Short Story Theatre
15 SIMPLE TIPS TO EFFECTIVE STORYTELLING
1. YOUR STORY SHOULD BE BASED ON A TRUE EVENT
Storytelling is creative non-fiction. This means your story should be told in the first person and be about something that actually happened to you. This offers you the chance to share your innermost feelings with the audience. We like stories that go to difficult personal places. Embarrassing places. Painful places. Happy places. That being said, always remember, good stories don’t have to be 100% true. Feel free to take a little creative license or change a few facts here and there to make your story more interesting and more on point—just like movies do when they are based on true events. But always remember: your story should never go beyond belief. It should always ring true.
2. YOUR STORY SHOULD BE ABOUT 10-12 MINUTES LONG
When performing it is up to you to intellectually force the audience to pay attention by spinning one heck of a story. Problem is, audiences tend to get fidgety and lose concentration if a story is too long, no matter how good it is. So at Short Story Theatre, we limit stories to about 10-12 minutes. If yours runs 30 or so seconds over or under, it’s not the end of the world. But work hard to keep it within our time frame. A good way to judge the length of your story is to count words. 10 minutes are about 1,500 spoken words, depending on the speed of delivery. But always keep in mind that it is better to leave audiences wanting more than to wish you had stopped yapping minutes ago.
3. YOUR STORY SHOULD HAVE A MORAL OR UNIVERSAL THEME
Even if your story is a unique event that happened to you, it needs to connect with a wider audience—an audience that most likely never experienced that same actual event. That means they need to identify with your story somehow. How do you do that? By making sure your story executes a universal theme—a theme that everyone has experienced in some fashion. For instance, “don’t judge a book by its cover” is a universal theme that can be used to tell a story on a variety of subjects in which first impressions were wrong. It could be a story about someone you ignored because of his or her appearance. Or better yet, someone who ignored you because of your appearance. People identify with stories that strike close to their own heart.
4. MAKE SURE YOUR STORY HAS A POINT TO IT
Before you write, ask yourself: why should anyone—including complete strangers—care about my story? Once you’re able to answer that question successfully, you will have the point of your story. Make sure you build your story around this one central point and stick to it. Don’t go off on meandering tangents that have nothing to do with advancing your story to its payoff. That means every paragraph should eventually lead the listener directly to the point of your story.
5. NEVER TELL THE SAME OLD STORY
Make sure your story is original and fresh—something no one has heard before. That doesn’t mean you can’t tell another boy meets girl story. But it does mean that the circumstances surrounding that story should be surprising and different. In other words, if you’re going to tell the same old story, make sure you give it a fresh new twist. For instance, perhaps in that boy meets girl story, the girl is actually the boy and the boy is actually the girl—in other words a story of a gay man and a lesbian who fall in love. Outlandish? Maybe. Impossible? Hardly. If you bring originality to the story, you have a better chance of people liking it—and remembering it.
6. STIR THE AUDIENCE’S IMAGINATION BY UPSETTING THEIR EQUILIBRIUM
The process of creativity begins with this principle: Everyone on this planet lives by the same general set of rules—a shared human experience. Over time these rules become so ingrained in us that our expectations on how the world operates become set in our brains. They become our collective equilibrium. For instance, objects always fall up, not down. Hot fudge sundaes are always fattening. Civil service workers are all lazy and rude. Your goal as a writer and/or storyteller is to upset your audience’s equilibrium by making them say to themselves: “Wait, this is not how the world I know operates.” That’s why there are film concepts like Mr. Mom, Daddy Daycare and Cowboys and Aliens. And new future products actually being developed like invisibility cloaks. Of course, you don’t have to think quite that big in terms of story, but you do need to upset the equilibrium at least a little to stop an audience in its thinking tracks.
7. SOMETHING NEEDS TO HAPPEN TO YOU IN YOUR STORY
Things happen in a good story. This doesn’t mean that your story has to be like a fast-paced an action movie, but some kind of action needs to happen within it. People have to do things; stuff needs to happen. Also, some kind of lesson has to be learned. Something that maybe changed you for the better. And don’t just tell us how you felt when it happened. Tell us how it impacted you. Not just in words, but in the actions that took place within your story. No shaggy dog stories—stories that go on and on where nothing happens—allowed!
8. CREATE A SENSE OF MYSTERY
Your goal as a storyteller is to make sure the audience will remember your story as they listen to it—and hopefully, even after they’ve gone home. Of course, the easiest way to do that is by having a storyline so inherently interesting and so remarkably engaging that everyone will have no choice but to pay attention. But here’s another little trick you can use to involve an audience from start to finish. Write with a sense of mystery. That doesn’t mean your story is literally a whodunit. Only that it’s a mystery in the sense that audiences should never know what’s going to happen next. Each sentence should make people want to hear the next sentence, creating suspense and anticipation as the story unfolds. Also, keep in mind that just like a movie has twists in the plot to keep an audience glued to the screen, your story might have a twist or two to keep your audience involved. Don’t tell a linear story that just goes from point A to point Z in a straight line. Zig and zag a bit. Keep the audience guessing as to what comes next.
9. MAKE ‘EM LAUGH, MAKE ‘EM CRY
The best stories make an audience do both—bringing out emotions that make them feel like they’re on a roller coaster ride. They’ll love you for it. Because people loved to be emotionally moved one way or another.
10. YOUR STORY SHOULD BE SCENE DRIVEN
Don’t just stand up and talk to the audience. Create scenes in their heads from beginning to end. Good stories, like good screenplays, tell stories in scenes—giving a time and place to the action and providing brief descriptions of the characters. A good way to know if your story is scene-driven is to ask yourself this: “If I handed my story over to a film director, would he or she be able to stage a short film based on the narrative you provide?” If the answer is yes, then your story is scene driven. If the answer is no, start over again.
11. YOUR STORY SHOULD HAVE A BIT OF DIALOG
When we say a bit of dialog, we really mean just that. We don’t want superfluous and rambling dialog running throughout your story. Remember, you are not writing a play or movie, you are writing a narrative. So dialog should be short, sweet and memorable. Think of key lines that were said during your event and build your dialog on that. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a full conversation between you and someone else. It could be just a brief exchange. Or it might just be a series of one-liners spoken by you or the characters in your story. Make sure these lines of dialog help advance your story though. Sometimes it is best to write the most interesting six to 10 spoken lines you can think of from your story before you start to write.
12. GRAB THEIR ATTENTION RIGHT AT THE BEGINNING.
If an audience doesn’t immediately get involved, they will slowly tune you out and go into brain freeze. That’s why it’s crucial that your opening forces them to pay attention right from the start. That doesn’t mean you have to scream and yell at them. Or shock them with something outrageous. But you do need something that will stop them in their tracks, make them take notice, and get them focused on you. The opening should also have a little mystery attached to it—mystery that will stir their imagination. In other words, don’t give away the whole store before you get into the body of the story.
13. HAVE A KILLER CLOSING.
Don’t leave the audience hanging at the end. Make sure you wrap up your story and hammer the point of it home in an engaging way. Deliver it with originality and freshness. That being said, a good ending always relates back to the opening of your story. The two should be tied together. For this reason, it’s best to know your closing before you write to make sure the direction of your storyline flows to its natural conclusion.
14. YOU DO NOT HAVE TO MEMORIZE YOUR WHOLE STORY.
At Short Story Theatre, you don’t have to tell your story from memory. You are allowed to bring the text up on stage with you. But you should rehearse your story sufficiently so that you almost know it by heart to create more intimacy between you and the audience. If you do lose your place in the story while performing, don’t apologize to the audience or make a pained face. Just improvise a bit, even if it’s somewhat meaningless, until you find your place again. Chances are nobody will even know you screwed up. And if they do, they will admire you for being a trouper.
15. MEMORIZE THE OPENING AND CLOSING.
It’s important that you establish eye contact across the room at the opening of your story to create a personal bond with the audience—to signal that you are sharing something important with them. And it’s just as important to memorize your closing to reestablish the bond you created at the top. Also, good closings will usually evoke a response from your audience that you won’t want to miss. Applause. It’s your reward for a job well done.
16. RULES ARE MADE TO BE BROKEN.
We are always looking for something that breaks the mold, like a 16th tip when there are only supposed to be 15. So feel free to surprise everybody with a story that ignores or bends our guidelines. But it better be good. And it better be entertaining as hell.
STORY TITLES (Copies of some of these stories are available on request).
"Untold War Stories," "Christmas Salvation," "An Untitled Story," and "Shhhh!" by Rick Leslie
"Because," "An Ordinary Sunny Day," "A Perfect Blendship," "The Man in the Elevator," and "Sparks" by Donna Lubow
"Virgin," "A Day at the Beach," "Lessons for a Grownup Woman," and "Important Things" by Susan Block
"Lessons Learned," "It Could Always be Worse," and "Someday" by Benita Haberman
"Clean Handkerchief," "Hillary in Right Field," "Omar's Angels," "Gay Bingo," "Match.com," and "Uncle Len" by Ron Levitsky
"Not My Breast," "Autumn Leaves," "Dexter and Condi" and "Stuck in Cement" by Peggy Lewis
"Paper Trail," "Lunch at the Book Stall," "The Cake Boss," and "Maybe Boys Have the Right Idea," and "Carson's Big Adventure" by Denise Kirshenbaum
"Ramona Hall," "Steal Away," "Violets" "A Bat Story," and "Bouley Pole Dance" by Mary Lou Gilliam
"Only God Can Make a Tree" and "Skies and Scales" by Sarita Miller
"Flower Shops and Rose Gardens" "The Inflatables," and "Megatrip" by Eileen Donohue
"La Famiglia Bertucci" by Bruce Bertucci
"Lunch With President Eisenhower" by Robin Finesmith
"24-Hour Widow," "La Vie en Purple" and "We Weren't Supposed to Fall in Love" by Judy Markey
"Three Four," "Grounding Out to Third," and "Stop Banging on the Piano!" by David Edler
"Outside the Myers-Briggs Box" by Elizabeth Brown
"Kidnapping Crystal" by Rebecca Adler