Advanced writing techniques: Editing plain facts into great storytelling

The center of a YC project is creating a monologue that teaches history through the stories of people’s lives. A YC monologue should not be like reading aloud a biography; it is a first-person perspective on a small slice of life from history.  The goal is to tell well-chosen stories with enough expression, emotion, and detail that the listeners feel they are learning history by witnessing it first hand.  Here are some advanced tips for how to make your writing come to life:

Was/Were: Search your writing for the verbs was and were, then change those sentences so that whatever follows was or were now goes in front of a more descriptive verb.  For example:

  1. There were marble statues along the walls.
  2. Marble statues stood guard along the walls.

The Five Senses, Advanced writing:   Including the five senses will add interest to your story, but you can also bring simple sentences to life with some thoughtful editing.  Try these steps to make your writing more vibrant.

1.Think of something your character saw, heard, tasted, touched, or smelled:
Example: Marie Curie worked with radium, which has a blue glow.
2. Write a simple sentence stating what you saw (or felt, or heard, etc.) from the first-person perspective:
Example: “I saw the radium glow.  The radium looked blue.”
3. Now cross out the words “I saw” (or “I heard”, etc.) and switch the order of the sentence around so that the thing you saw (or heard, or smelled, etc.) is now the subject:
Example:  “I saw The blue glow of the radium….”
4. Finish the sentence with how that sight (sound, etc.) made you feel:
Example:  “The blue glow of the radium enchanted me.”
This new version of the sentence really makes a strong image for the audience!

Here’s another example sentence going through the same editing steps:
1. William Shakespeare heard the actors performing the play.
2.”I heard the actors saying their lines and the audience laughing.”
3. “I heard  The actors’ lines and the laughter of the audience……”
4. “The actors’ lines and the laughter of the audience thrilled me.”

Emotional content – SHOWING not TELLING:  To really understand how your character was affected by historical events and how s/he overcame obstacles, the audience needs to feel the same emotions your character felt.  Here are some steps to help you SHOW emotion in your stories, rather than simply TELLING your audience how you felt:

1. Read a sentence in your monologue and decide how your character probably felt or what they heard or saw at that moment. Write that down in a simple sentence format that TELLS how you felt: “I felt _____ when _____.”
Example:  “I (Thomas Edison) felt determined to find a longer lasting filament when the light bulb burned out quickly.”

2. Next, switch things around so the sentence begins with “When______”
Example:  “When the light bulb burned out quickly………”

3. Now describe an action/verb that you took that SHOWS how you felt:
Example:  “When the light bulb burned out quickly I redoubled my efforts  and
spent several months working towards a filament that would burn 1500 hours”

4. When you say this line in your monologue, you will also be acting out the emotions of determination and dedication.  This combination of showing your emotions through both your writing and your acting will draw the audience in to your character.

Another example using these steps:
1. “I (Clara Brown) felt joy and pain when I finally found my daughter again.
2. “When I finally found my daughter again…….”
3.  “When I finally found my daughter after 47 years of searching, I clasped her to me.”
4.  Say this line while acting out the feelings of joy and pain.

Or, it may be possible to remove the words entirely. For example, rather than say “I heard the sound of the song floating in the window” you could instead softly sing the song to yourself as you move towards and look out of an imaginary window.

Changing plain text to dialog:   Here are some steps showing how to create dialog in your stories.

1. Hunt for these dialog words:
said, told, promised, shouted, whispered, thought, called, etc.  (sometimes they’re followed by the words that, to, or would)

For example: I told my daughter that even though she’d been sold I would always love her
He said it would be better if I went to America.
I thought he looked too small and scrawny for the job.
She promised me she would remember.
called for help.

2. Change whatever words are being said, told, thought, etc. into a quotation:
I told my daughter, “Even though you’ve been sold, I will always love you”
He said, “It will be better if you go to America.”
I thought, “You are too small & scrawny for the job.”
“Yes, mommy, I will always remember.”
“Help, somebody help me!”

Once you have dialog in your story, we can work on how to act it out so the audience feels they’re right there in the room with you, watching your conversation unfold!

Active vs. Passive wording: Look through your monologue for parts you may have written using a passive voice, which is often weaker than the active voice.  The passive voice happens when the person or thing doing the action in your sentence is NOT the subject of your sentence.  For example: “I was spoken to by God.” (I is the subject of this sentence, but God is the one doing the action of speaking).  If you change from passive to active voice, you change the sentence so that the action (in this case speaking) is given to the subject in your sentence (in this case God).  The new sentence with the active voice can be much more powerful:  “God spoke to me.”   Here’s a good website with more information about passive voice construction.

General vs. Specific writing:  Writing in broad generalities relies mostly on facts. If you change writing about general facts into a story about specific moments in time with lots of sensory & emotional details, your performance will shift from informative to ALIVE! Compare these examples – on the left are stories with plain facts, and on the right are the same information, but describing a specific experience that the character had. To change your writing from general to specific, choose one moment or one memory, and describe that using sensory details and emotions.  Try starting out with phrases such as:  “I remember when….” or “I remember the first time…..” or “One day, I was……” or “Once I ……..”

General writing, mostly facts:                                 Describing a specific moment or experience using sensory details and emotions:
My father took me hunting the whole time I was growing up.  There was always something to hunt, all year round. We shot rabbit and turkey and pheasant and deer.  I learned to load and shoot the rifle and clean the game.  Eventually I was responsible for getting all the meat for our family. I remember the first time my father took me deer hunting. I was nine years old. The rifle didn’t feel so heavy when he placed it in my arms, but after holding it for four hours, I could barely aim.  It took another three years for me to shoot my first doe. I felt so proud. I knew my family wouldn’t go hungry that winter.
When I visited India, I saw hundreds of starving people. I’d never seen so many people who were sick of dying of hunger. The mass of malnourished people everywhere made me see that I had to do something to help these people. I walked down the street. Here, a child picked crumbs from the muddy gutter, having nothing else to eat.  There, a young woman cradled her dead baby, little more than skin stretched over bones.  Further on, a beggar gathered his starving family around him. My heart ached. Nothing could erase these images from my memory.  I knew I had to do something.






  • Photo Gallery: Click on the photo to see more of our talented students in action!

    S. as Julius Caesar

    S. as Julius Caesar