Tell Me a Story

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My mom was an English teacher.  My mom’s mom was an English teacher.  My mom’s mom’s father was an English teacher.  It’s a long line. And they were tough: clear communication, strong organization and a fundamental understanding of basic grammar weren’t options—they were requirements.  

I followed in the family line. I majored in English and turned in countless essays, term papers and analyses. They were well organized and obeyed the all-important grammatical rules, but it wasn’t until I got a job as a reporter for a small local newspaper that I learned how to tell a story.  

I proudly submitted my first article, thinking that it was pretty terrific. My editor had a different reaction: “Passive voice?” “Audience?” “Where’s the lead?” “Specifics?” “Takeaway?” “Photo?” I had a lot to learn.

Similarly, when I entered my first professional acting class, I was hit between the eyes with how ineffective my preparation had been.  After I finished my scene, the teacher interrogated me: “What’s the moment before?  What do you really want?  What are the stakes?  What specific actions must you take to get what you want?”  

The through line?  My editor and acting teacher both pushed me to tell a story.  It wasn’t enough to have some general, clearly-written paragraphs in a well-ordered progression any more than it was enough to walk into a scene with a general idea of who the character was and what she felt.  Nope.  General kills the story.

Sure, organization and clarity are required. But if you don’t have specifics, you don’t have a story.  And until you have a story, you can’t share it.

Tony Howell1 Comment