As the author of Long Story Short, the Only Storytelling Guide You’ll Ever Need and What’s Your Story? A Workbook for the Storyteller in All of Us, I get asked a lot about how long a story for the stage should be.
My loose theory is that audiences tend to tune out after about twelve minutes, unless you are doing a full one-person show. I am a big believer in less is more and leaving a lot up to interpretation by your audience.
So here are some tips for keeping it brief:
1. Cut down your intro.
When writing a story, the intro should be the most concise part. Only include things in there that are relevant to the story you are about to tell. There is no need to tell us your life story.
So, if you have been single for 45 years and just got married, that’s great to hear, but it may not need to be included in a story about your pet dog. A story about your pet dog may begin with how you’ve always disliked dogs and as a kid always asked your mom for a pet fish because you were scared of dogs. Then the story about falling in love with your particular dog will pay off as a result of your intro.
It helps to ask yourself, “Will an audience be able to understand who I am and why they are rooting for me based on my intro?”
2. Limit external characters.
Remember, you are the star of your story. The story should involve change within you. So therefore, keep yourself at the center of the tale; after that, we should maybe get to know one or two other people.
Keep a live story to just the “best actor” and “best supporting actor” categories. If there were people there when said story occurred, like a third person in the car who is silent the entire way and adds nothing to your plot, it’s okay not to take time to introduce that person.
Also, composite characters are great tools for storytelling. Composite characters are more than one person combined into a singular character in order to display a “type of character.” An example of this would be having a character of “the bully” instead of introducing four different bullies.
3. Be conscientious about your tangents.
Tangents can add a lot of humor to a story, but there can also be too much of a good thing. Don’t get too sidetracked that we forget what your initial story was about. Keep the tangents quick and limited.
It’s okay to say things like “fast forward,” and “cut to” out loud in your piece in order to signify a tangent is over.
4. Ask yourself—“Does this further the plot?”
As a theatre major in undergrad, the expression “Chekhov’s Gun” was ingrained in me.
“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.”
Don’t waste time going into detail about things that don’t pay off or further the plot. It’s so rewarding when something small peppered into the start of a story really pays off in the end. It feels like a private joke between you and your audience. But the opposite is also true: audiences get annoyed when too much time is spent on something that really isn’t deserving of the attention.
5. Create a beat sheet.
Don’t memorize your story. Don’t improvise your story. At the very least, write out a beat sheet, a page with the moments that you want to hit in your piece.
Think of it as a story map—you want to start at beat 1, end on beat 20 (or however many beats you may have) and loosely hit beats 2–19. This prevents you from going to long or forgetting things or going on too many tangents and losing your place. Think of the parts of your story as “what happened next,” rather than “what’s my line?”
Remember, if you continually forget one of your beats, it’s probably your subconscious editing your story. Cut that part. Less is more.
To learn more about storytelling for the stage, join me on Saturday, February 22, for Comedic Storytelling.
Margot Leitman is an award-winning storyteller, best-selling author, speaker and teacher. A leading expert in the growing field of storytelling, Leitman has written two books on the subject: the best-selling, Long Story Short- the Only Storytelling Guide You’ll Ever Need and her latest What’s Your Story? A Workbook For the Storyteller in All of Us, both from Sasquatch Books. Her comedic memoir, Gawky…Tales of an Extra Long Awkward Phase is available from Seal Press/ Perseus Books.