We are the stars of our own movies that run in our heads, and our universe seems to revolve around us. This seems self-centred, and quite literally is, but we are the protagonists of our own lives, so it makes perfect sense.

However, that type of thinking can also cause all kinds of problems. Not just for the person, but also for the overall quality of whatever they’re working on. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to frame the situation that should help you out.

It’s an improv (and writing) lesson which acts as a counterweight to this strong egocentric bias: just serve the story.

When teaching improv to beginners I often get them to do word at a time stories somewhere in the process. This exercise is a great way to teach them about discovery in the moment, accepting offers, listening, surrendering control, and a host of other useful improv lessons. It also brings up a very interesting tendency for people to crave greater (or less) personal involvement.

The word the story needs

I’ve had participants (when playing in a circle), get visibly and vocally irritated at being forced to use prepositions repeatedly. I’ve had others panic when it comes up to them to make a decision. They either fret that their contribution isn’t enough, or conversely that too much is being asked of them.

Both of these worries privilege the place of the individual. But, in these circumstances, nobody really cares about the place of the individual: they really truly don’t. They just want a good story.

If that means you only say words like “the” and “an”, then so be it. Your “poor me” attitude helps nobody and does nothing. The only metric for determining the success or failure is this: is the story any good?

As long as it is, that’s all that truly matters. And if you’re given the responsibility of coming up with something that influences the direction of the story… well, again: it’s not about you. It’s about the story. So say whatever makes sense for the story. Job done.

This shift in perspective is small, but significant. For some it’s a slight and subtle shift, or even a confirmation of something they already understand on a profound level. For others it is a challenge to their ego and identity. Regardless of the difficulty level, the mantra is the same:

Serve. The. Story.

Writers, once they know the story and are in the editing process, can (and should) go through their work and examine scenes, lines, words and characters and ask themselves “Does this serve the story?” If not, out it goes.

Here’s a great blog post that goes more into depth on that issue.

You can also apply this to social situations, meetings, your home life… anywhere really. If you change your attitude to worry less about you impressing the boss in a meeting, or dragging your friends to an event that you want to go to, and instead focus on playing whatever is required to make each ‘story’ successful, you’ll have much better stories.