Writing Tips – telling your stories

Use first person: I am a pilot, I am a naturalist, etc.  In living history performances, you ARE the historical character.

Grab the audience’s attention: start writing about  one of the most interesting, exciting, or unusual events in your character’s life.  Avoid beginning a story with: “I was born on February 12th, 1587 in the town of Miltenberg in central Germany.”  Start with something that will make your audience eager to hear more!

Use the five senses:

  1. Touch – not just “I had a pretty dress” but “I loved to run my fingers through the folds of velvet”
  2. Smell –
  3. Sight –
  4. Sounds – not just “I heard them singing” but “Strains of music wafted through the window – John Brown’s body lies…” 
  5. Taste –
Look at the following sentences and how they were changed to increase the 5 senses and really bring the audience to a location:
  1. I arrived at the river.   {next, think about possible sensory details you could add, such as “I saw/heard ____ }
  2. I heard the river pound against the rocks.  {now remove the “I saw/heard” part}
  3. The rushing river roared and pounded against the rocks.

Quoting your character:  Using words that your character actually spoke or wrote will help give your monologue an authentic feel, so see if you can slip a few of his/her original words into each of your stories.  However, it’s best to only quote a few phrases or short sentences at a time.  You must also put things in context with your own words – teach us about the character’s time period and what’s happening around you, don’t just read us her whole speech or repeat paragraphs from his autobiography.  Make the stories your own!

Check your verb tenses: Sometimes you’ll want present tense, such as “I want to make the world a better place”; sometimes you’ll need past tense, such as: “I dropped the atom bomb”.

Vary the emotional expression and content:  Try to include different emotions throughout your monologue so that you don’t have the same feeling all the way through.  Is there somewhere you can add you add fright? happiness? pain? disappointment? skepticism? delight? boredom? surprise?   Short sentences can often convey tension, long sentences can convey calmness.

Remember the 3 Guiding Questions: Consider your stories and the hardships or obstacles you faced.  What is the most important thing about your character’s life?   Do your stories relate a funny event, hardship, or obstacle  that you faced along the way to achieving that most important thing about your character?  Your stories should be teaching us something lasting and valuable about your character, not simply relating a funny or difficult event.

Slip in the facts… Rather than being direct about facts (which can be dull), try slipping them in when you’re saying something else interesting.  So instead of saying: “I have 2 brothers named Alex and Robbie.”,  try: “My brothers and I went to live with grandmother for the summer” or ” third children rarely become rulers, but I was queen…”     In general, the audience doesn’t usually care exactly how many brothers you have, their ages & occupations, where they live, etc.  The audience is much more interested in hearing about your unique and unusual experiences and emotions than about your family genealogy.

Teach your audience something: A great way to engage your audience is to teach them a word or phrase – perhaps something in a foreign language or a technical term.  You should also frequently be teaching your audience about historical details of your time period.  Whenever you mention a word that will be unfamiliar to your audience, tell them what it means.  For example you could say, “…a member of the cephalopod family, such as squid, octopus and slugs.”

Historical details: Add them in often!  If you’re driving through the street, are people around you standing in long lines for food, or are they rushing to buy swords, or are they decorating with local tulips for a festival?   Even if your character would not have talked about an issue directly, you can use a roundabout technique to include it in your monologue. For example, if Cleopatra would not have cared about the ordinary people enough to describe their lives in a straightforward manner, she could still talk with disgust about ‘those people’ and their filthy habits.  Similarly, Marie Curie may point to a pile of letters on her desk and talk about how much she dislikes answering endless questions from reporters because it leaves her less time for her experiments.  You have a particular responsibility to teach your audience a lot of details about your time period if you have chosen a well-known figure like Cleopatra or Einstein but have decided NOT to talk about the most famous part of his/her life during your monologue (and thus not really answering the first of the 3 guiding questions).  In this case you also need to be prepared to discuss the “famous” part of your character’s life later, during the Q & A period.

Unknown information about your character: You probably can’t verify every detail about how your character reacted or behaved in a particular situation.  But as a human being, you know how a person feels when they’re waiting to hear the championship results, or when their spouse dies.  Even if you don’t have verification, you should imagine how your character would have felt based on what you know about your character.

And did I mention… the three guiding questions?!

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    S. as Julius Caesar

    S. as Julius Caesar