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Even more advanced writing tips

Length of monologue:  Your project can be as short as 5 minutes long but no longer than 15 minutes maximum, and first year students often stick with 10-12 minutes.  Fifteen minutes works out to something like 3 pages single-spaced, about 1600 words, or 2 words per second.   Performing your monologue well will take much longer than reading it aloud off the page.

Add Dialog: Including a small conversation is another good way to capture the attention of your audience and add variety to the pace of your monologue.  If you look through your monologue, you may find that you already have a conversation but it’s not quite in dialog form yet.  For example, if you’re telling about your nephew, instead of writing:   “I told him that the squirrels would decorate the tiny tree…”  change it slightly to sound as if you are actually speaking to him directly, such as: “See that tiny tree?  The squirrels are going to decorate it…”

Short sentences: can be very powerful.  “Vosha died.”    That has more punch than using a longer sentence: “Although we cared for her night and day she got sicker and sicker until she died.”  This can work for a funny statement as well as for an intense situation.

Old fashioned language or complex technical language: Capturing the unusual style of a character’s speech can make your character seem more realistic, but it can also be quite meaty for your audience.  If you choose to use heavy language from the 16th century it must fall trippingly from your tongue – you must practice it enough to make it seem like you talk like this all the time;  you must become very comfortable with your language.  It is also important for you to split up the heavy, original language with some of your own words & writing.  Even if you have lots of original material that your character actually said or thought, the audience also wants to hear your interpretation of their life and words, so be sure to craft lots of your project in your own words.

If your character used a lot of complicated words or technical terms, you don’t need to use that same kind of language in your story.  You should simplify your writing as much as you need to so that you really understand what you’re saying to the audience, and so that you don’t stumble over complex vocabulary.

When you do choose to use a few technical terms that your audience might not be familiar with, you can use the opportunity to teach a new word.  For example, if you’re talking about subsistence farms you might pause in your story, look at an audience member, and say, ” a subsistence farm is having just enough land to grow just enough food to feed your own family, but not to sell the products of your farm. That is, being able to ‘subsist’ on what you grow.” and then continue on with your story.

Foreign accent or dialect: In a similar vein, if your character had an accent, it’s a great challenge for more experienced students to add some of that personality to your monologue. Be careful not to make it so thick that it feels fake or your audience has trouble understanding your stories – a few subtle touches are better.  To learn an accent, ask around your neighborhood or at a university for a native speaker who can coach you,  watch videos (google “how to speak with a ____ accent”), or consider working privately with Susan Marie.  It can be lots of fun to add in just a little bit of accent or foreign words in a short dialog.  Make that Nazi officer bark at you with German words or an accent, or use a few words of Russian (followed by an English translation) to ask your child a question.  If you find yourself speaking in an accent that is NOT appropriate and you want to get rid of it, try saying your words in silly accents such as a cowboy accent or a baby “accent.”

Stutter, blindness or other condition:  Susan Marie suggests that you acknowledge this to your audience rather than let them just wonder about it.  For example, early on in your monologue you could say, “ah…sometimes I stutter”.  If you limp on stage and never mention it in your monologue, be prepared to discuss it in the Q & A section.

Strew breadcrumbs: Instead of trying to include everything about your character in your 15 minute monologue, leave a story out but “strew breadcrumbs” in your performance to encourage the audience to ask questions later.  Not only will this give you an opportunity to share more (brief) stories with your audience during the Q&A, but it will also help your audience come up with good questions to ask.  For example, “I could tell you some amazing stories about that wonderful man…” (but then move on in your story – the audience will likely ask for one of those amazing stories later).   Or, “Because of my mother’s childhood, she was always very frugal…” (but don’t give any more details about her childhood in your monologue – again, the audience will probably ask what your mother’s childhood was like).  Or you might say, “The award was to be presented by Napoleon himself!” and then not elaborate further in your monologue.  When asked about that in the Q & A section, you can explain why your wife later threw away the award.

Can your program stand alone?  Step back from the details of your project every now and then and look at the big picture.  Ideally, your program will “stand alone”,  so that even if someone in audience doesn’t know anything about your time period they are still able to understand everything you say and follow your stories.

Calculate your “now”: Look at the timeline of your character’s life and figure out at what point you will be telling the audience about your life.  How old were you at each key moment in your life and how old will you be during your presentation?   In your monologue and in the “in-character” Q & A, you’ll be able to discuss anything that’s happened in your life up to that point, but nothing that happened later.   Events that happened later than your “now” can be discussed in the “out-of-character” Q & A session.

Making up a story about your character:  The less information that’s available about your character, the more difficult it can be to relate a factual “story” about him/her.  It can be ok to make up a story about your character as long as you carefully base it on factual information.  For example, if you know Paul Revere apprenticed as a silversmith but can’t find an actual story about that, you can create a story that takes place in his workshop as long as you research accurate details of an 18th century silver workshop.   You may not be able to write a story about him making a bayonet (which are not made of silver) unless you know that he (or silversmiths of his time period) actually did make bayonets.

Teach your character and you teach your audience, too: One effective way of showing the audience historical context without making it sound like a history lecture is to create a situation where someone is learning what you want to teach the audience. This can either be your character learning it, or your character teaching someone else. Here are some examples – notice how they reveal information like location, time period, and social issues of the time without listing them as facts:

  • Marie Curie remembering as a child learning the history of her people: “Our teachers were only supposed to teach us in Russian. But secretly they taught us in Polish that in the uprising of 1863 – less than five years before I was born – over one hundred thousand Polish people were sent into exile – many, like my uncle Henryk, to Siberia – or killed as punishment.”
  • Eleanor Roosevelt remembering an experience she had with her father: “Well I remember, at five years of age, my father taking me to help serve Thanksgiving dinner at the Newsboys Club, which my grandfather had established in New York City. As we rode over in our carriage my father explained to me that some of these little boys who sold newspapers had no home to go home to at all.”
  • Eleanor Roosevelt, describing teaching young women: “…That was at Toddhunter School, which I started in New York City with my friends Marion Dickerman and Caroline O’Day. My that must have been 10 years ago now, back in 1927. I was teaching a class on City Government. We took up in turn, each of the functions of government, and came at last to Public Health. Knowing that Public Health is closely allied to housing, I suggested that we visit some of the … tenements. To these children of the rich I had to explain what it meant to sleep in a room with no window, what it meant to pant on fire escapes in hot July with people draped on the fire escapes all around you, what it meant for a mother and her seven children to live in three rooms in a basement, and why a toilet without outside ventilation makes a home both unhealthy and malodorous.”
  • Eleanor Roosevelt, being interviewed by a reporter, Bes Furman: “Have you heard of Arthurdale, Bes? It is an experimental community established in a mining region of West Virginia to give miners out of work a chance to support their families on subsistence farms.”

Portraying a very well-known character:  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.

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    S. as Julius Caesar

    S. as Julius Caesar