, “Hole-lee shiitake mushrooms, Sam. Did you just see what I did?” “You know I did, moviebuddy. I thought T1 was bad, but now he’s good; and T2 is baaaaaad.”

With the help of Help Desk game mechanics, this run of walk-ons could continue introducing characters to heighten Sam’s enjoyment of watching movies with another person and his unhappiness when left alone.

And when a second beat heightens one of the originating characters through a mirror, there are several paths available to a third beat in service of the progression of games.

A theater full of Sam and his fellow commentators would further heighten the personal game of needing to interact during a movie. And it could make good use of the Hey Everybody game mechanics.

If Sam alone annoyed Bobby, phone calls from Sam clones that constantly disrupt Bobby’s workout when Sam’s not home would heighten both originating personal games, bringing the scenes’ progression around full circle.

If Sam has a twin, so could Bobby; and the four could meet, doubling back to and down on the originating scene’s scenic game dynamic and both personal games. The sides could square off and/or Sam and Bobby could recognize they missed each other – “Let’s rent Marathon Man and watch it from treadmills.”

When seeking to heighten the patterns of emotional behavior established in an originating scene, impersonating one originating character’s personal game sets a solid progression that can be heightened further in subsequent beats. It’s a good trick to keep in mind.

But there are still other approaches to subsequent beats that we can apply…


Players on the wings, pay attention. Pay attention to how characters react to each other.

Player 1, Bobby, is obsessed with working out – exercise makes her feel vital and alive, and not working out makes her feel that she’s deteriorating. Player 2, Sam, loves watching movies but his enjoyment stems from watching with another person and making comments; watching by himself is not as satisfying. Sam hints to Bobby that he’s not satisfied with their relationship and is thinking about breaking up, but Bobby is oblivious, thinking Sam’s restlessness stems from not exercising enough.

We want to heighten the interplay between Bobby and Sam without simply rehashing the original interaction between their individual personal games. We do this by raising the emotional stakes of the original scenic game with a new situation that players can address through expanding their personal games.

In this example, the scenic game involves Sam’s dissatisfaction with the relationship and Bobby’s obliviousness. We want a new situation wherein, reacting through their personal filters, the couple can heighten the emotional stakes of their incompatibility. Sam likes to talk during movies – widen that: Sam likes to talk through experiences. Bobby needs exercise to feel vital – widen that: Bobby needs to be active.

Maybe Player 3 initiates with, “Alright, Bobby and Sam, your wedding registry’s all set up. You just have to scan what you want.” Upon receiving his scanner, Sam says, “Let’s talk about china patterns.” Upon receiving hers, Bobby commences scanning everything around her in dramatic, exaggerated fashion.

Maybe Player 3 initiates with, “We see Bobby and Sam in bed watching a porno.” Sam says, “Do you think they respect each other?” Bobby makes an aggressive sexual move. Sam reacts with, “Bobby, please, I want to watch this.” Bobby relents, pouting, “I want to do that.”

In these examples, Players 3 set up a new situation that heightens the originating scenic game, and Players 1 and 2 react through expanded personal games filters. Neither example is a rehashing of the original scene and the emotional interaction between Sam and Bobby is each example’s focus.

And for subsequent subsequent beats? Follow the set progression.

A progression through time is set and can be cemented in both examples. A progression through time is a handy default as long as the focus is on the emotional behavior of characters and not plot.

Maybe Player 4 initiates a third beat with, “Yes, Bobby and Sam, I am Saint Peter. And, yes, the process of getting into Heaven is exactly as depicted in Defending Your Life.”

Maybe Player 4 initiates a third beat with, “We see Bobby and Sam, now old and decrepit, sitting on their porch, watching kids play in their yard.”

Through a progression of situations, originating players can heighten their scenic game(s) with expanded personal game reactions.

But we can also set a scenic game progression without using the originating characters at all.


We can leverage an originating scene’s games as inspiration for subsequent beats without revisiting the originating characters at all. In lifting the reactions from the originating scene’s players and situation, we give those reactions wider applicability and telegraph to our fellow players that we are heightening the theme represented in those reactions.

Thematic heightening is useful for inspiring subsequent beats but also in tying a show’s many scenes together. Theme-focused subsequent beats can include players from the originating scene, but excluding them makes it abundantly clear to all involved that the new beat is not about them. Initiating subsequent beats focused on theme is also certainly not the only way to infuse a heightened sense of theme into your format. Regardless of how you use theme, the key skill is being able to identify themes.

What are the themes of Bobby and Sam’s originating scene? What ideas are explored by the originating scene’s actions?

The idea of watching versus doing. Maybe Player 3 initiates with, “Wow, the production value in these al Qaeda threat videos has really gone up.” To which Player 4 reacts, “Jesus Christ, we have to act. Get me the president and a staging team.” And the idea of passive and active engagement is heightened through a new situation and a progression of emotional stakes.

What is another theme? Which particulars of the originating scene speak to a larger issue?

The issue of gender identity. Maybe Sam and Bobby are replaced by Chris and Pat. Player 3’s Pat wants his wife, Chris, to settle down and have a baby with him. Player 4’s Chris, though, doesn’t want to give up her thrilling career of taking cannon balls to the stomach. The beats’ progression is set on the theme of gender roles and perspectives.

More themes? What emotional game mechanics from the originating scene can be deployed in a wholly new genre of scene?

The mechanics of breaking up. Maybe Player 3 initiates to Player 4 with, “Thank you for the presentation, I just, it’s just that I don’t think I have room in my life for a set of Ginsu knives right now.” Player 4 responds accordingly; “Just give these beauties a chance to cut through a brick,” he barrels on enthusiastically. And the language of a romantic breakup continues to be heightened through the details of a door-to-door salesman scene.

This approach to scene initiation is often called “Mapping,” wherein we lay the dynamic structure of one genre over the particulars of another genre. And it’s a handy move to heighten thematic and narrative depths. You’ve seen Mapping every time two male improvisers talk about cars or sports while really talking about women and/or sex. Play the emotional dynamic of a young man asking a father for his daughter’s hand over the particulars of a teenager asking his dad for the car keys – “Boy, what are your intentions with my sedan?” Engage the mechanics of being saved from a fire over the reality of being saved from a boring staff meeting – “All those fumes, that hot air, you saved my life, mail guy.”

So put Mapping in your utility belt. Hopefully you’re finding that belt good and full. Now tighten it up, honing your ability to quick-draw the right utility at the right time.


Do a string of unconnected scenes with players on the wings responsible for leading discussion on potential subsequent beats. Do a single scene from which many different progressions of subsequent beats originate. Do a proscribed number of scenes then immediately play through their subsequent beats in order.

Serve the show. Seek a progression of emotional stakes.

Remember the clearer your subsequent beat initiation is in focusing on how it’s heightening the originating scene’s game(s), the sooner players will be able to get on board and build collaboratively.

Run drills specifically focused on heightening…
A Personal Gamejust one thing
A Scenic Gamethe expanding cycles of emotional dynamics
A Themean idea, an issue, the mapping of one genre over another

From the originating scene to setting up a game progression in a subsequent beat to cementing that progression in a third scene, remember our exploration of trajectories in Group Game work. Trust the patterns. In an ascending sequence of scenes, the second beat may not be as fulfilling as the first or the third. A third beat can throw a pattern on its head, but it only works if that pattern has been clearly established. Introducing new mechanics late in the pattern often means the scene has to go on longer to incorporate the new moves. Talk through a bunch of three beat scene trajectories. Play through a lot of progressions.

Do it all again. Practice so you can react to subsequent beat patterns with ingrained mechanics and honed flexibility.

NEXT: Quality Management

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