by Professor Tom Foolery
My very favorite word game that I love to share with people is called "alphabetical storyteller". It's a fun and challenging improv game, in which you make up stories as a group, while starting each new word of the story in alphabetical order, as I will explain more thoroughly below.
All that's required to play it and have a great time doing so is a good control over the alphabet, the ability to lose control of yourself for a minute, and perhaps some kind of talking stick.
I have taught it to some older children, but have found it more suitable for adults in a relatively focused party type of atmosphere, ideally around a camp fire.
How long it takes depends on how long the group remains engaged, which can be anywhere from a few minutes to hours on end.
I came up with Alphabetical Storyteller with some of my college buddies after our improv class, where we had learned a similar game, in which each actor had to come up with lines in an improvised scene in alphabetical order, going back and forth, line by line, from A to Z.
Alphabetical Storyteller is my spin-off on this, where instead of having to act out a scene (which can be a bit too much for a party game), you simply make up stories, sensical or not, starting the first word with the letter "A", the second word with "B", and so forth and so on all the way through "Z" and back around.
I usually go first, since I'm typically the one teaching the game, and I like to do one full run-through from A to Z to demonstrate how it works.
For example, I might begin a story like, "Aunt Beatrice Couldn't Dance Enough, Forgetting Groceries, Hindering Impatient Jerky K-Mart Lines, Minding Nobody, Overcoming Price-taggers, Quite Rightly So, Tap-dancing Until Vexed Workers X-Rayed Your Zingers.”
Naturally it takes some practice and oftentimes some poetic license to make it through the alphabet on your own, so I've come up with a few guidelines to help the game flow smoothly and keep everyone engaged.
First, if someone gets stuck on a letter for more than say, a couple of seconds or so, then I (or the group) will "gong" them out (unless they do it themselves) and the story is picked up where they left off by the next person in the circle. I like to use a talking stick around a fire to pass around so that everyone just listens to whoever has the stick.
Another helpful guideline is that if you come to a good stopping place in your part of the story, its a good idea to pass the stick/ story to the next person. Another key time to pass it is if you have managed to make it all the way through the alphabet and back to the letter you started on.
Also, if someone makes the mistake of starting a word with the wrong letter, you can make them pass it and the next person picks up where they left off, prior to making the error.
To make it easier on less experienced, articulate, or younger participants, you can also let things slide so the game can be more relaxed (e.g. let players cheat on difficult letters like "K" and say a word that starts with "C", let them leave out the "e" in words like extra, let them slide on grammatical errors, let them interject articles like "a" and "the", etc.).
When you are not playing around younger people, you can have a lot of laughs with a fun "x" word like "x-rated," but there's only so many times you can recycle the same word without abusing it. So one thing that can help keep the game fresh and exciting is to start making up creative words of your own, particularly on difficult letters.
The very first time I played this with my friends, our improv started to become a little repetitive, especially towards the end of the alphabet, and we got tired of talking about xylophones and zebras. So we started making our own words up, in the spirit of Dr. Seuss, when we got to more challenging letters.
Lo and behold, our xylophones were retired and became "xibbies", and our tired old zebras were reborn as young "zipperzappers"!
I have found it best not to place any strict limitations on the many directions this game can go. I have observed that people tend to have a lot more fun when the rules of the game become more flexible.
I have also seen some brilliant poetry come out of those who were poets and didn't even know it -- that is, until they played this game.
On several occasions, I have made up one after another improv game with my friends after getting inspired by this one.
The key to any improv game is to just let go and let the words flow. It doesn't necessarily matter if the stories make any sense, or even if there's any logical sequence or cohesion to whatever manifests from one player to the next.
The sky is limit when you are on the improv floor. So go get those creative juices flowing, and please share this game with anyone who shares my love of language and of spontaneity. Thank you for reading!