by Doug Stevenson 2000
Start with the destination in mind.
I often have a great beginning for a story. The words just seem to flow from my tongue and before I know it, I’m crafting it. I slip comfortably into the free flow of creativity because it feels good just to create. And then it hits me. What is this story about? How will it end? What’s the point?
Many of us have unbridled creativity inside that is like a mischievous friend calling us out to play. It doesn’t care that there are chores to be done, it just wants to play. This creativity is great, if it can be channeled to a purpose.
Channel your creativity by starting with the destination in mind. When you get an idea for a new story, immediately leap to the end. How will the story end? What are the points that this story may make? Develop an ending and then go back to the beginning and work towards it. You’ll save a lot of time going down dead end roads.
The following structure is meant to be a template. Use it as a guide. It works well for stories that you consider important enough to develop into signature stories. Not all stories need all of these steps.
STEP ONE – Set the Scene
In step one; create the context for the story. Set time,
location, weather and conditions. What was going on
emotionally, physically or spiritually?
STEP TWO – Introduce the characters
Help me to see them with visual descriptions. Tell me
about your relationship, their quirks. Become them. Add
a character voice or physicalization to make them different
from you. Do this with key characters only, not everyone.
(See character development below)
STEP THREE – Begin the journey
What is the task, the goal, the journey? Where do you have
to go? Who do you have to connect with? What is the
STEP FOUR – Encounter the obstacle
Without conflict, the story will be boring. Something must
happen to get in your way and make it interesting. The
obstacle may be a person, a challenge to overcome or a
self-limiting belief. Exaggeration here will make it funny.
STEP FIVE – Overcome the obstacle
What did you have to do to overcome? What strength did
you have to summon? Was there someone who helped you?
Perhaps your helper is the hero, perhaps it is you. Be
specific here. Break your solution down into a few steps
in sequence. This is where the teaching happens.
STEP SIX – Resolve the story
Tie up any loose ends and make sure your audience
knows how everything turned out. What happened to
the other people, to your helper? Go back over your
story for logic and hear it as the audience will hear it.
STEP SEVEN – Make the point
It is important that your story has one clear point. Too
many points confuse the issue. One story, one point.
Write out the point and memorize it. Work on the words.
Make it simple and easy to remember. This is where you
work in your “Phrase That Pays.”
STEP EIGHT – Ask the question
Make your story their story by asking the question. “Has
that ever happened to you?” Turn the point into a question.
Push their buttons. The question makes your story pertinent
to them in the moment and adds power to your point.
The other characters in your stories are some of your best opportunities for humor. The way you describe their physicality and talk about them allows us to know them as you know them. We get to sense your relationship from the tone of your voice. If they drive you nuts, let us hear it in the way you tell us about them. If you are in awe of them, sound like it. Some of my students are better at using their bodies to create characters than others, but they have all had success vocally. Inflection is like a spice. It colors your words with emotional context. I encourage you to get out your trusty Thesaurus and find some fun words to describe the characters in your story.
Of course the best way to develop characters is physically. Why is it best? Because audiences love it when you walk and talk like somebody else. The visual element of what we do on the podium is essential for audience involvement. Showing your friend Moneesha is far better than describing her.
Different characters can be created very easily. Simply by dropping you shoulders forward a little, you can become an older person. Moving the shoulders back tells the audience that the character is very proper, confident or perhaps, stuck up. Changing your gait is simple but effective. By shortening or lengthening the size of your steps, you transform into someone smaller or larger. Observe the way those around you walk or use their arms and hands in conversation. It’s easy to mimic them and create a characterization. In order to do this however, you must commit. You can’t do this half- way. It requires a willingness to play, to have fun and to take yourself lightly. The payoff is worth it.
Once you’ve decided to use a physical choice to create a character, practice the transition from you to them. Do it many times. It is the transition that is tricky. The way that I do it is to memorize their posture and to move from me to them almost robotically, just to teach my body what I want it to remember. It’s almost like a dance step. Once your body remembers, it’s much easier to replicate.
The next best way to create characters is vocally. Give them a character voice. It doesn’t have to be a huge difference from your voice, just enough to sound different. You may choose to get a little louder or softer, or to give them an attitude. My friend Michael Morgan is a master of character voices. He can do a mobster, an East Indian, a southerner or whatever he wants. Not all of us have that talent, but it is one of the things that sets him apart. Audiences love it when he does voices. Your characters are real people, so they have a sound for you to work with. Try it.
If neither of the above choices suit you, use descriptive language. Don’t stop with, “My friend Mark.” Go deeper. “My friend Mark is about 6 feet 3 inches tall and about 140 pounds. We used to call him Daddy Long Legs. With a mustache. He’s a computer nerd too. An absolute genius with a keyboard. So Mark was supposed to pick me up at the airport and bring me home after a long trip.”
All I did was to go beyond the normal description. I used imagery to help you see Mark. Chances are most people in your audience know someone who resembles Mark, so they can now see him standing next to you at the airport. When your audience can see a picture, your stories come alive. Help them to see your characters and your stories will work on more levels. And best of all, you’ll get a few more laughs.
Copyright 2005 by Doug Stevenson. Reprinted with permission. Doug Stevenson is the creator of the Story Theater Method. He is an author, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. Reach Doug at www.storytheater.net or 800.573.6196