Story Lessons from Playback

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A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend a training session with the artistic director of Melbourne  Playback Theatre Company.  Our AD at Impro Melbourne set it up, and it was one of the most satisfying evenings of improvised theatre I’ve had in awhile. I love improvisation for its lessons in storytelling, character, and failure.  Improvisation teaches you where storytelling isn’t quite working because the errors are right there in your face. Everyone inside the scene and watching can feel it.

Playback theatre explores a more personalised form of storytelling.  In playback, the host or moderator asks for people in the audience to share a story from their lives. The performers then recreate the tale but tell the story through a different lens or non-literal context.  The performance is often physical, symbolic and emotionally rich.

My favourite takeaways from the class came from the above whiteboard image and an exercise in finding rich metaphors and similes.     I’ll explore the simile exercise first because I admit that is something I struggle with in my writing.

My favourite Similes are emotionally driven or being used to express or elicit an emotion from the reader. They’re like a double whammy.  But how to find them?  The answer is simple – Improvise!

If I want to find a good simile for heartbreak, love, grief, rage, depression, death, being fired from a job, then we can use this simple exercise.  Outloud say the following phrase:

Heartbreak is like…

Now complete the sentence immediately.  Say whatever comes to mind it doesn’t have to make sense. Because we are going to repeat the phrase twelve times.  Then we pick the best one.  How simple is that? I repeat though, it is important to say the phrase out loud. It will force your brain to come up with an answer.

The next takeaway is listening. Specifically, how to listen.  For writers, I guess that is reading. Perhaps a newspaper article, or a magazine or a book.  Maybe you are trying to crack a genre.  The words in the image above provide us with different lenses to look beyond the surface.  What’s going on underneath what is written?

For instance, we might look at a news item, like Trump.  I’ll use that because it is familiar and all over the news. What is the social or political context behind the news media article? The Trump bashing?  It’s concern for the future of America.  It’s a question about the sort of country America wants to be,   who it wants to be led by, and how does it deal with the people it has ignored or disenfranchised for so many years.  Could be an interesting idea for a story.  You could change the context, but still use those questions for inspiration.

What is the prevailing image of his campaign? Maybe it is the Hitler-like salute , a giant wall. I don’t know.  But there are things there that could be used to launch a new story.  A story that has something to say.

To be honest ,this technique is probably better for short stories than Novels, but I think there is something here. I’ve used it a bit, and I plan on using it more as I grow as a writer. I hope you find it as useful.    If so, please leave a comment and let me know.



Update from me….

Ok. Well, I’ve just launched this new site, which is very exciting.  In fact, the last week has been very busy, exciting and expensive.

In 2002, I wrote my first Novel.  I wrote it with pen and in four exercise books, which are still buried at the bottom of one of my bookshelves. I never finished it, because the story was awful and with luck, it will never see the light of day. But I learned a lot from it.

I started writing the Star of Fate for nanowrimo in 2014. Within six weeks I had my first draft, 64,000 words long.  I finished it Dec 14th and then started editing it on Jan 15th.  The first rewrite took me 15 months, and I’ve only recently finished it.

Last week I confirmed that the lovely ladies from will pick up my first completed second draft in August for a developmental edit.  I cannot begin to explain how exciting that is.  I know there is a lot of work to be done, but it is a major milestone and rather than continue to fumble around on my own, I’ll get a professional view on what needs fixing.

The other thing I’ve lined up, perhaps prematurely, is a book cover.  99 Designs have set up a competition for me with 40 odd designers delivering some mind-blowing covers.  I’ve narrowed the field down to six, and should have a cover to show you in the next four days.  To see my characters come to life through the designers eyes has made everything I’ve been doing for the last two years real.  Lando Bailey, Aaliyah Chopra, Gabby Spinner and Dusk will be greeting the world soon.  Unless I go for one of the covers that doesn’t feature them.  It’s going to be a tough choice. I’ll be dropping a poll on facebook soon, to see what you think about the covers. I hope you’ll vote.

Earlier in the week, I had a skype chat with a story coach, Pat Verducci, who is going to help me plan my next book. (She doesn’t know it will be a series, yet) Shhhh.  Pat has worked for Pixar, as part of their story trust. We had to negotiate timing around her Bali trip where she will be coaching writers on a retreat.  So having the opportunity to work with someone who lives and breathes story, like she does is exciting and humbling, and I can’t wait to see what we will come up with.

The next few months are going to be very busy.  I’ll be logging into the Self Publishing Podcasts – Boot camp, to listen to how the guys from Sterling and Stone run their shop.  I’m signing up for NYC Midnight, again. 1000 word flash fiction in 48 hours.  Too much fun. Last, but not least in July I’ll be doing the Screenwriters University online course for Writing dialogue for emotional impact, hosted by Karl Iglesias who wrote Writing for Emotional Impact. This book changed the way I think about story.  I am super excited to learn from someone like that.

Since working with some amazing Impro teachers, I think it is important to learn from the experts.  Patti Stiles and the teachers at Impro Melbourne blow my mind at how much passion they have for story and telling stories through improvised theatre as a medium.  Telling stories through writing is just a different medium.   So you need to have great teachers. For writing ,that is my plan.  Find great teachers and just learn how to tell great stories.

If I sound excited, it’s because I am.  Excited, and broke.  Oh so broke.  My poor wife.