Elna Baker - writer, comedienne, podcast powerhouse - stopped by Part2 for our Sequel Series to discuss the basics of story telling -- like hooks, thru-lines, and satisfying endings. Here's some wisdom she shared!
If you create rules about story telling, how do you keep your stories from being formulaic?
I think that the rules are a reference point. When you’re telling a story you’re so captured by the actual story that I tend to dive in and get so lost in the story, I need this reference to ask what am I doing that’s actually basic story telling. The story follows a beginning middle and end structure but the story itself and the details of the story make it totally different. For me I feel like I use the structure more at the end after I’ve vomitted every bit of information to remind myself that I’m trying to tell a story here.
Do you look for stories to fit the structure or when you’ve found these stories you then go back and ask did I hit all these points?
Especially with my own work it’s, like, did I get it at the end? Sometime with other people because I’m fishing to make sure the story has these components. I’ll be specifically asking questions that help me understand if there’s a conflict or a moment that feels climactic. I know I’m when leaning in, I know when I’m excited about something, and I know when I can make something work because I need something. I’m listening to stories all the time and it’s something surprising in the story, sometimes it’s just funny. And it actually makes me laugh and that matters a lot because I’ve become one of those people that laughs at nothing. Or the other thing is emotion -- that’s a big thing for me just really feeling an emotion.
How do you know when you've found a good story?
The thing that I've learned is paying attention to your boredom. The better I’ve gotten at just trusting my gut and saying that’s boring, the better the stories I’m producing have become. And in the same way I know when I’m leaning in. I know when I’m excited about something and I know when I’m trying to make something work because I need something. To me it’s the stories themselves that wake me up.
Why stories? What do stories mean to you?
I remember I had a pretty big surgery once, and I was in the most pain I have ever been in in my life, and this was back when CDs were a thing, and I had a CD of the best stories of the Moth, and I listened to it for basically three days straight. It was the only thing that I could get my mind off my pain, and I could actually connect to the story. And I think there is something about that -- it didn’t feel meaningless. If I cared about another human being and their story, I was so absorbed by it, that I left my own self. There is a theater exercise where you just stare into another human being’s eyes for five minutes, and both of you end up crying by the end of it. But like, it’s the same notion of this thing, this intimacy that we are avoiding, that is scary, that makes you feel some connection to something, the core of something, in a sort of spiritual way almost, and that’s what I love about good stories.