Storytelling 101

In a few weeks, I’ll be leading a one day workshop filled with 30 middle-schoolers at my old high school¹. I’ve been given four hours to teach them something (hopefully) worth knowing about the only subject I’m even remotely qualified to speak intelligently about²: storytelling.How Storytelling affects the brain

Because I’ve spent the last decade-plus pursuing a career as a professional storyteller (as this blog can attest to), and I hold a masters degree in the subject from the best film school in the country, you’d think I should be able to come up with at least a few nuggets to share with them. But the task is harder than you’d think given that my audience is made up of kids who are incredibly bright³, but likely have little experience studying the subject matter (unless you count the snooze-fest that is a junior high English class). And let’s face it: 240 minutes isn’t a whole lot of time to delve into such rich and nuanced subject matter…or, more importantly, to convince a room full of pubescents that I know what the fuck I’m talking about.

Anyway, after some careful reflection (and intermittent panicking), I think I’ve settled on an approach that just might work. Broad enough to appeal to a group of varied personalities and interests, but hopefully specific enough to, you know, actually teach them something worthwhile. Here’s the blurb we sent them to set the stage:

“Life is made up of stories: everything from your favorite movie or book to the long, boring stories your parents tell at the dinner table. But what makes a good story? And how do you TELL a good story? We’ll figure it out by watching clips from great movies, playing improv games, and sharing our own stories. And don’t worry: it won’t be long or boring. Promise.”

As you can see, in an effort to get them on my side, I’ve relied on two battled-tested tactics:

1) Frame the whole thing as fun, rather than educational (by mentioning movies and games).

2) Make fun of their parents.

Ostensibly, it’s the teaching equivalent of doing crowd work as a stand-up comic. Sure, it may be a little hacky to talk about the shitty weather in [insert city with notoriously shitty weather here], but when you prove to people that you can speak their language, they’re a hell of a lot more likely to listen to what you have to say next.

Because I have such a limited amount of time, I figure it’s in my best interest to keep my message simple. And what could be simpler, really, than spending our time together trying to define what a (good) story entails?

Now, there’s a couple of different ways that you can go with this. One way, which we’ll call “The Overcompensating Grad Student”, is to wax philosophically about the intricacies of artistic expression. To talk about things like subtext and tone and point of view. To use phrases like “an exploration of the human spirit” and/or “trying to make sense out of a senseless world”. You know, kind of like this pony-tailed jackass:

But I don’t need Will Hunting to tell me not to do that. My lack of a pony-tail and regular ski trips as a child pretty much preclude me from taking that path. So, I’m left with the alternative: boiling things down to their essentials. To quote one of my favorite film school professors:

“In every great story, somebody wants something badly…but they’re having difficulty getting it.”

Reductive? Possibly. Irrefutable? Absolutely.

Go ahead, take a second to think about your favorite movie, book, play, puppet show, whatever. If we’re talking about a narrative, it always comes down to that same unassailable truth: somebody wants something badly…but they’re having difficulty getting it.

In the interest of supporting evidence, here is a one sentence breakdown of three randomly selected books and movies currently sitting on my shelf:


The Martian by Andy Weir
A U.S. astronaut fights to stay alive…after being stranded on Mars.

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
A high school freshman refuses to participate in the school’s chocolate sale…despite escalating threats from the headmaster and the school’s secret society.

Paper Towns by John Green
A high school senior tries to piece together the cryptic clues left behind by his life-long crush in an effort to find her after she disappears.


Back to the Future
After traveling back in time to the year 1955 and interrupting history, a young man has to figure out a way to get his mom to fall for his sad-sack father before he gets erased from the space-time continuum.

* Rain Man
In order to get his rightful inheritance, a man has to get his estranged, autistic brother across the country by the end of the week.

* Ocean’s Eleven
A recently paroled thief recruits a crew to help him rob three Vegas casinos (while he tries to win back his ex-wife).

Clear want. Something(s) standing in the way.

And the same holds true of the stories we tell around dinner tables and on dates and around campfires. I mean, we all know a terrible story when we hear one. What do they tend to have in common?Campfire story

In order of likelihood:

1. The lack of a clear goal or objective (i.e. “Is there a fucking point to this story, or what?”)

2. A lack of sufficient detail (i.e. “I am not following this at all / Who the fuck is Julie?”)

3. A lack of organization (i.e. “I’d ask you to start over from the beginning, but I lost interest 20 minutes ago.”)

4. A lack of conflict (i.e. “That’s it? That’s the whole fucking story?”)

5. It’s about someone’s fantasy football team.

So, there you have it. A simple objective for my four hours of instruction: teach them what a (good) story entails, and (hopefully) save an entire generation from telling stories as boring as their parents.

And if I should fail? Well, at least it’ll make for a good story, right?


¹As part of a summer program not-so-covertly designed to brainwash impressionable junior high achievers (and their parents) into thinking that paying $30K a year to attend said high school is the only logical choice if they want to secure a notable future.
²Unless you consider A Few Good Men minutiae to be a worthy topic of conversation. And if you do, can I interest you in a little something I like to call A Few Good Minutes?
³Basically they’re the best and brightest from the surrounding area’s parochial schools.
Also, let’s face it: most parents DO tell the worst stories!
Ah, the irony, of pursuing a career as a writer. You’re living this truth every fucking day.
What’ya want from me? I was reading a bunch of YA books as research for writing one of my own!
With your mouth (ideally) full of S’mores.

3 thoughts on “Storytelling 101

  1. James Rahrick

    Tough age group to keep entertained with a story for sure. I’d go with the “scare the crap out of them” story involving intriguing intertwined sick killer zombie invested electronic smart phone devices and apps, video games and internet chatting. Stuff like, “Hey, the killer zombie is in your house right now climbing the stairs to bedroom door”. Na, scratch this, you’re on your own, sorry. Good luck


  2. Pingback: Storytelling 101: The Syllabus | Michael Patrick Maloney

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