So, there’s this eccentric billionaire, who decides to throw the most lavish party the world has ever known. Guests fly in from all over the world to attend. We’re talking celebrities, foreign dignitaries, titans of industry, you name it. And the only thing more impressive than the guest list is the spread the billionaire puts out from them: the freshest lobster, a sushi bar manned by Jiro himself, caviar, champagne, you name it.
Once the party is well under way, the billionaire asks everyone to join him outside, and the guests gather around the Olympic sized swimming pool in his backyard. And this isn’t just any swimming pool; it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before: it’s filled with every kind of dangerous aquatic creature you can think of. There are piranhas, and crocodiles, and even a few sharks swimming around in this pool. It’s like a nightmare come to life.
Once he has all of his guests’ attention, the eccentric billionaire, who’s had a few flutes of champagne at this point, makes an announcement: “I will give anything to the person who is brave enough to jump into this pool and swim to the other side.”
A buzz goes through the crowd, as all of the guests begin whispering to one another about this crazy billionaire and his crazy proposition. But, of course, no one steps forward to take him up on his offer.
“I’m serious,” the billionaire says, “anything you want in the world will be yours: money, a new car, a house. You name it!”
Suddenly, there’s a loud splash, and everyone looks over to see a man swimming for his life across the pool. Miraculously, the man manages to dodge the sharks, fend off the piranhas, and out-swim the crocodiles to the other side. And somehow, he makes it out of the pool in one piece. The entire crowd is awestruck and erupts in a huge cheer. They’ve just witnessed the impossible.
Delighted, the billionaire rushes over to this brave man with a warm towel and a huge smile. “I can’t believe it,” the billionaire says, “you did it! And because I am a man of my word, I will give you anything your heart desires. So, what will it be, my friend? A briefcase full of cash? My house? My beautiful daughter’s hand in marriage?”
The man, still visibly shaken, finally manages to get to his feet and catch his breath. And when he does, he looks the billionaire dead in the eye, and he says, “All I want is to know the name of the asshole who pushed me in the pool!”
It never hurts to start with a joke, right? Though in this case, the joke in question isn’t just meant to grab a quick laugh or curry favor with my audience. It will hopefully help to illustrate the subject at hand: storytelling.
As you might recall, I’ll be teaching a four-hour workshop on storytelling this week for a group of 30 high-achieving middle-schoolers¹. And as Pixar wizard Andrew Stanton so artfully points out in his TED talk on the subject, storytelling is joke-telling. Everything you’re saying is servicing a singular goal. In the case of a joke, it’s a punchline, of course; but with a story, it’s a theme or idea that confirms some truth about who we are as human beings (even if that truth is being personified by fish).
This class I’m teaching is no different. It’s my (very meta) opportunity to tell them the story of storytelling. To (hopefully) have them come away with a better understanding of why we tell stories, what makes a good story, and how they can tell one that might actually hold an audience’s attention.
Obviously, this is a rather ambitious objective when we have just four short hours together (especially since I’m dealing with the collective attention span of a class full of 13-year-olds on a warm summer day). But, I hope that the syllabus I’ve come up with (laid out below) is fun and fast-paced enough to keep them on their toes, while at the same time exposing them to the most fundamental tenants of effective storytelling.
First Period: Getting to Know You
We’ll follow up my introductory joke/mission statement with a getting to know you exercise. We’ll go around the room and everyone will introduce themselves and tell the class what their favorite movie is.
As we do this, I’ll write down each movie on a scrap of paper. And when we’re done with introductions, we’ll start our first game of the day: Movie Password. The game is simple. Each volunteer “contestant” will have 60 seconds to get the class to name as many movies as possible (written on the scraps of paper) based solely on their description of the story. No character names. No words from the movie’s title. Just the story.
Second Period: The Definition of a Story
When we’re done with the game, I’ll choose a few of their favorite movies and use them to illustrate what all stories have in common:
A character wants something badly. But they’re having difficulty getting it.
And to really pound this point home, I’ll show them as classic and clear an example of this (in scene form) as there’s ever been: the opening from Raiders of the Lost Ark:
Indy’s goal couldn’t be clearer: get the gold idol. BUT there’s (literally) one obstacle after another standing in his way. So much so that, eventually, his goal shifts from “get the gold idol” to STAY THE FUCK ALIVE!
Of course, as important as a goal — and obstacles standing in the way of achieving that goal — are to a story, there’s something else that’s every bit as necessary: the audience has to care. Whether it’s emotionally (preferred), intellectually, or aesthetically (or, in a perfect world, all three), you have to make your audience care about your character and the pursuit of their goal.
And what better example is there of a movie getting us emotionally engaged in a character’s story than the opening of Up? And to think, they do it without a single word of dialogue²:
Third Period: Character
After a quick exploration of how the filmmakers made us care about Carl, we’ll talk about what makes a great character. We don’t have to like the person, but we do have to understand and relate to them.
To get some practice creating characters of our own, we’ll play the Vernon Hardapple Game. What’s that? You’ve never heard of the Vernon Hardapple Game? Well, allow Michael Douglas, Iron Man, and the o.g. Spider-Man to demonstrate how it works (starting at the 1:25 mark):
The kids will be separated into small groups, and I’ll give each of them a picture of someone. Their job will be to construct a story about that person: who they are, what they do for a living, what their family might be like, etc. And when they’re done, they’ll share their character’s story with the rest of the class…
…but what the kids (hopefully) won’t know until their presentations is that they’ve all been working off of the same photo. So, we’ll get to see how the same photo can produce lots of (great) stories.
Fourth Period: It’s All in the Details
So, what makes a great character? It’s the same thing that makes a great story: the details. The difference between a great movie or book and a forgettable one always comes down to the details. In other words, specificity.
And, of course, in our own lives, a great example of this is when we get in trouble with our parents. If you don’t have a good explanation for why you broke curfew, or why you didn’t clean your room, or why you got a D- on your history test, you’re going to get in trouble. But the story can’t be TOO crazy, of course, otherwise, your parents will see right through it. Just like Goldilocks’ favorite bed, the story has to be jusssst right.
To have some fun with this idea, we’ll play a modified version of The Tonight Show’s “True Confessions” game. Like the one played here by Jimmy Fallon, John Oliver, and J-Law:
We’ll take a few volunteer “contestants” from the crowd, and have the rest of the class ask them questions about their “confession” before deciding whether they’re telling the truth or not.
Fifth Period – Telling Your Story
In an effort to start piecing together what we’ve learned (and loosen them up a bit more), we’ll play a classic improv storytelling game called “Build a Story”, which you can see executed by a group of kids and they’re incredibly enthusiastic instructor³ here:
And this will lead us to climax of our story: a mini-version of The Moth (not to be confused with this version of The Moth), where the students will take turns getting up in front of the class, and telling a short story from their own lives (based on a few possible prompts). Kind of like this one:
My hope is, that by waiting to force them into the role of storyteller until the end, they’ll hopefully be comfortable enough with each other to be a bit more forthcoming. But we shall see…
For a full report on how it all goes, check back next week. Until then…
¹And ironically, I’m about as nervous as I was for my first day of middle school.
²Definitely have some tissues at the ready before watching this clip. It’s gonna get a little dusty in here…
³I can assure you that I will be nowhere near this enthusiastic.