Twenty-nine teenagers taught me the ~most important~ lesson about storytelling. Teenagers. Giggling, awkward, funny, creative, angsty (oh-man-the-angst!), and silly high school students taught me a storytelling skill that years of schooling, books about writing fiction, and workshops never could.
I still shake my head at how fundamental of a lesson it is, and though tons of books about writing touch on this storytelling lesson, they don’t really spell it out like I will for you right now.
Quick flashback to set the stage: When I learned to teach English, I completed my student teaching with the English teacher who taught Introduction to Drama, and so I got to work in that class. If you’ve followed Write Whale for a while, you know that being the center of attention (and participating in an activity, like drama, that puts me in the center of attention) isn’t my thing. It was terrifying at first, but it ended up being the most fun I’ve ever had in a school setting. For real. No lie.
I’m not sure if you ever took a drama class, dear writer, but it is worth it. You learn to trust and collaborate with others in the creative process, you improve your public speaking, think up creative ideas on the fly, and you learn to laugh at yourself.
Here’s the most important lesson I learned from working in a drama class. It significantly improved my storytelling skills.
The most important storytelling lesson: Don’t shut down creative ideas
The first thing I learned was that drama wasn’t only about performing on stage and Shakespeare.
Learning quick thinking skills, trust, and creative solutions are the cornerstones of drama. The second thing I learned about storytelling from drama was the damaging affect of saying “no” when working with others in skits and coming up with creative ideas.
For example, let’s say Alex and Jill performed an improv skit with the prompt “at a grocery store.”
JILL: Loooook at this! Carrots! No more mushy food for you, Mister!
ALEX: I know—that root canal killed me. I’m psyched to eat something other than your mashed potatoes!
JILL: No, you silly goose—babies don’t get root canals. Your teeth are just growing in!
This skit shows a common mistake that many beginners make in the early stages of the creative process (and in improv). In that instance, Jill had in her mind that her child was a toddler and finally old enough to eat solid food. When Alex established that he had a root canal and was older than a toddler, she negated his response and said “no” to his creative input. Doing this not only leads to a messy skit, it also destroys creativity, collaboration, and trust.
Ever have a great idea for a story, but then you ran out of steam because you didn’t know where to go with it?
It’s easy to pass this issue off as writer’s block, but it goes deeper than that. It’s likely that you’re unconsciously negating your own creative ideas. You might have started off writing your story with a vague idea of where you wanted it to go, and that’s fine. But be careful you don’t get in the mindset that an idea is unrealistic or stupid when you try to work through a creative slump.
No idea is stupid. Obviously, some are better than others (like that dream I once had about stringing up Christmas lights 😉). But if you’re really stuck in a scene and you have no idea where to go from there, try some of the unlikely, unrealistic, and silly ideas that pop in your head.
If your hero is having too easy of a time saving a village from the evil-wizard antagonist, take some time to think about the most unlikely thing that could happen. Maybe the village didn’t want saving? Maybe the evil wizard turned them into pigs and they don’t remember life as humans because they’re animals? Or whatever.
Talk to your friends, and ask them for solutions. Accept your ideas (and theirs) as fact and try to build your story from there. You might not keep the scenes you write, but you’ll get practice accepting creative ideas for what they are. You’ll learn to stop negating and sabotaging your creativity.
A storytelling, drama exercise worth trying
There’s actually a drama game that my students played to improve their ability to accept creative ideas no matter how ridiculous or random they might be. It’s called “Yes, and…” In this exercise, students work with a partner to create a scene and skit that works and builds on combined ideas. Every time a new person talks, they need to start by saying, “Yes, and…”
It’s basically an exercise in being open to and rolling with your creative ideas as they come to you. It teaches you to explore and develop the creative sparks you have. That’s not to say that all the sparks you have when your mind wanders are gold. But that’s okay. Random, ridiculous, weird, and silly ideas are better than no ideas at all.
Say Jill and Alex from the example earlier were playing “Yes, and…” It might go something like this:
JILL: Alex! Loooook at this! Carrots! No more mushy food for you, Mister!
ALEX: Yep, and I’m so down to eat actual food after my root canal—I’m tired of eating your mashed potatoes.
JILL: Yes, and I’m tired of making them for you. They give you terrible gas, dear.
Though this game works best with a partner, you can turn it into a storytelling and writing exercise in a few ways.
1. You could start by thinking of the most unlikely thing that could happen in a scene and then write a “Yes, and…” story of events going off of where you got stuck. You’d just accept and roll with every creative idea you had.
2. You could start a “Yes, and…” dialogue between two of your characters, using their personalities, character traits, goals, and motivations as a way to develop a scene.
The more you practice accepting your creativity, the more your storytelling skills will grow. Try playing “Yes, and…” the next time you find yourself stuck writing a scene. Remember: It’s better to write something than nothing. Even if the ideas you say “yes” to aren’t golden, your storytelling ability and confidence will benefit.
I’d love to hear what your thoughts on this! Leave a comment below and let me know what you think. What tricks or exercises do you use when you get stuck in a creative rut?