A Red Pen to Improve Your Storytelling
By: K. Sean Buvala
Being able to craft a story is an essential skill for both beginning and experienced tellers. That crafting, much like sculpting, involves knowing what to trim away and what to keep. For storytellers, our sculpting tools should include the red “cross it out” pen.
There is an old comedy album, heard once in my youth, where the comedian says, “When you are trying to tell a story, try having a point. It makes it so much more interesting for an audience.”
I’ve attended a number of storytelling events of late that bring that old comedy routine to mind. I’ve wanted to hand the tellers a giant red pen, hoping they’d
cut out, cross out and eliminate the bloated-ness of their tales.
Although it’s not always possible to have a clear cut point in telling folktales or world myths, it is important for storytellers to know “why” they are telling any particular story. If not, stories end up as rambling and meandering exercises in hearing ourselves talk. When that happens, the stories lose their interest and our audiences just lose interest.
It is easier to do the red pen routine with personal tales, so let’s begin there. First, understand that storytelling is an audience-centered art form. It’s not a form of therapy for the storyteller.
Grab yourself a piece of paper and do this exercise with me. First, choose a personal tale from your repertoire. Then imagine the type of audience you’ll be telling to and with. With those thoughts in mind, ask yourself this: Why am I telling the story? What is my point?
Identify this first thought, this singular crystal-clear point and write it across the top of the piece of paper. Use large, bold letters.
Underneath those big bold letters, write an outline your story. What’s first, second third…..sixth, etc? Try to include all the elements of your typical telling of that story, including those tangential side trips you might be normally inclined to make.
Now comes the step so many tellers are unwilling to make. Grab your red pen. Re-read your main point. Go down your outline and ask yourself for each numbered item, “Does this item illustrate or lead to my main point?” If it does not, cross it out.
This is the point where some storytellers start to reach for the oxygen mask. “But, but, what you want me to cut out is (funny, cute, touching, meaningful, pretty, insightful, witty, makes my grandma laugh, tells people I love dogs, will save the world, etc). I couldn’t cut out that part.” Yes, you could. Yes you should. If it does not move your story towards your main point for the audience that you are addressing, then draw a line through it and drop it from you story. Most likely, the parts you’ve redlined are or could become stories in their own way.
The process I have just described is a good exercise to do with your storytelling coach. Ask that person to help you identify and redline the excessive parts of your story, those parts that drag down your work. One of the challenges with storytelling as an art from is our excessive focus on internal (“How does your storytelling make you feel?”) coaching, so it may be hard to find a mentor that will be honest with you. You may need to assure your coach that it’s okay to have an opinion.
This ability to redline one’s work, to focus on the needs of the audience, is essential for good storytelling. Tellers who are unwilling to red line their stories just leave me wishing for the door. A storyteller who tells a story that has been redlined and crafted leave me wishing for more of their craft. Isn’t that the goal- building a love for stories and storytelling in our audiences?
K. Sean Buvala is a storyteller working across the United States and Canada since 1986. He is the director of Storyteller.net and an author at The Small-Tooth-Dog Publishing Group. Article originally posted in June 2007.
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