Circle of expectations

As we introduce elements in a story, the audience develops what Keith Johnstone calls "a circle of expectation".

The specific contents of that circle depend on the background of the audience, but for example:

  • If a story introduces a pirate marooned on a deserted island, the audience might reasonably expect parrots, goats, smoke signals, rum, other pirates, and the like.
  • If a story introduces a UFO above a city, the audience probably expects aliens, abductions, 4-star generals, journalists, and moments of spectacular destruction.

This is a useful for concept for teaching students how to create a coherent story, but it has some nuances.

Different combinations of starting elements create different circles of expectation:

  • If the marooned pirate soon encounters zombies guarding a cursed treasure, then audience expectations will shift to include more magic and less shelter-building.
  • If the UFO hovers inexplicably over the city for a decade, then audience expectations will shift to include more characters experiencing existential crises and less blam-blam action scenes.
  • At the beginning of a story, there's a window of time where the audience expects the key features of the world to be introduced and defined, and they will accept all sorts of elements as part of that process and adjust their circle of expectation accordingly.
  • In the middle, the audience expect to see new elements enter the story and be combined in interesting ways with other elements, and they expect any new elements to come from inside the circle.
  • Towards the end, audiences expect the story to be "using up" the existing elements.

The audience will feel a jolt if we introduce an element from outside their circle of expectations.

  • Early in a story, that jolt can create interest and surprise as the audience updates their circle.
  • Later in a story, it tends to create irritation or disappointment as the audience doubts the internal logic of the story.

For example:

  • The marooned pirate has defeated the zombies, acquired the cursed treasure, and is trying to catch the attention of a passing ship when a family of cybernetically enhanced koalas descend from the palm trees to assist.
  • Most audiences would be pretty annoyed with the koalas because they come out of nowhere, make no sense in a pirate fantasy, and arbitrarily break the circle.

Note 1

The circle of expectation gets more defined the more invested the audience is in the story. You won't have a strong circle from reading a two-line summary; but if you've read 200 pages you'll have a defined circle and become increasingly annoyed if it's broken.

Note 2

Surrealism intentionally breaks the circle, but again the audience adjust their expectations to include "anything is possible" and would probably be disappointed if the story became normal half-way through. (And often surrealism isn't truly random: a weird thematic dream-logic often connects elements.)

Using the circle of expectations as a teaching tool

The circle of expectations is a great way to help students recognise when they might be breaking a story.

Below are some ideas to help introduce your class to the concept.

Once students understand the concept, you can refer back to it when coaching their writing:

  • calling out when students are breaking the circle and derailing the story, and
  • encouraging students to stay present and focused when looking for ideas.

This is a simple whiteboard activity. 

Step 1

Put up one story element and ask students what they would expect to find in a story with that element.

For example:

  • Vampire (e.g. students might say coffin, bats, castle, stalking, blood, immortality, school, werewolves, depending on their exposure to the genre)
  • Wilderness (e.g. survival, plane crash, holiday, camping, bears, moose, wolves, desert, mountains, jungle...)
  • Castle (e.g. knights, wizards, royalty, siege, Disney, tourists...)

Discussion questions

  1. Does everyone have the same associations? (They probably won't.)
  2. Does everyone agree that these elements could reasonably be in the story? (There might be some disagreement.)
  3. Which elements would exclude others? (E.g. if the castle had tourists, would that bump 'siege' out of the circle?)

Step 2

Ask students to nominate elements that they wouldn't expect to see in a story with the listed (expected) elements. For example:

  • Vampire etc (students might not expect dingos, surfboard, hot chips, weather report, football)
  • Wilderness etc (e.g. stand-up comedians, shopping centre, music studio, chocolate factory...)
  • Castle etc (e.g. KFC, baseball diamond, FBI, orangutan...)

Discussion questions

  1. Can anyone come up with a way to fit one of these elements into the 'expected' set? (E.g. orangutan to castle, knights, king, siege, etc.) How would you justify it?
  2. Could you fit another element in as well? How would you justify this additional element? (The justification will probably get increasingly elaborate and implausible.)
  3. What if we only had the original element (e.g. vampire or wilderness)—does that make it easier to link the unexpected element? (It should, because there is less context from other elements to shrink the circle.)


  • Introduce the idea of the circle of expectations. 
  • This is something the audience creates as they follow the story.
  • It is relatively flexible at the beginning of the story, more rigid later.
  • Introducing elements from outside the circle creates a jolt in the audience which tends to break the story.

Evaluate two Frankenstories for their circles of expectation.

Story 1: Horse Flute

  1. Read Horse Flute together. (Link to game.)
  2. Identify each story element (character, object, place, event).
  3. Decide if each element is in or out of the circle.

You'll find Horse Flute is silly but coherent.

Story 2: The supreme tale of QUANDALE SHREKLE

  1. Read The supreme tale of QUANDALE SHREKLE together. (Link to game.)
  2. Identify each story element (character, object, place, event).
  3. Decide if each element is in or out of the circle.

This story starts semi-coherently—with vampires, demons, spooky halls—until Round 4 when Quandale Dingle and Shrek appear.


  1. What's the effect of staying in the circle? (Feels coherent, satisfying.)
  2. What's the effect of breaking the circle? (Feels random, can be funny, but ultimately kind of pointless.)

If students insist that breaking the circle is funny and the better option, you might want to leave it as an open question, and then become more insistent and directive about maintaining the circle during an actual game. 

Play three games.

  • Any prompt.
  • 3-5 rounds.

Game 1: Break the circle

  • Round 1: Establish a coherent platform.
  • Rounds 2-5: Introduce something each round that is completely outside the circle of expectations set by the story so far.
  • Again, ask the group how they felt while playing, and how they feel about the story.
  • Example game: Coal Story Bro

Game 2: Stay in the circle

  • Play a game and insist that students only introduce elements within the circle of expectation.
  • Use Approval Mode to reject replies that are too random.
  • Afterwards, ask the group how they felt while playing, and how they feel about the story.

Game 3: Tilt each round but stay in the circle (Advanced)

  • If you've explored the idea of tilts, then you can have some interesting discussions about whether tilts and breaks are the same.
  • Try playing a game where you ask players to establish a platform and then tilt every round.
  • Compare the results with the game where players break every round: you should find that the story is still volatile, but the disruptions are more coherent and more easily justified.
  • This is a good way to help students develop their story sense (or 'taste').
  • Example gameIf Only We Had Stayed On Shore and Eaten Each Other


Ideally, students appreciate coherence and are wary of incoherence in these stories.

But they may prefer the more disruptive story. Probably don't push the issue, because it's partly about power and in-jokes with the group.

(You might ask if they think someone outside the class would enjoy the story as much as they do.)

Overall, the goal should be to establish:

  • an awareness of the circle
  • a sense of how it evolves through the story
  • a feeling for what happens when you introduce elements that are in or out of the circle

You can leverage this understanding in subsequent games and writing activities.