I Am Standing In Sunshine On A Tall Peak, Below Me I Can See Only Clouds
January 29, 2010 5:55 AM   Subscribe

After listening to The Moth for a while I would like to work on becoming a better storyteller.

I've had a great exciting life with many (I feel) interesting happenings. The problem is most of them don't have dramatic endings like the stories on The Moth. In most of my stories I just fade back into everyday life with no punch line. Perhaps there are life lessons earned, perhaps not. Help me liven up my oral stories, keep them true to what happened, and avoid the "is that all?' factor.
posted by Xurando to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
The most basic, important, vital part of being a good storyteller is that SOMETHING happens. People fail to tell stories well because they don't provide a narrative with event points - they tell their audiences about how they felt, use dialogue to replace narrative (as opposed to complementing), and assume the audience knows way, way more than they do. So you get to hear a recanting of the storyteller's internal dialogue alone - which is BORING.

And it helps to have a beginning, middle, and end.
posted by RajahKing at 6:14 AM on January 29, 2010

Perhaps translate your stories into poetry.
posted by zeoslap at 6:22 AM on January 29, 2010

They say in story writing classes to follow the structure, ie, exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. More of your stories probably have those in them than you think, but it's really difficult to think of it in this way on the spot when telling your story. Simply writing out your stories, organizing them into a distinct narrative, and being careful to include the important details will likely go a long way. Rehearsal will help a lot too.

For the "Is that all" factor, do you think you can find universally relatable themes in your stories that other people could latch onto? I like to tell the story about when I had my car accident because I feel like most people understand the fear associated with driving in a snowstorm and a general dread of injury and death.
posted by EtzHadaat at 6:38 AM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Storytelling doesn't have to be about fact. You can combine stories and be creative without having it turn into something outrageous. Some of the best story tellers mix real life facts and fiction to come up with something interesting.
posted by JJ86 at 6:51 AM on January 29, 2010

I'm a writer, and I'm actually pondering this a lot myself as well -- the difference between "story" and "anecdote."

I think sometimes a lot of the deeper meaning or the "story" part of it doesn't come until later -- after you've had time to think about events a bit, or after time passes and you can get a different perspective on it. Or, maybe the final act hasn't come along yet (my own story of a secret admirer didn't really have an "ending" until 20 years after the fact).

Sometimes, some of that reflection comes out if you try writing it down anyway in a journal. Writing things down helps me think about them a little clearer, simply because the mere act of trying to find the right words for something forces me to think ABOUT them -- so those nebulous thoughts in my head become just a bit more concrete. Also, being able to go back and reread things helps you make connections later. I've promised myself I'll be getting back into the journaling habit for just that very reason.

Try that. It may not happen overnight, but it'll help you start noticing some things, and making the connections and crafting the story can get easier that way.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:06 AM on January 29, 2010

Stories don't have to have snappy endings or dazzling twists, or stark lessons to be learned.

You should listen to Richard Price's Moth story "Fishing Hole at Delancey", if you haven't already. I think you can get it on last.fm (don't have an account there yet myself). It's pretty much the kind of story you're describing...Price is just an observer of some slightly unnerving events. Nothing flashy, but brilliant in its own way.
posted by hiteleven at 8:01 AM on January 29, 2010

Response by poster: Storytelling doesn't have to be about fact. You can combine stories and be creative without having it turn into something outrageous. Some of the best story tellers mix real life facts and fiction to come up with something interesting.

I want my stories to be real not made up, kind of like the difference between AskMe and chatfilter.
posted by Xurando at 8:02 AM on January 29, 2010

More thought:

There are a couple of "writing memoirs" writing guides out now; hit your local bookstore and browse in that section a bit. (I can't recommend any just yet because I'm still evaluating the ones I got.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:04 AM on January 29, 2010

I want my stories to be real not made up, kind of like the difference between AskMe and chatfilter.

Real-life stories can be massaged without including fictional elements. Or do you think all those Moth storytellers actually remember the dialog they incorporate verbatim?

Storytelling isn't reportage. You can pick and choose elements of events that make it into a good story.
posted by hiteleven at 8:22 AM on January 29, 2010

And there's a difference between picking and choosing elements, and just making things up like James Frey...I wanted to make that clear.
posted by hiteleven at 8:23 AM on January 29, 2010

There are two main aspects of storytelling: the story itself -- the script (or the "script" if it's improvised) -- and the delivery of it. For the former, you need to understand narrative structure, whether you're telling a true story or a made-up one. People here are talking about that when they bring up beginnings, middles and ends. Since most people here are focusing on the that, I'll talk about the latter aspect: delivery.

Which is another word for acting. You may be "playing yourself," but you're still standing on a stage (or in front of a microphone in a recording booth), performing for people.

The guy who can help you is Stanislavsky. You may want to skip the books he wrote and instead read a more contemporary manual, such as my favorite, "A Practical Handbook for the Actor" (a very quick read!)

Stanislavsky's basic idea is that whenever you're onstage, you must be trying to DO something. We watch people because we want to see them engaged in some sort of activity. We don't watch them to hear them describe something -- at least that's not the main thing that makes watching or listening to people special -- because we can get that from a story we read.

Furthermore, you should be trying to do something to another person or group of people. In a dramatic scene, one character is generally trying to do something to another character. But you'll be alone on stage. So the other "character" is either an imaginary person you've conjured up or it's the audience.

For example, you might imagine that you're telling the story because you want to impress "your father" (in quotes because he's in your head). Or you may be trying to convince the audience that you're innocent (e.g if your story is about a time you got accused of a crime).

Assume that the person you're talking to is NOT on your side. I don't necessarily mean that he (or they) is your enemy, though that can work. But pretend that they don't start out totally on the same page as you. They need to be convinced of something. Given my above examples, assume your father thinks you're a deadbeat; assume your audience thinks you're a criminal and should be locked up.

The stronger your action is, the more riveting your story will be. Strong means that the stakes are strong. If my goal is to get a girl to smile at me, I may not work all that hard to achieve it. On the other hand, if my goal is To Seduce a girl into sleeping with me, I'm likely to work harder. On the OTHER other hand, if I suspect the girl is attracted to me, why bother making a big effort? I'll work harder if my goal is to seduce Michelle Pfeiffer. (Though you have to make sure that your goal feels possible to achieve, or you'll just give up.)

I once had an acting teacher who tacked "or I'll die" onto her goals. For instance, she'd say, "In this scene my goal is To Convince My Husband I'm Faithful To Him -- OR I'LL DIE!" If that works for you, use it. The point is, come up with a goal/action/intention/activity (whatever you want to call it) that (a) is exciting to you and (b) is very important for you to achieve.

A couple of notes:

1) The goal is for you, not your audience. The point is NOT for you to get the audience to guess what it is. They just want to hear an exciting story. If you tell it with a goal in mind -- and if that goal is specific and if it excites you -- your story will be exciting.

Think of the story teller's you've heard that keep you on the edge of your seat. Sure, it's partly because the story is fascinating (but if that's all it is, you would be just as entertained if you read it in a book). But it's also because the storyteller made it seem as if he HAD to tell you this story RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW! He had a goal (it doesn't matter what it is) and the stakes here high!

2) You may need more than one goal for different parts of the story. For instance, convincing the audience that you're not a criminal may work for the first part. But after you've decided they're convinced, you may need another goal, such as convincing them that they should help you find the REAL guy who murdered your brother, for the second part.

How do the words and events of your story connect to your goal? They are the tools you use to achieve it. A lawyer's goal may be keep his client out of jail; his argument is the tool he uses to achieve that goal.

Finally, don't disregard your "instruments," which are your body and voice. For storytelling, the voice is obviously most important, but you probably use your body when you tell stories -- maybe you gesture more than you think you do. Gesturing is great if you do it in an expressive, organic way.

If you have an annoying or inexpressive voice (or if you just think it could be improved), consider taking some voice classes. If you are clumsy or stiff on stage, consider movement classes.

Storytelling is my favorite form of narrative. Good luck!
posted by grumblebee at 8:33 AM on January 29, 2010 [7 favorites]

In high school, I kept a journal for one of my classes. I wrote a pretty detailed description of my life during that period.

A lot of things happened, but, as with life, there's not much in the way of definitive beginning, middle and end.

Except that - there is. Perhaps the story doesn't end at any given moment, but there is a moment of maximum conflict, and an eventual resolution at some point down the line.

Without rehashing the whole story, it describes a breakup. Not mine, I wasn't dating anyone at the time (hey, I was 15, the whole dating thing was new to me), but of my friend's. I was there in the role of supportive friend.

There's a bunch of stuff that happens before the breakup, and then the breakup itself. I only tell my perspective on the story, but there's a definitive beginning since I get the phone call to be a shoulder to cry on.

There are two climaxes in the story, one much softer than the other, and together they provide a good ending to the story.

In one, the kid who broke up with my friend threw a house party while his mother was away, got wasted & his house was totally destroyed - everything was stolen or broken. He was kicked out of his house & went to live with his grandmother and eventually moved away.

In the other, months later, my another friend and I got into a fist fight over... I forget what, but we had our reasons at the time.

The difference in scale & impact of each makes them a good contrast to each other, and while our lives went on, even if the semester & journal ended, the story - as I tell it - ends there.

So where are your moments of maximum conflict? Find them and place them appropriately near the end of the story. In some ways, the conflict itself is the story. The story should begin at the point where the conflict becomes inevitable, and it should end once it's resolved. Everything else is... not part of the narrative, it's a subplot or it's exposition.

After nearly 20 years since the events of that story, I'd probably have forgotten a lot of it if I didn't write it down, so be sure you're not forgetting the points of conflict.
posted by MesoFilter at 12:29 PM on January 29, 2010

If the "ending" is somewhat mundane, you could start with that, and then explain how you got there. "I've only tried caviar once in my life. It all started [insert interesting bit here]. I realised then that nothing could live up to that first time".

Or I guess in general you can splice your story to put the good bit at the end - anything which happened chronologically after that can be told beforehand to increase the payoff of the narrative climax (when it's all explained). Much the way that "Did I ever tell you how I got these scars?" doesn't end with "and as a result of sub-standard medical care, over a period of about a year, the wounds healed with significant visible scarring".
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 1:27 PM on January 29, 2010

I know you don't want to make RADIO stories. But Radio: An Illustrated Guide by This American Life has a very clear and succinct explanation of how they build stories from real life events. Plus, it's a comic book so BONUS!!
posted by jeanmari at 2:20 PM on January 29, 2010

Also, consider the details. Dialogue helps. Even if you can half-remember it, fill in the blanks and flesh out your story. Choose what details you want to accentuate. Listen to more Moth episodes.
posted by craven_morhead at 3:41 PM on January 30, 2010

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