If you’ve ever judged a P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box event or taken a look at the scoring guidelines on a challenge, you may have noticed there is no such thing as a zero in the rubric. Why? Because for many people, performing in front of an audience is the scariest thing they could be asked to do.
When Americans rank their greatest fears, “public speaking” consistently comes in high on the list. Approximately one in four adults report this fear. Sure, it makes sense to break into a sweat when faced with a tiger, but when we stand in front of a group of our peers? At least a quarter of us would rather face the tiger. Glossophobia – the technical term for fear of speaking in front of others – can be mild or paralyzing, and can come into effect with an audience of one or one hundred. This means that it can be difficult to talk to teachers or employers later in life, or it can be hard to make ourselves understood by a friend or partner.
Luckily, the younger you start taking these kinds of risks and being rewarded for them, the better shot you have at escaping this phobia. By giving a minimum point value to our teams for simply taking the risk of being in front of a crowd at all, USAT encourages even shy kids to stand up and be heard. We think it’s so valuable, in fact, that we make it mandatory for all competing team members to be seen during the performance.
Even though the idea of rewarding participation has come under fire lately, there are certain types of endeavors and certain age groups that benefit from this kind of unconditional encouragement. Creativity in all forms requires risk-taking. USAT offers a competitive format in order to give our teams something to strive for and ways to set specific, achievable goals. But we also structure the scoring of the program in a way to encourage positive risk-taking activities and create an environment of acceptance to help build the confidence of our participants that will carry them forward in their education, careers, and relationships to come.
To our teams who are moving on to the State Competition this year, congrats! But for the rest of our teams, we’re not just going to say “better luck next year.” We want to help your team get ready for next season right now.
Okay, you’re right. Next season won’t be coming up for a while. There’s a whole beautiful summer between now and the fall semester. The advantage of thinking about next season already is that this season is still fresh in the Triathlete’s minds. And when it comes to goal-setting, the fresher the experience, the better the goals.
It’s no secret that in the moment, winning feels better than losing. But improving can be its own reward, and one that isn’t dependent on the whim of the judges.
Setting Goals is as Easy as 1-2-3
This goal-setting exercise can be done for the team as a whole and for individuals on a team. If you are doing this is a group activity, allow your students to each have one “secret” goal that they don’t have to share with the group, but they must share at least one goal and the steps to reach it.
One low-pressure way to start the discussion of what worked and what could be improved, is to talk about the student’s favorite and least favorite challenges this year. See how many Mind Sprints they can name and how they felt about them. Ask about their favorite and least favorite P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box prompt this year. Did anyone feel frustrated about Face-Off? This is an easy way to get your students talking about what worked and what didn’t work over the season.
Then, it’s time to identify, quantify, and assess. So, have your students grab some paper, and divide it into three columns. (Hint – turning the page horizontal to a “landscape” rather than “portrait” configuration will give more space to each column.)
1. Identify Areas for Improvement
“Perfection” is a myth. Nobody does everything right all of the time. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses, and both can be areas of focus for goal-setting. This is why “Areas for Improvement” is a better label than “weakness;” even if you are good at something, there’s always room to strive to do it even better. And the more specific you can be, the easier it will be to measure success.
The first concrete step for goal-setting is to identify these areas for improvement and write them down. Each student should use the column on the left to record at least two ways they’d like to do even better as individuals during USAT next season, and one way the team could perform better overall. These areas for improvement could be in response to specific challenges they faced this season, such as “get faster at answering verbal brainstorming prompts,” or could be more general, like “listen to each other.” But the goals can’t get too broad, either, or they stop being helpful. Saying “get better scores” isn’t going to be as valuable as identifying specific areas where the scores were lower than they would have liked. It’s best if your Triathletes make their own lists, but here are a few suggestions to get them started if they get stuck.
Drawing backdrops for P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box
Answering current events questions
Listening to each other
Staying in character
Using time effectively
There’s no need to share these lists yet, so have them work on this individually to start. Sharing will come after step 3.
2. Quantify – Create Steps that Lead to Success
People often forget this very important stage in the goal-setting process. It isn’t enough for us to just to declare we plan to “do better” in the year to come. To reach a goal, we need to identify the concrete steps to take to get us there. You may find that some of the goals from above are hard to break into steps, which means the focus of the goal needs to shift to make is something measurable. The Triathletes should use the middle column to record at least one step they can take to reach each goal for themselves and their team.
Let’s use “listening to each other” as an example. It’s easy to say “we’re all going to listen better next season,” but making sure this happens requires more than a promise. For instance, the team could agree that after reading the prompt in every P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box planning session, every teammate gets a chance to share their ideas before anyone touches the materials in the box. This doesn’t mean everyone has to have an idea, but they are guaranteed an opportunity to speak up if they have one.
If Triathletes did end up with list items like “score higher in Face-Off,” there are steps to take there, too. The subject areas in Face-Off are always the same: science/health, social studies/geography, math/music theory, English/literature, and current events/consumer issues. We’ve provided some tips for improving Face-Off performance before, but there could certainly be other ways. And if the students come up with the ideas themselves, they are going to be more likely to stick.
Mind Sprints may change from Meet to Meet, but there’s never a bad time to practice using the SCAMPER technique to improve verbal brainstorming skills. There are ways to practice, like making P.A.R.T.Y.-style props and skits in between Meets. But saying the next step is “practice” is only halfway there. It’s easy to put off practicing if there is no deadline or minimum number to meet. So, make sure the steps take either time (hold one practice before each Meet) or quantity (I’ll turn 10 plastic cups into props) to make them measurable. This makes the steps easier to accomplish, which will help the students reach their goals.
In addition to needing concrete steps in order to accomplish your goal, choosing milestones means that you can easily assess how much progress you’ve made. If you look at the steps the students brainstormed for the section above and find that there is no way to measure when they are done, they might need to rethink their areas of improvement and their next steps. Goal-setting needs to be a fluid process, but as long as it leads to actionable steps that can be measured, then it’s been successful, even if things have to get tweaked along the way.
Goals can be assessed at any time, but if you never set a time, then it’s easy to let the assessment slide by. The goals and steps can be evaluated at the end of each season, but also after every Meet or on a monthly basis, depending on the goal. The advantage of assessing progress more often is that the students may find they have already achieved a goal on their list, so they have a chance to set another one and continue to make progress. On the other hand, they could find out something they thought was a reasonable action step turns out to be too hard or too easy, or they prefer to do it with a friend. Any part of the goal-setting process can be changed at any time, but it won’t happen unless a time is chosen at the beginning.
Sharing Goals and Steps
If you are doing this as a group activity, now it’s time to share and discuss the goals the students made for themselves and the team as a whole. They should each share at least one personal goal, then each share their team goal, and how they plan to achieve them. Students may have suggestions for each other and the types of steps someone can take, and how to achieve their team goals. This activity has the chance to turn into an interesting discussion, and we encourage you to do it as a group.
If a student is working alone, that’s fine, too. But goals are much more powerful if they are shared with someone, like a friend, parent, or coach. Just saying a goal out loud makes it seem more “real,” and if other people know what someone else hopes to accomplish, they will be more likely and able to help them along the way. Sharing creates a sense of accountability that keeping it to yourself simply can’t match. So, even if a goal is only shared with one person, the act of sharing is already a step toward success!
Do you have any goal-setting activities to share? Did this activity lead to any surprises? Share with us in the comments.
Now is the time to put everything the protagonist has learned to the test. To keep the tension high throughout the final act, the plan of attack has to hit a snag. For instance, Frodo and Sam make it all the way to Mordor, only to find that the power of the ring is so great that Frodo doesn’t want to give it up. Blake Snyder is famous for demystifying storytelling for screenwriters, and recommends a five-step finale. Using a classic “storming the castle to save the damsel in distress” scenario, he says to do the following (Source):
Step 1: The hero, and the hero team, come up with a plan to “storm the castle” and “free the princess” who is “trapped in the tower.”
Step 2: The plan begins. The wall of the castle is broached. The heroes enter the Bad Guys’ fort. All is going according to plan.
Step 3: Finally reaching the tower where the princess is being kept, the hero finds… she’s not there! And not only that, it’s a trap! It looks like the Bad Guy has won.
Step 4: The hero now has to come up with a new plan. And it’s all part and parcel of the overall transformation of the hero and his need to “dig deep down” to find that last ounce of strength (i.e., faith in an unseen power) to win the day.
Step 5: Thinking on the fly, and discovering his best self, the hero executes the new plan, and wins! Princess freed, friends avenged, Bad Guy sent back to wherever Bad Guys go when they are defeated — our hero has triumphed.
The Final Image
The protagonist may be victorious, but the story isn’t over until they have found their way back to a State of Perfection (SOP). This is the “awww” moment for the audience, who gets a chance to catch their breath after the action of the finale. For our triathletes, it is also the best place to explicitly state the moral or theme of the play for the judges before they write down their scores.
Let’s go back to the original SOP we discussed in the post about beginning a story. A group of Wilderness Scouts were gathered around the campfire. If the misfit protagonist was the only member of the group having a good time, the audience needs to see them back at the fireside. However, they can’t be the only one enjoying the camp-out anymore. The rest of the group would need to either gain an appreciation for the great outdoors thanks to the protagonist’s influence, or the friendships they forged must be strong enough to overcome their own misgivings. On the other hand, if the protagonist started off in a State of Imperfection and hated everything about the wilderness at the beginning, the audience would need to see how much they’ve changed as a result of the story.
In other words, the final image needs to have some connection to the opening image, and is often a mirror (be it fun house-style or just a normal one). This brings the story full circle, and leaves the audience with the feeling that all is right in the world. For a P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box skit, this is the perfect time to tell the judges the moral of the story to drive home how the team has come to understand and illustrate the theme. Plus, it’s the last opportunity to really “wow” them with a special talent or comedic relief. The old showbiz adage of “always leave them wanting more” couldn’t be truer! Judges often adjust their scores after they’ve seen all the shows in order to make sure the scoring is fair. If the story ends with a bang, it’s much easier for them to remember what they’ve seen, even if a team gave their performance at the beginning. So, don’t forget to make it memorable!
Read the rest of the Elements of Storytelling posts for more info about structure, and check out the rest of our P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box tips.
From here on out, the goal is to get the protagonist back to a State of Perfection (SOP). It may or may not be the same SOP as the beginning, but they’ve got to end up better off somehow after the story is over. But don’t jump straight to the big finish just yet; there’s still some important work to do. In fact, there was so much to say about constructing the end of a story, we decided to break this post into two parts. This post will cover everything between the Midpoint and the Finale, and next week we’ll finish up the whole story.
Proving it was False
We left off last time talking about the Midpoint of a story and how it must be either a false peak or a false collapse for the protagonist(s). The story needs to illustrate the consequences of the Midpoint and how it drives the hero to undergo a change. Otherwise, the events the audience has just witnessed hold no meaning and won’t communicate the team understands the theme of the P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box skit to the judges.
If the protagonist is feeling good in the middle of the story, they need to get knocked down again before the end. They could find out a decision they made earlier in the story has unintended consequences. Maybe they lose an important object or a companion is kidnapped by the antagonist while their back is turned. Perhaps the whole Midpoint was actually just a trap or distraction to lure the protagonist away from the real action. Or when the antagonist is backed into a corner, they do something desperate and create an even bigger problem than before. No matter what you choose, creating more opportunities for reversals leads to an audience (and judges!) more invested in the story.
If the protagonist is suffering from a false collapse at the Midpoint or as a result of proving just how false their peak really was, it’s time to build them back up. It’s reasonable to put them through another moment of debate and doubt that mirrors the first. After all, they’ve either just succeeded and found it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, or they think they’ve just lost everything. Plus, the stakes just keep getting higher. The protagonist needs a reminder of what makes them special and what it took to get them this far. This could be a great opportunity for a pep talk by a companion on the quest or some kind words from a wise stranger. If the protagonist is faced with a new challenge and uses a new skill they’ve learned, or moves away from a negative behavior they’ve developed since the story began, it gives them the strength to carry on.
Raise the Stakes
If your story is doing its job, the audience is already invested. Now, it’s time to double down on the danger. This doesn’t mean to jump straight to a universe-ending scenario just for the sake of making things more exciting. The danger needs to feel like it is to scale with what has come before. For instance, the soccer player who pushes away their childhood friend in order to fit in with her teammates probably won’t need to save the entire planet. But she could be peer-pressured into doing something that would get her kicked off the team if caught, or put the league in jeopardy.
In a general sense, the stakes of a story are bounded by how far the protagonist is able to travel. This might seem weird, but think about it. Stories with kids at the center usually stretch about as far as they can reach on their bikes. The neighborhood, the school, or maybe the whole town could be in peril, but the next state over? Probably not. On the other extreme, any story that includes the means to travel between planets is basically going to have a planet-sized threat looming over it by definition. The stakes could be expanded on their own, or as part of the second plot point.
Plot Point #2
If besting the antagonist was easy, the good guys would always win in the middle. Instead, there must be some new development after the events of the Midpoint to bring the tale to a thrilling conclusion. This usually comes in the form of new information the protagonist didn’t have before. They may need to travel to a new location, consult an expert, retrieve an artifact, or any number of different tasks to give them the leg up they need. This is the last chance to infuse new knowledge into the story, or the solution will feel like it comes out of nowhere and won’t give the audience the satisfaction they are looking for. As fun as it can be to throw in a twist, it’s better if the audience gets to anticipate the ending somehow first. There’s still time for a twist; in fact, good finales always throw in a curve-ball (which we’ll discuss more next week). But the people watching the skit will have more fun if they think they know how the story will end before they actually see it happen.
To bring us back to Star Wars, this is the scene in the war room at the rebel base. Luke finds out that the impenetrable Death Star has a weakness after all, and he will be part of the team that will try to take it out. If the fleet took off with no plan or knowledge of how they might succeed, there wouldn’t be any tension for the audience. But as long as there is a chance, no matter how small, that the good guys will win, the story feels compelling all the way to the last moments.
In terms of the five-minute time limit of a P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box skit, this event must occur no later than the end of the fourth minute to ensure there is enough time to get the protagonist back to their SOP.
This brings us to the finale, which we’ll discuss next time!
Last week, we took a look at the best place for a story to begin, and how to get the most out of the first minute of a P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box skit. Now, it’s time to take a look at what the middle of a story has to offer.
If you’ve ever been a coach or judge for P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box, you know that students rarely use their full five minutes. They end up rushing because they are afraid of the penalty for going over, or they didn’t plan a very long story to begin with. The middle is often sacrificed in the race to the end, but the middle is actually the “meat” of any story. A great way to help your students understand how much time they really have is to set a five-minute timer, then make them sit in silence until it goes off. Suddenly, those five minutes feel like an eternity! If you do this exercise before each Meet, or even just once at the beginning of every season, it will make a big impact on the length (and by extension quality) of the skits your students plan and perform.
In the last Elements of Storytelling post, we talked about the opening image, establishing the protagonist’s identity by using a State of Perfection (SOP) or State of Imperfection (SOI), and the purpose of an inciting incident. Right after the first event occurs to knock the protagonist out of their SOP/SOI, good stories show at least a moment of debate. This doesn’t necessarily mean that characters have to actually discuss whether or not to go on the adventure and why, but they certainly could. An exchange of even a sentence or two at this stage is a great way to really bring the theme to the forefront of the skit.
For example, during our Round Robin #3 Meet, we asked our Triathletes to examine the idea of ingroups and outgroups, and the power of groups to shape our actions. If the protagonist experiences an inciting incident where they are faced with a decision to hang out with the soccer team at the expense of their best friend’s feelings, the decision-making process can easily be shown through a quick discussion between the protagonist and a teammate who thinks a friend isn’t worth their time. This will clearly illustrate the theme, and the audience will know exactly what the conflict is about.
One advantage of a live performance rather than a book is that characters can also make asides to the audience. Shakespeare often wrote the private thoughts of his characters as monologues, or brief moments where they step out of the world of the story to say something directly to the people who are watching. This is a great way to bring the audience deeper into the story, and has the added benefit of making thoughts and motivations transparent. You have to establish the moment of hesitation as well as the moment the protagonist takes the plunge in order for the story to feel compelling.
Plot Point #1
Not long after the debate, it’s a good idea to have a distinctive plot point. This should be the first time the antagonist (or antagonistic forces) are fully realized for the audience. A lot of the time, this is a scene where the protagonist isn’t even present. The audience has the chance to see the antagonist, their motives, and understand what is at stake if the protagonist fails at defeating them. If we use the original Star Wars movie as an example, this is the scene where we find out about the Death Star. Sure, we met Darth Vader as part of the inciting incident, but he isn’t the biggest threat to the safety of the galaxy. The evil empire and its planet-killing laser, on the other hand, are not to be trifled with.
This is a step that often gets skipped in a P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box skit, but actually has a lot of potential for creativity and earning points. If you can give the audience an interesting villain, and maybe even one with a special talent or funny way of looking at the world, it will definitely catch the attention of the judges. Remember, the antagonist is the opposite of the protagonist, and they are both there in order to show the audience different aspects of the theme. Taking 30 seconds to really hone in on the conflict and the consequences makes it easy for the audience to follow your tale, and lets the judges know you know what is being asked of your team. Plus, it’s a great opportunity to show off your team’s artistic skills with a second backdrop!
“Wait, isn’t the whole post about the middle?” you ask. It sure is! But the Midpoint is a very specific moment within the middle section of a story. Specifically, it is the moment when the protagonist either thinks they succeeded but has actually failed (false peak), or thinks they have failed but actually succeeded (false collapse). For our soccer player protagonist torn between the group and a friend, the false peak occurs when they have gained acceptance from the group. They think they’ve gotten what they truly want, but will ultimately find that it doesn’t actually make them happy.
In a story with a false collapse, let’s look at Star Wars again. The Millennium Falcon comes out of light speed on its way to Alderaan, only to find out the planet has been blown to bits. The crew are captured by Vader, Obi Wan is killed, and all hope seems to be lost. Except of course that they couldn’t actually win the day in the end if they weren’t captured at this point in the film. If Obi Wan was still alive later on, there would be no disembodied voice urging Luke to use the Force to make the impossible shot and win the day. Everyone loves to root for an underdog, and providing an event in the plot where the protagonist is at a disadvantage can make a big emotional impact on the audience when they see it reversed later.
But we’ll save the rest of our tips for utilizing the power of reversals for our final installment of the series: crafting a satisfying and exciting ending.