Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Intentional Tangent

After this week's myriad of events, I planned on writing a bit about the Engage Expo and narrative storytelling through games and toys. However, I regret to say that I didn't find anything incredibly insightful during these talks and discussions. A lot of times these industry conferences relay things you already know. Or it becomes a chance for people to talk about the things they are creating (which is certainly inspiring) and there's often nothing to take away except a new url or a new toy or game you'll want to check out the next holiday season. Again, I'm reminded that conferences are for networking and it's simply not the best forum for me.

So...I'm sure you'll all find it ironic that, instead, I found Kathy Griffin's show on Friday night to be a genius model for storytelling. I know what you're all thinking. She's a vulgar, inappropriate, rude, self-absorbed, callous, crude (etc. etc.) attention seeker. And I get it that a lot of people might not be able to handle her comedy. In fact, she repeatedly reminded us that her show is made for people in New York City because we're the only audience that can truly handle it. And we can. We've seen it all and a couple of completely inappropriate jokes are not going to phase us. And they really didn't.

But let's put her comedy aside and get to the heart of this post. To be able to stand on stage for 2 hours (2 hours!) and have an entire audience completely engaged and entertained, hanging on our every word...well, that's what we, as writers, want. And when the end comes, we want our audience to want hours more of us. We want them to want the sequel. The next book. The next story.

Kathy's ability to do this astounded me. I couldn't understand it. 2 hours! 2 hours of stories and I wanted hours more. I felt like a little kid at bedtime: tell me more stories Kathy, tell me more stories!

As a writer, I wanted to understand how she was able to do this. I'm going to put the obvious out there quickly:

1. Interesting subject matter? Check. (Acting lessons with Liza Minelli! Tea with Gloria Vanderbilt! The list goes on...)
2. Distinct Voice? Check. (I think she said f&^kballs approximately 1,000 times)
3. Humor? Check. (duh, it's a comedy show)
4. Great characters? Check. (Tiger Woods! The Balloon Boy! Anderson Cooper!)
5. Great setting? Check. (Hollywood!)

But it's about structure. I want to get down to structure. Kathy started her comedy show with a welcome and dove right into the Tiger Woods Press Conference. 1 1/2 hours later, she wrapped up the Tiger Woods Press Conference. Argh. You're all probably thinking. She talked for an hour and 1/2 about Tiger Woods?


She went on incredibly structured tangents. But always, always, looped back to the original topic.

So, why is this important?

Because this is what we all want to do. And I'd argue it's what most storytellers do do. We want to keep people wanting more. If we start with A, then dive into B with A unresolved, our audience is always waiting for a resolution to A. And she consistently delivered the resolution to every unfinished story. And there were many. It was a constant stream of suspense for the un-resolved and delight in the current subject, consistently weaving between the two until every story had been completed.

Because this was all done through spoken word, most people would consider this a tangent. But an intentional one. While it all felt very natural, a good friend telling me one hilarious story after another, it's obvious that this was a well thought out plan. There's no way you could tell a series of stories in this manner without complete intent.

The skill it takes to do this and keep an audience engaged is impressive. Think about this in your writing. Think about how everything you introduce in your work keeps the audience wanting more. Think how you can continuously extend that suspense over the course of an entire novel. Think about how you can keep people waiting and think about how time sensitive it is. Feel when it's time to pick up a story and tuck it aside. Feel when it's time to resolve it before it's too late and you've lost your audience. After watching Kathy's 2 hour set, I know that... f&%kballs...I sure am.


  1. Structured tangents - I love this. I just finished reading Libba Bray's Going Bovine where the seemingly random always connected back to the larger plot. You give great advice in your last paragraph. I can't do any of it without time and distance. Lots of time and distance which is hard because it makes the process slow, slow, slow . . . Thanks for this post.

  2. I hear is slow for me as well. And much easier to step back and keep your distance before you can see the things you need to see. We'll get there... :-)

  3. LOVE Kathy Griffin--I know, I know, you either love her or hate her. I've seen her live twice and she's freaking hilarious. And I agree about the tangents. It's an art.

    Great post!

  4. Thanks Lisa and Laura! Seriously! The tangents are amazing. She kills me. I can't wait to see her again.