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Friday, August 23, 2013

Brian Finkelstein: The Art of Telling A Good Story

By Lorinda Toledo

Brian Finkelstein knows how to tell a story so good it makes the audience laugh, cry and hang on his every word.

This September, Brian returns to Writing Pad in one of his popular classes to teach you how to tell a story that will garner a great stage show or just make you the most popular person at parties.

Brian received an Emmy nomination for his writing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. He is a regular performer at the Upright Citizen's Brigade Theatre, where he is currently performing his one-man show. He also tours and hosts with The Moth, and has performed solo shows in a variety of venues from the HBO/US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen to the 2012 Summer Nights Festival in Perth, Australia. And his screenplay, Good Grief is being produced by 72 Productions. He also has a story in the new "The Moth-50 True Stories" book along with Malcom Gladwell and A.E. Hotchner.

He was gracious enough to take a few minutes to tell us a little bit about how he launched his writing career and what he's learned:

Storytelling is not the most obvious avenue in show business, but it's done great things for your career. Tell us how storytelling has opened unexpected doors for you.

The first Moth I did, I met a friend who was a successful TV writer/producer and she introduced me to agents. At the same time, I got into a festival in Aspen, CO that was sponsored by HBO, which led me to meet other people and agents.

You were nominated for an Emmy for your writing on "Ellen" and you also do stand up. How does your TV writing and comedy background inform your storytelling and vice versa? Does anything about screenwriting structure influence you?

I did stories first and then got into TV writing. When I wrote for “Ellen,” her style of comedy tends to be stories, so it worked well for that. But when you learn the mechanics of structure for those formats, you develop the ability to do whatever you want.

I like screenwriting structure. It has that three act structure and I really enjoy that. I really enjoy hitting the marks at certain times in stories – a beginning, a middle, and an end – that’s what screenplays are.

You are not only a master storyteller, you've performed a number of one-man shows.  How do you take your storytelling essays and expand them into full blown shows?

I think it’s the other way, actually. I have my ideas for shows, and then I figure how to tell them in stories. Any good story can be told in five minutes, or a half hour. If it’s a good story, you should be able to do both. A good way to know if you have a good story if that if you can’t tell it in five minutes, it’s probably not a story. And if you can’t tell it in a half hour its probably also not a good story; it’s probably just an anecdote.

What types of experiences make for good storytelling?

I guess it depends, but I would say big life moments. Everybody has a bunch of things happen to them, and I think anything can be a good story if it’s interesting to you.

Sometimes you just have to accept it when something’s not a good story. If the audience doesn’t react to it and I’ve tried it three times, I just accept that it’s not a good story. I think most people intuitively know what’s a good story. Sometimes, it’s a way of trying to make something very specific come across more universally so people can relate to it.

Anything can be high stakes if it affects you emotionally. If something seems small, you have to explain to the audience why it’s not small to you so that it becomes universal. You have to raise the stakes; you have to be more emotional to make people care about it.

Of the stories you tell on stage, what's your favorite and why?

I don’t have one favorite. I know which ones do well, which ones shock people, which are better for older people and which are better for young people. I like whatever the audience reacts to. Sometimes it's not the one I want to tell, but it’s the one the audience reacts to.

I’m a narcissist. If the audience applauds or laughs then I like it. I think that’s what everyone wants, right? Otherwise, why do it?

What do you think is the most important element for hooking an audience?

Telling the truth.  I think that if you’re honest, you can rope people in.

In your upcoming 5-week class, you'll teach students your methods for 1) Structuring engaging stories, and 2) Crafting vivid stories out of small, seemingly insignificant events. How did you come up with your storytelling methodology?

I don’t think that I came up with it. I just listened to a lot of stories and realized that I don’t care about some stories or the storyteller sometimes didn't seem to care about his story.

There are ways to tell a small story that make it seem bigger. Other people rely on a really big story and don’t craft it well. Those are the two things I think people have the hardest time with, and that’s why I chose to work on that.

Once you know how to use good details, then you can throw the structure away, because then you know how to tell a great story.

Thanks, Brian! This was fascinating. We're looking forward to your class, Storytime Plus: A Performed Essay Workshop (5-WK). It begins Sept. 16. Students will get to finish two storytelling essays and perform one at a fun story-telling performance. Storytellers, snag your spot now! 

And don't forget to check out Brian's hysterically funny one-man show at UCB on Thursday, August 29th. We recommend that you get your tickets now because the last three shows sold out.

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