1. Get coaching and feedback from everyone.
Get coaching and feedback from people who tell in different styles than you. Get coaching and feedback from people who tell in a style very close to yours. Stick around after shows to get feedback from your audience. Read all the previous blog posts in this series, and all the ones that come after this.
I craft in relative isolation, but I talk to people about craft constantly. Be a sponge for ideas, then try out the new ones. Pick out the ones that push your art forward and incorporate them into your process.
2. Absorb as much art as you can, and absorb it all critically.
I credit the time I spent as a spoken word critic and the time I spent watching folk tellers as a child with most of my success as a slam storyteller. Absorbing great art is crucial to making good art.
But it’s not enough to sit there and let the art wash over you.
- How is this piece structured? Is that structure working?
- What are the themes of the piece? Are they served by the form?
- Is the delivery successful? How could the delivery be better?
- How does this piece fail, and why? How does it succeed, and why?
- If I had to craft the same piece, how would I craft it?
- How could this piece be crafted to be half as long? Twice as long? Would it still be about the same thing if it were longer or shorter?
3. Stop thinking about your stories as recollections of an event and start thinking about what your stories are really about.
Consider the painting, Guernica. What is it about?
One way to answer that question is, “It’s about the bombing of a Basque village during the Spanish Civil War.”
Another way to answer the question is, “It’s about heartbreak and loss and fear and anguish.”
Too many slam storytellers think about their stories in the first way. When deciding what story to tell, they think about events in their lives that they have found interesting and hope that their audience may find a straight recollection of those events to be interesting as well.
This, at best, produces amusing anecdotes. At worst, it makes your audience uncomfortable or bored.
Your story needs to be like Guernica. Superficially, it is about an event. But the particulars of the event it is about are really just a delivery device for a set of emotional experiences, just as a hypodermic needle is really just a delivery device for a drug.
When you sit down to think about what story you want to write, think more about what drug you want to inject the audience with and less about what size needle to use.
Start with the important questions. How do I feel about this event? How do I want my audience to feel? What question am I posing to my audience? What is my story really about?
4. Think way more about structure.
The structure of many slam stories is driven by causation. First A happened, and then B, then C, and then D, and The End. But just as the events of a story are not really what the story is about, the plot of a story is not really the structure of the story.
Sometimes, a straightforward narrative of causation happens to also be the best thematic structure for a piece. That’s fine, but it isn't often the case.
Much more frequently, to serve the thematic structure of the story, you may wish to put event B before event A, or cut event C entirely because it’s an emotional or thematic tangent.
Most of my slam stories are written in a three part thematic structure, because that’s about as complex as I can get in five and a half minutes. Section A sets out a thesis, section B sets out an antithesis, and section C is a synthesis.
I have a story that is, in terms of plot, about the first boy I ever had a crush on, and my homophobic middle-school bully. Structurally, it goes like this:
A) The youthful awakening of my queer sexuality
B) Shame, powerlessness, and self-denial of my queer sexuality
C) Adult acceptance of my queer sexuality and the cultural complexity surrounding it
Another story I tell is a monologue delivered by a foul-mouthed playground scoop. Structurally, it goes like this:
A) My dead-end job sucks balls
B) My hopes and dreams could come true if I wasn't stuck in a dead-end job
C) As shitty as my dead-end job is, sometimes I help people and that helps me drag myself through another day
In both of these cases, A conflicts directly with B, and C serves as a resolution to that tension.
Having this structure helps when it’s time to actually sit down and write. Anything that serves the theme of section you’re working on stays in; anything that distracts from the theme of the section you’re working on gets cut.
5. Make your block of marble, and then cut away everything that isn't David.
When I start to craft a story, after I've figured out what I wanted it to be about thematically and decided on a structure, the next step is to vomit on the page. I ignore my structure and write down every detail - from the color of the walls to the way my body felt in the moment - that I can think of that could possibly be relevant to the story.
Then I move all the text around until it fits the structure. Then I can start to cut.
And I keep cutting, all throughout the creative process. Extra words, details that don’t add to the theme of the section, anything that doesn't make the audience feel what you want them to feel. The fewer words you waste explaining unnecessary details, the more you have to be expressive.
Did you go out to a bar with a group of friends? Does it matter that it’s a group, or could you reduce that group to a single composite character? Do you even need that character, or could you be at the bar alone?
Does the audience need to know what you were wearing at the bar? What is the function of telling them that information - does it help build your character, or are you just wallowing in the details? If you do need to describe what you're wearing, what's the minimum number of articles of clothing you can describe to achieve that effect? How few words can you use to describe those articles of clothing and still achieve that effect?
You should be able to verbalize the function of every section, sentence, phrase, and word in your story. If you can’t find a good reason for it to be there, cut it out.
6. Think about word choice, rhythm, and the aural properties of your story the way a musician thinks about their music.
Now that you know what your story is about and you've crafted the structure to fit those themes, and you've got most of the words you want to say, it’s time to work on delivery.
When a musician wants to convey rising tension, they may play faster and louder. When they want to release that tension, they may play slower and more quietly.
When a musician wants to convey unpleasant emotion, they will play minor chords and create grating or uncomfortable sounds. When they want to create a pleasant emotion, they may play major chords and create sounds that are pleasing to the ear.
Similarly, a storyteller should choose words and speak in a way that reflects the emotions present in a particular story or section. If you are talking about an experience of rising action and tension, speak faster and louder. When you want to release that tension, lower your voice and speak more slowly.
When you want to convey unpleasant emotion, don’t just use words with unpleasant meanings - use words with unpleasant meanings that sound unpleasant. Harshen the tone of your voice. When it’s time to lift the mood, use more euphonic words and lighten your voice.
These aren't rules. Sometimes a silence builds more tension than noise, for example. There’s way more to sonic craft than could be covered in a blog post.
But the point is that few people in the local scene are sonically crafting. To take your stories to the next level, this needs to be a big part of your process.
7. “Practice only on the days you eat.” - Shinichi Suzuki
Too often in the local scene, people come to stage with stories they came up with yesterday. Or they sound like they’re reading, even if they didn't bring notes on stage, because they’re trying to remember all the words. Or they blow their time because it’s the first time they've done the whole story out loud.
Sometimes, I get on stage with notes and a story I finished the night before. Life happens. I get busy and overwhelmed and stressed. But if I did that all the time, I would not expect to win very often. When I’m prepping a story for slam the right way, I practice. Over, and over, and over.
I start with a third or fourth draft copy of my story on paper, a pen, and a stopwatch. I walk around my neighborhood, reading the story off the paper. I write corrections and notes - mostly swapping out stilted words for more conversational words, or flipping around a sentence structure to sound more natural. I do 10-15 repetitions this way.
Then I go back to the computer to make the necessary edits. If I’m running over time by more than 20 seconds, I find more things to cut. Then I print off a fresh copy, and do another 10-15 repetitions.
By this point, I've started to get my memorization, so I put the paper in my ass pocket and practice more until my memorization is mostly solid, pulling the paper out again if I get lost.
Once I’m fully memorized, I play around with delivery. Does this sentence work better spoken loudly or softly? How long should I pause between sections? What’s the best way to pronounce this word so that it sounds conversational?
I start some repetitions in the middle of the story, or in the middle of a section. I practice it in funny accents, or try to deliver the story as quickly as possible like a debate competitor. If I’m flubbing a line, I practice that line in isolation until my mouth learns it the right way. I practice on bike rides, on walks, in the elevator, while cooking dinner.
Between memorization and performance day, I do at least another 40-50 repetitions - more, if I can make the time.
By the time I get to stage - if I've done it right - the words are muscle memory. Like a musician whose fingers already know the notes, this frees me to focus on feeling the emotions of the story and “playing” the words in a way that sounds authentic - expressing in the moment instead of remembering my lines.