The hand thing is something I’ve been using for years now to explain to classes the importance of clear justifications in scenework. Simply put, if the first unusual thing is the thumb, the justification is the palm, and further instances of the game are the fingers.
Granted, this isn’t necessarily any more illuminating than saying “If this is true, what else is true,” but just being able to see a visual demonstration of the rule is helpful for some people. Beyond that, a visual aid you’ll always have with you in scenes is a nice cheat sheet for those who enjoy such things.
In practice, the purpose of the hand thing is to encourage performers to make strong justifications which justify not only the unusual thing that’s currently being dealt with, but which also justify a whole host of other unusual things which feel consistently unusual with the first.
Here’s an example to pick apart:
"I haven’t had a steak in ages."
"Me neither! Happy birthday, buddy- dig in!"
They cut their steaks. The birthday boy takes a cube of steak on his fork and sticks it down the back of his pants.
"Whoa, buddy- what the hell are you doing?"
The behavior of putting steak in one’s butt is unusual. However, there’s a whole slew of justifications as to why somebody might engage in such behavior, and whichever one of them is chosen by an improviser will drastically affect what happens next in the scene.
Let’s look at a few different justifications:
1) "I’m vegan, so I can’t eat any meat, but there’s a loophole- technically, I’m not eating the steak if I don’t put it in my mouth."
With this justification, we know that the behavior of putting steak in one’s butt is motivated by the character conflict of a) wanting to be a good vegan and b) still wanting steak. It’s like when you hear about super religious high school kids having anal sex, because they think they can do that and still be celibate. And yeah, that’s a thing that happens. Weird, right?
The palm, then, is the act of looking for loopholes. We could very easily play out the entire scene at a meal watching this ersatz vegan put animal byproducts in their butt. However, by correctly identifying looking for loopholes in veganism as an outgrowth (the thumb) of a deeper desire of just looking for loopholes (the palm), we open up options not just for this scene (the fingers), but also clearly illustrate the philosophy we’ll need to bring with us (again, the palm) in order to play this game consistently in future beats (if we’re doing a Harold) or for future scenes (if we’re doing a run).
(Needless parenthetical clause)
2) "The mucosal lining of the intestine actually absorbs vitamins more completely than just chewing and eating food does, and I wanna make sure to get as much nutrition from this steak as I can."
Here, the palm is a desire for maximum nutrition and health. Again, while we could easily watch the rest of this scene play out just by letting the character continue to consume their meal rectally, the audience will get habituated to that pretty quickly, and we want to keep them on their toes. Using the deeper justification of being a health nut will allow us to surprise the audience with the whole panoply of health nut behavior, including but not limited to wearing a FitBit, doing burpees, and talking about how much they love Crossfit. Also, this deeper justification will carry the game beyond the bounds of the current scene and allow us to easily initiate further beats without getting stuck just putting stuff in our butts for the whole show.
3) "I enjoy the sensation of putting steak in my butt."
Ah, the simplest justification of them all. Time to get down to brass tacks, imaginary improviser.
This isn’t a good justification. There’s no palm to it. It’s just explaining the thumb. In that it’s explanatory power is limited to the current set of events and offers us no insight as to what else might happen, it doesn’t illuminate anything about where the scene might go, and in the process it doesn’t even bother to tell us anything interesting about where the scene is. The only moves which this hedonistic justification allows us to make are further iterations of what we’ve already scene. While it’s true that strict repetition can sometimes work as heightening all by itself, it’s a bad strategy to rely on in general.
Justifications are an important part of scenework. A good justification not only lets us know why the current scene is happening, but offers us into a glimpse of where future scenes with the same game might go, or what other iterations of the game in this scene might look like.
The goal of a justification ought not be merely to explain what’s happening right now, but to contextualize what’s happening right now in such a way that it feels like one manifestation of a deeper, larger phenomenon.
Getting in the habit of justifying unusual behavior in this way will provide options to extend gameplay well beyond the average length of a scene. Whether or not these options are used in any one scene doesn’t matter. The act of defining what further game moves will look like enables the player to explore the scene freely and to discover game moves organically. Doing so enables the performer and audience to simultaneously be surprised by game moves, and in the process preserves the sense of discovery that made the first game move enticing enough to follow in the first place.