This Is A Boring Shark Attack: 8 Rules for Fascinating Storytelling
I started telling stories onstage at The Moth’s story slam in New York City ten years ago this month. Shortly thereafter, I started telling those stories to people that had planned to see a comedy show instead. I’ve had some successes along the way but like all successes, they’re buttressed by constant, massive failures.
The following rules are things I’ve picked up along the way that help me shape and streamline a story for an audience that is hungry for human connection and a bunch of good laughs. I teach this stuff in classes I hold in my own apartment, and they seem to work well for the people that take the class.
If you want to tell stories in front of an audience, look these over. I can’t stop you from your own public failures, but maybe this will help you find some that are uniquely your own.
This list is inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 2001 essay “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points, and Especially the Hooptedoodle” published in the New York Times. You might call it a cover version or a dancehall remix. It wouldn’t exist without him, and I might not either.
1. Never start a story with weather unless the weather directly influences what actually happens in the story.
If this is a story about the time a hurricane destroyed your house, the audience will indulge a few extra adjectives when you describe the storm. If it’s a story that could have been solved with a text message, we need to know that it happened before omnipresent mobile technology. Otherwise, get right to it.
It’s great when a film wins “Best Visual Effects,” but you’re going for “Best Actor” and “Best Screenplay.”
When you make a stir-fry, you only cook your garlic, chiles, and aromatics long enough to become fragrant, usually about thirty seconds. Then you throw the meat right in. The same principle applies.
2. Start at the beginning of the story and end at the end.
It’s tempting to start with something like
“June, 1998. There I was, my heel stuck in a sewer grate as the skies opened up. How did I get here? Flash back to yesterday when I was buying shoes …”
A popular storytelling organization encourages performers to “start in the action,” and I think this is how a lot of people misinterpret the direction. More often than not, it feels like an attempt to force some drama and energy into a story that doesn’t have much on its own. The same goes for the phrase “fast forward to [however many months, years] later.”
We get it, that’s how time works. It always moves forward.
It’s crucial that your story absorb into an audience’s mind with as little thought as possible. Once the audience thinks “look here, a narrative technique,” they’ve stopped paying attention to what you’re actually saying.
If what we’re flashing back to is important to understanding the characters and action of the story, then it’s the beginning of the story. Start there.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
Act out every line of dialogue in your story. Once you get good at it, you can convey not only what the other people in your story felt when they said it, but also how it felt to you at the time you heard it. We all impersonate other people when we tell stories to our friends, and it adds character and flavor.
You’re not telling a story the way people write, you’re delivering a story the way that people actually talk. If you actually say “exclaimed,” “shrieks,” or “mumbled,” you sound pre-written and rehearsed. An audience wants to hear how you felt and spoke, and anything else makes us look around to see if we can spot your teleprompter.
4. Never, ever use internet language in a verbal context.
A hashtag connects a post to other users sharing the same hashtag. A story that you tell should be universal enough as it is, and it’s your job to connect your singular experience to the rest of humanity. If you can’t do that, no amount of trickery can cover it up.
You have body language, tone of voice, facial expression and timing at your disposal here — all things that make digital communication so confusing in their absence.
Hashtags and emojis are protective camouflage for people that can’t actually express themselves that well. If you catch yourself saying “sad-face-emoji” or “hashtag first-world problems” out loud while standing in front of other people, you should sit down.
5. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
Deliver your shocking news suddenly instead. You are orchestrating moments verbally in real-time, and your delivery will be diamond-hard once you master this timing. Interrupt yourself with sudden action, or with a line from another character.
Instead of “all hell broke loose,” try rapidly escalating your description of chaos. You could say
“We were deep underground when the train stopped and the lights went out, and all hell broke loose.”
Or you could say
“We were deep underground when the train stopped and the lights went out. First a baby screamed, then an old man. I heard another scream and it took 5 full seconds before I realized it was me.”
The second one is objectively better. Ultimately, you need to remove every cliché and replace it with a phrase that works the same way.
6. Use dialect sparingly.
If you’re going to mimic a Southern accent, get it right. Don’t use a generic Southern accent, spend a few minutes practicing an Virginia accent or one from Georgia or Mississippi. It will read as more real to the audience. If you’re using the Southern accent as shorthand for an ignorant person, or really any accent as a way to caricature another human being, try something less cliched.
If you’re imitating the accent of a person whose ethnicity is different than your own, go a step or two deeper than the obvious stereotype and pick up on word choice, or pronunciation. A spoonful weighs a ton.
Sometimes it enriches a story when you to conjure a person who speaks differently than you do, and it’s worth working at it to get it right. Just know that the process is perilous. Stay respectful and show some grace to everyone else that’s on that journey.
I once told a story on The Moth’s podcast about an argument that I got into on the subway with a black woman and a Puerto Rican man. I’d been telling it onstage for two years before someone told me I needed to seriously reel in the act-outs.
Imagine finding out that your fly has been unzipped in front of hundreds of strangers for two years. I’m grateful for the feedback when I did get it, and grateful that it came with kindness and patience.
7. Take full responsibility for your role in the story.
The stories we tell friends, therapists and support groups come pre-loaded with context. But every story told for public consumption should be able to thoroughly answer the question “why don’t you just go home?”
If the audience knows who you are and why you’re invested in a circumstance, they’ll follow you places that they’d never go themselves. If they’re not, they’ll second-guess every decision and micromanage every word.
It’s one thing if you’re in a cabin in the forest and your car’s out of gas. If you’re in a city with taxis on every corner, we need to know that you’re trapped by something a little deeper — a fear of failure, a nagging loneliness, a need to be right that hides you from the truth.
This is a pretty popular story archetype, boring as oatmeal:
It’s so hard to date in [this city]. I meet the biggest weirdos all the time, and here are three examples.
Try it this way instead:
I moved to [this city] to get away from an oppressive traditional culture. I’m fulfilled in my career but my family is pressuring me to start a family and I’m deeply lonely. Consequently, I’ll ignore any number of relationship red flags. Here are three examples.
It’s the same story, but that self-awareness makes all the difference.
8. Show the audience who you are and what you want in the story.
Human beings are tremendously empathetic and will anthropomorphize cats and volleyballs just to have some company, but we never do it when there are enough people around.
If you’re telling a story to an audience, you’re the person that’s around and you’re competing with an ocean of iPhones. You need to give the audience something of you to connect to very rapidly.
“Who am I and what do I want” are massive existential questions, but you only need to explore them in front of other people for five to eight minutes.
I once saw two guys tell a story about their fishing boat sinking in the middle of the ocean. They had to cling to floating debris and ultimately one another overnight, kicking away hungry sharks as they struggled to shoot waterlogged flares and attract a rescue boat.
And somehow, against all odds, it was the most boring thing I’ve ever heard.
I didn’t know who they were, what they wanted, or even what their relationship was like. I knew they wanted to survive, but had no idea why.
We are lonely, exhausted, social creatures that are pre-programmed to connect with others and find ourselves in everything we see and hear. All anyone wants is to be heard and understood by a person that’s right there in the same room.
If you’re able to take off your armor for five short minutes and share something that made you vulnerable, lonely and flawed in a voice that is really, authentically your own, you’ll connect to hundreds of other lonely people who will hug you with their applause.
It’s not easy, but it’s why we’re here.
You may also be interested in my posts about:
How to Structure a Funny Story
How to Find Your Story’s ‘North Star’