Storytelling Tips from Roy Peter Clark & ShelterBox
Every year, ShelterBox volunteers from across the globe come together for their annual conference to learn how they can best deliver shelter, warmth, and dignity to disaster survivors. This year, the Poynter Institute’s Roy Peter Clark led a session on storytelling. There is no better man for the job. He has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, NPR, and Today and has written Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English, and Help! For Writers: 210 Solutions to the Problems Every Writer Faces. Basically, he’s a big deal for writers.
So what’s the secret to a good story? Well, according to Clark the most important story elements are an inciting incident, up-the-ante-moments, and colorful particulars.
Luckily, he had plenty of material to work with from the conference itself. Many of the stories were told by volunteers on the service response team. These are the people that hand-deliver ShelterBox aid wherever and whenever it’s needed. The story that most captured Clark’s attention, as well as the audience’s, was–”The Love Motel.” The story named itself as people discussed it in between sessions. Of all the stories told, including a story about saving preemies in a makeshift hospital tent from a fire in Haiti, “The Love Motel” was the one people couldn’t stop talking about. But why? Clark explains and gives us the how to’s of effective storytelling.
An inciting incident
This is what tilts the story from its “once upon a time” axis. It’s the “something” that happens to change the nature of your day.
Let’s check into “The Love Motel” for an example. It begins with Bill Decker walking on foot with a fellow volunteer to find a room for the night. They’re in Manila–the capital of the Philippines, where a typhoon has left hundreds of thousands of people homeless. They’re exhausted. The two men see a hotel. The go inside and a hotel clerk greets them and asks, “how many hours will you want the room for?” As Clark explained–this statement tells you that this is no ordinary hotel. If you had any doubt, the follow-up explanation that the hotel deskman gives the two men about the hourly rate of 7 pesos sums up the accommodations.
These are the elements of a story that raise the stakes… and then, and then, and because of that…
Back to “The Love Motel.”
When the two volunteers enter their hotel room, they face a small, rubber bed covered in plastic. There’s not enough room for them to lay side-by-side so they lay facing each other’s feet. Now these are manly men squished together listening to plastic crackle with ever toss and turn.
Each of these elements build the story to its climax–when in the middle of the night, someone bursts into their room. The two men scurry to face the intruder who turns out to be a janitor unaware anyone was staying in the room. Apparently no one at this establishment rents a room for a full night.
The power of particularity
The ShelterBox story is chalked full off details like the hourly rate of 7 pesos for the hotel room, the plastic wrap over the rubber bed, and the description that this was the darkest night in Manila. As Clark explains, these details make you feel like you’re right there. He says a story does not point you somewhere–it puts you somewhere. It’s a form of time travel.
He added that the 5 w’s of journalism can help you develop these particulars.
- Who – your characters
- What – what happened
- When – sequence of events
- Where – specific scene or setting
- Why – the motivation of the characters
- How – how it happened
Clark also notes that in addition to the usual suspects “The Love Motel” also had elements of surprise with items like the midnight intruder as well as the very nature of a humorous story in the shadows of delivering life-saving aid to people who’ve lost everything. The storyteller also took his time letting the story unfold before reaching a crescendo. Though Clark mentioned this doesn’t mean the story needs to be long to have this “enforced waiting” and suspense.
Clark also left the audience with some pointers on presentations including being a stickler when it comes to the presentation visuals. They should be powerful and relevant to what you’re speaking about and he advised that what we really need our better stories and fewer PowerPoints.
Want more of Clark’s storytelling tips? Check out his blog posts 7 tips that ‘The King’s Speech’ teaches us about finding our voice as writers and From Homer to 9/11, how storytelling charts our survival.
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