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Discovery vs. Invention

Another attempt to explore the ontology of improvisation in a storytelling context. Thanks Conrad (only 30% sarcastic thanks).


You’re staring into your mother’s eyes as she says, “I’m so glad you’re here.” And suddenly a wave of a particular kind of sadness washes over you and you realize that your childhood home is gone.


That realization – felt in the moment – is what I would call an example of discovery in improv. It feels like something that has always been true about the story, and you just had to get to the right place to discover it.


Discovery is the feeling that the story EXISTS, and I just have to keep diving into it, painting it, performing it, to keep it going – in something like a flow state where the story is a river flowing around me as I float downstream.


Some schools of thought in improvisation say that this is “true improv” and everything else somehow falls short. And I’m sympathetic to this position because there is something Romantic about the sculpture already existing and the artist just removing the excess stone etc.


But I think it’s not quite that simple.


Because once you realize that your home is gone, you might naturally wonder why and how. And depending on what else we know about the situation, there are a couple of possible explanations. For example:

  • A natural disaster: tornado, hurricane, flood.

  • The bank has taken it back.

  • Your parents decided to demolish it to build a higher-value property.


Choosing between those options to provide an explanation feels to me like active invention, but still in the flow. Of course, it’s possible that you realized one of them was true in a process of discovery, but for me, this is where my brain probably started inventing.


In some improv contexts, invention has a negative connotation because it takes you out of the moment. I would like to reclaim it because I think it is very possible to stay in the moment in this flow invention because your brain is still making choices in the moment.


Of course, it is possible to go too far and start to invent things that no longer feel connected to the moment or the previous processes of discovery, taking you out of flow. This is the artificial adding or flailing around that gives invention a bad name.


To go back to our river metaphor. In flow invention you look ahead and see a fork in the river with three possible paths your storytelling brain has invented. You choose one and keep discovering things along the way.


The kind of adding, constructed invention is more like getting out of the river and digging a new rivulet to the side. And tbf sometimes you need to do that to avoid a waterfall.

But it does have a different feeling and it might not be what you want.


So there you go, discovery and invention aren’t exactly binaries (what is?), but they can help us talk about what’s going on in our brains when improvising story.


I've also heard the external perspective described as discovery feeling "organic" while invention feels "written". So I stand by my position that both modes have their place in improvised storytelling depending on the context, performers' preferences, and how the performance is being framed for the audience. 


So what’s your experience with discovery and invention? Flow and construction? These aren’t empty questions for engagement, I legit want to know.

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