September 10th, 2013


Process: Essay vs Story

I spent Sunday and Monday adapting my essay, Kalighat, into a five-minute story to tell at The Moth StorySLAM in Chicago last night.

When I first started putting the story together, I worked from the end backwards. While I was driving, I started speaking the ending aloud, playing with different word choices, trimming the details until I had what felt strong and clean. Then I went backwards, picking out the story elements that needed to be in there to lead to the ending. I repeated the story over and over again, working in chunks, until I had a rough verbal draft.

The next day, I wrote out what I had in my head. Then I went back and checked the original essay, looking for good phrasings or word choices that I wanted to put into the verbal story. The Moth favors a more casual style, and I wrote the original essay in a literary style. I had known two phrases I wanted to make sure I got in - "Kali dancing on the battlefield on the corpses of the slain" and "The answer is 'once'", and I pulled a couple more literary elements.

For the next draft, I went through and trimmed down the word choices. Based on the transcript of my last Moth story, I knew I only had about a thousand words. Using contractions, swapping out multi-syllable words for single-syllables, and cutting out excess description, I took out another 200 words. It got more casual.

It was still 9 minutes long. I cut some flowery description at the beginning, figured out a new transition that got me into the heart of the story faster and cut out the number of physical locations. (It's much tougher for a listening audience to follow location shifts--they can't go back a paragraph if they're a little confused).

In my kitchen, I taped it twice and got it to six minutes--still too long. But it was time to go, so I printed it out, put the sound file on my iPod, and drove to Chicago, working on it the whole way. By the Indiana border, I was at five-and-a-half minutes, which is inside the grace period.

Things I noticed during the evening -
 - I was the only mostly-dramatic-with-moments-of-funny story--everyone else was straight-up funny, or funny-with-a-realization.
 - One guy had great delivery, and a really funny subject (being tethered to the internet by our devices), but it didn't have a plot, and the judges scored him lower. It felt more like stand-up.
 - There were a lot of great beginnings, and some solid middles, but very few stories had a strong ending. And that's what we're leaving the audience with, that's the lasting impression. I think it helped me that I'd actually started working from the end, and tailored the rest of the story to drive the listener to the inevitable.

(I won).

Want to listen?