There’s a little-known tool that I think is one of the best for creating fantastical, surreal, supernatural but obvious stories. The concept is called SUPER DEFINITION.
I heard Keith Johnstone mention this idea ONCE in ONE class many years ago. (ONE TIME IN FORTY YEARS!) I don’t know anyone outside of that class who remembers him teaching it.
Possibly Keith thought it was an idea that should never be mentioned again or possibly he had so many great ideas that this one simply didn’t get the focus that some of his other ideas received.
Over the years I have played with this gem often and love it.
SUPER DEFINITION DEFINED:
Super Definition is a concept that takes latent ideas from the shadows of our awareness and expands them to create extraordinary narrative with unique qualities.
Simply put… take the quality of something (anything) and expand that quality so that it goes beyond reality BUT… It must remain connected to the original idea.
FOR EXAMPLE – – –
Here’s something you’ve probably seen a few times.
A MOLE is a little creature that digs in the dirt.
You wouldn’t look twice at a mole on a sign wearing a hardhat and holding a shovel. In fact, you would know that there’s construction going on somewhere around here.
The idea of the digging creature and the human tools feel connected.
If that animal was an Eagle, or a lizard we would consider that picture as Odd. Right?
- We equate moles with digging.
- Humans with similar qualities work in mining or construction.
- Those workers wear hard hats and carry shovels.
- Overlap those ideas and the image makes sense.
This may seem like trivial information to you BUT when you play with this concept further in scene work, you will look at narrative possibilities with a broader perspective.
Disney, Dreamworks, and Pixar magically construct stories with super definitions depicting ants as Warriors, Cars with personalities, and an Albatross as a pilot.
We super-define the obvious quality of the creature and paint in the details of our human reality.
- A Gorilla is strong – and becomes a war general (Planet of the Apes).
- Owls have big eyes so we impose glasses and the idea of well-read creatures (every cartoon of an owl)
If you want to do a scene about group dynamics and individualism, have a solitary caterpillar be the new student in an ANT HILL school.
Have a sex education class taught by rabbits. (known for breeding out of control)
This idea isn’t new. Aesop wrote almost exclusively with super definition making the animals in the stories that have existed for centuries.
- The Ant and the Grasshopper
- The Tortoise and the Hare
- The Lion and the Mouse
- Town Mouse and the Country Mouse
And don’t limit yourselves to animals. Aesop has the fable of the SUN and the Wind that show us how super definition can expand to non living creatures. The wind’s personality is blustery and full of himself where the sun is warm and calm.
We are just scratching the surface of this wonderful concept…
Many movies and shows use super defintion to reach into our immediate world. A 2006 movie, CLICK super defined a television remote control amplifying the idea of moving video forward, backward and pausing it so that Adam Sandler could pause time, go forward and back.
Think about almost any Super Hero movie…
Peter Parker is bit by a SPIDER and obviously becomes a human with Spider Skills.
A calm but repressed man gets a superpower… superdefine the emotions (CALM/REPRESSED) and we have a man who cannot contain the emotions which eventually erupt and becomes THE HULK. “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry!”
If you are British, you probably know about the show, MISFITS that ran for 5 seasons starting in 2009. It’s so blatantly uses super definition for all of the original young people who gain super powers.
The boy who is lonely, and ignored by everyone develops the power of invisibility. (no one sees him).
The girl who is attractive and everyone falls for develops the power of control. Anyone that makes contact with her will do whatever she says
The athlete has supe strength. Obvious.
The show would probably not have had success if the lonely character got the power of tap dancing. It doesn’t make any latent sense.
BUT WAIT!!! THERE’S MORE
We still haven’t touched upon a great use in improvisation.
I use it as one of many TILT KEYS – (simple Keys that will TILT the balance of a scene).
I overused this idea when I was first exploring it. Don’t go down that path!
Imagine a scene where a person gets ignored. No one sees your offers. In fact, no one acknowledges you. What is that like? See that reality amplified. TOTALLY ignored, not acknowledged or thought of…
It could be invisibility but it feels like it’s more than that.
It could be a ghost or just death in general.
It could be someone from another reality
It becomes great fun to make sense of the scene by recognizing the quality of not being seen by admitting that you are dead. If your partner is on the ball, they’ll be packing your things in a box and adding to the super definition. “Poor Paul. I should have seen the signals. He took the breakup so hard.” Another performer walks through the wall ignored by the roomate and says, “Paul, time to go. You chose not to be here. There’s a special place for you.”
Think about the classic Christmas movie “IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE”. Jimmy Stewart’s character recognizes everyone but they don’t recognize him at one point in the story. The world is similar but with a lot of changes. Quickly the character realises he never existed for these people. He never affected their reality as he remembered it. Then he remembers, it’s exactly what he asked for and Clarence was the Angel that made it happen.
Writers have an advantage in writing the script that improvisers don’t have. They can make sense of the super definition by going back and writing it so it all makes sense. An improviser has to see WHAT ALREADY EXISTS and then define what is possible from the platform of ideas gathered already.
OTHER SCENE POSSIBILITIES
You are at the doctor’s office or eye doctor. They say you are losing your sight.
Want to make it sci fi or fantasty???? Look at Super definition.
“THERE IS ONE OPTION… It’s dangerous and experimental”
The glasses give “sight” but these ones go further…. (see through things? See through time? See the death’s of those around you? Read minds?) The idea must connect to what glasses do: help your vision. AMPLIFY “HELPING YOUR VISION“.
The idea won’t feel right if the glasses give you the ability to lift weight. Lifting heavy weight isn’t an absurd power but it isn’t connected to the quality of eyes and glasses. Super define an idea that already exists in the things you are dealing with.
The doctor says you are developing dementia and will lose your ability to process information in a short time.
Whatever super definition you make for her, it’s got to amplify the quality of memory, intellect, or mental ability. Maybe she is offered an experimental drug that amplifies the idea of memory.
Her memory improves… It continues to get better… to an extreme. Now, she knows everything and everybody she ever met or connected to. She can read a book and know everything in it perfectly.
And of course super define the problems that come from the power of the super definition. Super memory might mean she can’t forget all the pains she repressed. She relives every painful moment of her beloved husbands death… over and over. Amplify it more… reliving becomes experiencing… And everything is happening over and over.
Reading minds might mean never having the solitude of your own mind because others are always in your head.
The power of invisibility might mean becoming less connected to anything that is real.
Watch some BLACK MIRROR. The show was a hit with most people who watched it and is filled with Super Definitions of the things that exist in our reality every day.
Super Definition is a great way to play with metaphors. It offers you another way to see things and to play and expand your ideas into other worlds.