Friday, April 3, 2015

Crafting 101: The Questions I ask

There is a difference between crafting a story and just getting up and telling one.  Pretty much anyone who isn't afraid of speaking in public can get up and tell a story of some kind.  We share stories at weddings and funerals.  We share them during worship services, and amongst friends.  We share them on the radio and television.

In this series of Blogs, I will look at a single story, and show the process I use to get from my first exposure to a tale all the way to the finished structure.

This entry will deal with my first exposure and the questions I grapple with before I do anything else.

The first storytelling class I took was taught by Nancy Donoval.  She was putting together a piece of story theatre, and she needed actors who could also rock some storytelling.  It was fascinating and it opened me up to an entire art form I never even knew you could spend your life pursuing.

Nancy Donoval doing her thing
Rives Collins was my next teacher.  I spent two years at his feet soaking up any and all of the information he cared to offer.  He shaped my understanding of solid story structure, helped me begin to identify the types of stories that drew me, and gave me an incredible platform on which to build my career.

My mentor at Northwestern University, Rives Collins

My next teacher was Donald Davis.  I spent a summer as a scribe in one of Donald's classes.  I learned a great deal from watching him work a fictional story based on his life into a performance piece.  I also began to understand that this was not going to be a type of storytelling in which I would specialize.  As much as I enjoyed it, telling stories from my own life on stage does not interest me overly much.

The Amazing Donald Davis

I'm pretty sure that's because I like really far fetched fantastical stories.  The less reality the better.  That's the kind of literature I like to read.  Those are the movies I like to watch.  If I could see it on a street corner, I don't want to read about it, tell it or watch it.  This is just a personal preference.

A few years ago I took a master class with Bil Lepp on crafting, which I found fascinating since my brain doesn't work like that at all.  This coming summer I will be taking a class from Bill Harley mostly just because.  I mean, who doesn't want to spend a few hours playing with Bill Harley?

So, how do you craft a story?  Well, that depends entirely upon who you are and what kinds of stories you tell.  Here is the method I use.

First, I identify a tale I'd like to tell.  Some years ago I called Milbre Burch and asked if she had a story she could share with me.  She told me this old story called The Pot Maker and The Tiger.  Click the link to read a very quick and dirty version of the story.

The marvelous Milbre Burch

Okay, where to start?

- Do I like this story?  Yes.  This is important, and obvious.  Don't tell stories you don't like.

- Do you know any variants of this tale?  No. I'd never heard of this story before.  I liked the variant Milbre told me, so I decided to work on it from there before I went to find other sources.

When I get stories out of books, I like to read as many variants as I can, when I get them from people, I like to build on the feeling, cadence, and flow that they give me when I first get the story.  Later, I will go back and see if I can find some variants.  Sometimes I get new material from these written versions, but most of the time, I find the hardest bit of the work has already been done by the teller who gave me permission to tell the story, and the worst of the clunkiness is left on the page where it belongs.

- Do you connect with this story on some level?  Yes.  It tickled me a great deal, and I wanted to explore it.

Great!  Now I've got the story.  What's next?

First - Who is this story for?

Well, I wouldn't tell this tale to anybody below the 3rd grade because it has far too many plot twists in it.  Most little kids won't follow this very well.  Some can, certainly, but most will be lost.

There is also the fact that there are elements in this tale that require a certain amount of knowledge in order to be understood by an American audience.  How much background do I need to give, and can it be done in the body of the tale as I tell it?

Second - What are the beats in this tale?

Where are the obvious funny bits?

What kind of pacing does it need?

When does the audience need a break from all of this nonsense?

when do I need to drive a point home?

Third - What is the feel of this story?

What sort of tone does this tale have?  Does it need to be broken up into 'chapters' or is it a story told seamlessly.  In other words, is there some, 'Meanwhile' that actually needs to be said, or does it have more of an, all of this is happening over time feel?

Is it serious in places, or is the whole thing completely farcical?

Fourth - How much interior structure do I add as a teller to make this story feel authentic to me?

Do I need to add explanations?

How much character enhancement do I need?

How much do I do in the way of sound effects?

Are there parts that need more wallowing?

What sort of structure does this story need to be graspable by different ages?

Fifth - What is the audience's job during this tale?

Are they just watching the whole thing?

Is there some type of audience participation?

Is there some kind of repeating phrase or idea?

Sixth - Last and most important; how do I introduce this tale?

Does it need another story to introduce it?

Does it need some kind of personal narrative?

Does it need just some geographical info?

What do I think this story is about, and what do I want the audience to focus on in the back of their minds as I tell it?

So, before I stand it up and start telling it to myself, I begin grappling with these ideas.

Posts in Crafting 101

1. Questions I Ask
2. Crafting 101:  Building the Structure
3. Crafting 101:  Flesh On The Bones
4. Crafting 101:  Donkeys and tigers and War Horses., Oh My!
5.  Crafting 101:  There Are No Little Characters
6.  Crafting 101:  Putting It Together
7.  Crafting 101: Introductions!

Happy Crafting!!!


  1. Great post, Donna - a very clear and practical questioning process, and I'm now curious about how you tackle each of these stages. Sometime I'd also love to hear your summary of the differences in approach between each of the teachers you mention - that would be really valuable to see the possibilities open to different kinds of storytellers.

    1. Over the coming weeks, I'm going to break all of this down and start putting it together. As for the differences in the teachers, well, I'd never thought about that. Perhaps I'll tackle something like that after I finish my master class with Bill Harley this summer. Thanks for stopping by the blog!

    2. Donna, this is very interesting and cool. And useful. Thanks so much. And I hope to be in that master class with you ....