The Circle of Expectation

Here’s a scene:

A: Hey, we’re out of milk.
B: That’s annoying. I’ll get some from the shops.
A: Okay, I guess I won’t have a cup of tea now. How annoying.
B: You could have a green tea, then you wouldn’t need milk.
A: Oh, I’ve never had green tea before. I could give it a try.
B: Here, borrow one of my tea bags.
A: Thanks…. mmm, this is quite nice.
B: No problem.

Here’s another scene:

A: Hey, we’re out of milk.
B: The aliens will kill the Queen if we don’t give them a hundred litres of milk.
A: You need to get in the transmogrifier and I’ll turn you into a cow. Then I can milk you.
B: Okay, I’m bored of being a squirrel anyway.
A: Yeah, that’s why I became an octopus!

In both of these scenes, players A and B are accepting and building on what the other has said, following the rule of “yes, and”. The only problem is, the first scene is deathly boring, while the second scene is borderline incomprehensible. Either way, they’re not going to keep an audience engaged for long.

Let’s get graphical

Imagine the first line of the scene — Hey, we’re out of milk — is a dot, a point in conceptual space.

It’s a dot

Now imagine there’s a circle around the dot. That circle is the Circle of Expectation. Inside that circle are all the things that you might reasonably expect to hear in response to the first line, and outside are all the responses that would surprise you.

The circle of expectation

In the first scene, the response was pretty firmly inside the circle of expectation, like this:

Inside the circle!

Now, when you put the dot inside the circle, the audience understand what’s going on easily. The scene makes sense. But it’s also not very exciting, because you matched their expectations. They could have come up with this response by themselves!

Whereas the second scene…

Uh oh

This dot is exciting. You did something unexpected! But as a consequence, the audience now have to rethink what’s going on in order to understand the scene. It’s going to take a bit of work to understand the context. They have to draw a new circle which takes into account what is expected, given the two things they now know.

Now, if we put all the dots from the first scene together, we end up with a scene that looks like this:

It’s green because the scene is about green tea

This scene exists entirely within the circle of expectation. None of the points move very far from each other, so it’s very easy for the audience to make sense of what’s happening. However, nothing unexpected has happened at all. We might as well be watching paint dry. Meanwhile, in scene two:

The alien ships are yellow, obviously

We’re miles away from where we started. Each line moves us further away and the audience is exhausted trying to work out what the hell is going on, because their expectations have been twisted so much (we’ve had to zoom out to fit all the points into view). See how huge the new circle of expectation is?

What’s more, because we’ve seen so many big moves, it’s hard to care about any particular shocking revelation (now we’ve zoomed out, all the points look tiny).

Paying the tax

Every time we move outside the circle, we get a bit of attention from the audience. But then, we have to honour the move by building up the connection. We have to work to justify what was happening. The bigger the move, the more important that move has to be to the scene, otherwise we trivialise what’s happening. But we have to move outside the circle, otherwise the audience will feel like they don’t need to pay attention, because they know how the story is going to unfold.

As an aside, this doesn’t mean you can’t initiate a scene with an outlandish opening offer. If you walk on and say “hey, Derek, how’s the cow life?”, you haven’t fallen outside the circle of expectation, because the audience don’t have one yet. They form expectations based on the initial reality of the scene. If you have an outlandish premise, then an outlandish response (whether it’s “Not bad, John, how’s it being a sheep” or “Why did you curse me with sentience and the power of speech, wizard?”) is pretty much what you’d expect! When you think about it, we have a pretty amazing capacity to find expectations for even the most bizarre of circumstances.

Dancing on the edge

Here’s a scene:

A: Hey, we’re out of milk.
B: Oh, shit, was it my turn again?
A: Right, that’s it. Get out your sword.
B: No, I don’t want to fight you.
A: Come on. You agreed to the House Rules when you moved in. If you don’t do your chores, it’s trial by combat.
B: Okay, I name Sharon as my second.
A: No fair, she’s a champion fencer!

Our first line establishes a circle of expectation, then the second line is well inside. However, then we get something unexpected — draw your sword. We need to expand our circle! The next response is a pretty normal response to someone starting a fight, then the third line doubles down on the unexpected thing — but by clarifying why a sword fight is necessary, this line shows the audience where their new circle of expectations should be set. Then we have some responses that fit within the new circle of expectations that we have of what a sword fight between housemates might look like.

The audience are kept on their toes here. We put them in an unfamiliar situation, but each time we go outside the circle, we give them some context which helps redraw the line for them. Then we get a joke in with our champion fencer housemate. Why is that funny? Because we’ve said something the audience didn’t know they were expecting, but which makes perfect sense within the new circle, as they’re creating it.

Why would an audience choose to watch improv over something scripted?Well, saying “we’re going to make something up on the spot that will entertain you” is a bold claim. Most people can’t imagine themselves doing that, let alone imagine how they’d go about it. They want to see you demonstrate skill.

If your scenes are completely predictable and don’t do anything exciting, or if your scenes are a just a series of bizarre statements that barely connect, you’re not demonstrating any skill to the audience.

You always have to be slightly ahead of the audience, showing them things they don’t expect, but you also have to show them how to follow you there so they’re ready for the next surprise. If you can do that, if you can make the unusual make sense, you can create a funny, compelling scene.

Like so many improv concepts, the circle of expectation is not new. It was originally developed by Kieth Johnston; my explanation develops the concept somewhat.