When students pitch their stories I first make them tell me the story out loud. They resist. They want to write it up, polish and perfect it, but I prefer starting with a raw delivery because sometimes Writing kills Story.

So what’s it about? I’ll say.

How screwed up the criminal justice system is, the student/reporter may say.

That’s a topic. What’s the story?

Blank stare.

What happens in this story? Who’s in it? What do they do? What happens to them? What do they want? What’s in their way? How do they succeed, or why do they fail?  

When you tell a story out loud it can’t help but be narrative: Something happens, something else happens, and on and on. There’s freshness in live storytelling, and urgency and, with any luck, style. You can learn a lot about narrative elements, particularly structure, by listening to the best oral storytellers at work. To hear how it’s done, check out The Moth. The Moth is a series of live storytelling events around the country as well as an Emmy-winning radio hour, a podcast and a website, where you can submit your own one-minute story. This summer’s live events are taking place in Brooklyn, Chicago, L.A., Detroit and Pittsburgh, among other places. And if you’re up for it, here’s some narrative homework:

1. Read The Moth’s Storytelling Tips page – the pointers work across forms. A sample tip: “A story without stakes is an essay.”

2. Get a pen and paper. Yes, pen and paper. Or pencil and paper. (Our favorite pencil on earth is the Staedtler Noris No. 2. Try it. You’re welcome.)

3. Listen to three of the stories on the live storytelling page. (I’m going to highly recommend that you not miss “Small Town Prisoner” by Wanda Bullard.) For each piece:

Listen for character and write down:
• who the story is about
• what you learn about him/her

Listen for the story arc and write down:
• where the story begins
• where the story changes
• where the story ends

Listen for description. Note three instances of description.

Listen for dialogue. How do the characters talk?

Characterize the narrative voice – the storyteller’s delivery.
Is it playful? Formal? Breathless? Somber? Some of each?

Breaking down how stories work can help you more easily recognize the elements of narrative − and opportunities for narrative − in your own pieces. Have fun!

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