Elements of Storytelling, For Coaches and Teachers, For Kids, P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box, Resources

Elements of Storytelling: The Middle

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.

Debate

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!

Midpoint

“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.

Elements of Storytelling, For Coaches and Teachers, For Kids, P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box, Resources

Elements of Storytelling: The Beginning

Welcome back for another installment of our series about how to craft a compelling story and get the right message across. (If you haven’t read our first P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box series full of tips for getting noticed, getting higher scores, and crafting awesome costumes and props, make sure to check that one out, too!)

So far in Elements of Storytelling, we’ve addressed the importance of themes, protagonists, and antagonists. Now, it’s time to take a look at how to structure a story and use the five minutes allotted to the skit to the best advantage. With so little time both to plan and to perform, it’s important to choose the right starting point.

Contrary to what Maria has to say on the matter, good stories should start as close to the central conflict as possible. If your protagonist is the painter Michelangelo, it really isn’t that important to see how he learned to walk or the first time he tried spaghetti. Almost everybody walks, so that sort of detail won’t do much good to help establish who he is or what the story is going to be about. If there are 30 seconds at the beginning that don’t directly relate to the theme or plot, then that is 30 seconds wasted.

Set the Scene

On the other hand, if the audience sees someone laying on their back and pretending to paint, that already starts a chain reaction in their brains to figure out who they are seeing. If they have ever heard about the Sistine Chapel ceiling he painted, the audience might be able to guess without any further prompting from a narrator or from dialogue. But just to be safe, it’s a good idea to drop in the name of your protagonist within the first 10 seconds of the play.

Movies and books sometimes include a prologue before a story begins in order to give the audience backstory (eg Lord of the Rings, Stardust), but for USAT this isn’t going to be the best approach. The opening image and establishing the protagonist’s “outsider” status tells the people watching (most importantly, the judges) who they need to be paying attention to from the beginning.

The beginning of a P.A.R.T.Y. skit is also a great time to let the backdrops, props, and costumes do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. If the background shows a forest, the audience already has a lot of information to go on. If there are people sitting in a circle on the ground in front of those trees pretending to cook, the audience can make a reasonable guess they are probably looking at a camping trip. Add a sash with scout badges, and we know even more.

These sorts of visual cues are very important and establish your opening image. The protagonist should be present, and will either be in a state of perfection (SOP) or state of imperfection (SOI). In an SOP, they should be happy and comfortable with the world, and no matter what happens in the story, the goal will be to return them to their SOP. This state can’t last very long, and losing it should be directly tied to the conflict and theme. If a story begins with a SOI, then the ending should be working toward a reversal of fortune or attitude at the end.

How do These Terms Apply?

Let’s continue with our camping scenario. A group of Wilderness Scouts is sitting around the fire. One of the scouts is having an awesome time, and the rest are complaining about the bugs, the smoke, and the cold. The protagonist must be the happy camper in their SOP, because remember, protagonists are the oddballs and outsiders.

Then, something happens (called the inciting incident) that forces the protagonist out of their SOP and into the story. Perhaps it’s a flash flood, alien invasion, or rift in time, but something must occur to send the protagonist on an adventure. If you wanted to start with the same scenario but using a SOI instead, the protagonist is the only person who isn’t having a good time before the inciting incident occurs.

After the inciting incident, which should happen no later than one minute into the skit, the story really takes off. Stay tuned for our next Elements of Storytelling post to find out how to get the most out of the middle.

Elements of Storytelling, For Coaches and Teachers, For Kids, P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box, Resources

Elements of Storytelling: The Antagonist

So far in this series, we’ve covered themes and protagonists. This post is to help our Triathletes get a little insight into crafting the perfect villain for their P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box skits to help the first two items really shine.

In short, an antagonist is the “bad guy” in a story. This person, group, or organization has goals that are directly at odds with the goals of the protagonist. They more than likely create the problem that the protagonist faces because they exhibit negative traits such as greed and selfishness. This could be a shady government, a mad scientist, or the “popular” kids at school.

Sometimes, an antagonist has nothing to do with creating the problem, but they don’t want to see it solved, either. For instance, in The Little Mermaid, the main conflict is that the Ariel longs to enter a world that is out of her reach. She goes to a witch and asks for legs, and Ursula gives her what she wants. Ursula didn’t create Ariel’s longing and actually accommodates the protagonist so she can go on her quest. But by the end, Ursula does have goals that contradict the protagonist in order to accomplish her own selfish ends.

This series addressed the concept of protagonist first, but that doesn’t mean every story idea has to start with the hero. The most important thing about an antagonist is that they are the opposite of the protagonist. It can sometimes be easier to work from the conflict backwards and figure out who will resolve it.

In the past decade, there has been a rise in the number of nuanced antagonists in film and television, as well as attempts to soften classic villains through adding a sympathetic backstory (e.g. Maleficent, The Phantom Menace). For many, this felt like a total affront to their concepts of good and evil, and these films have gotten a lot of heat from fans of the originals. To borrow a term from author Leanna Renee Hieber, there are fewer “Shakespearean villains” nowadays, meaning the over-the-top, unequivocally evil ones. Over the course of a film or series, it is much easier to explore the different sides to every story. But in a five-minute skit, it’s going to be much harder to give them this sort of treatment.

When it comes to P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box antagonists, the easier it is to spot them (and so the conflict), the better. Our Triathletes have very little time and limited resources at their disposal to help the audience identify who to root for. In this case, the more Shakespearean, the better! Give your villain an evil laugh, purely selfish motive, and world-ending laser, and the judges will thank you. The easier it is for them to identify your characters and conflicts, the easier it will be for them to understand the message of the story. Remember, the theme section of the scoring guidelines has the potential for the most points in the event, and the characters are there first and foremost to explore that theme.

P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box

In Case You Missed It: P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box Tips

Help your students get off to a great start this year with our tips for making P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box performances the best they can be.

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Theater Etiquette

Getting students prepared to be attentive audience members and think about what it means to perform for others.

Front and Center

Performing skits is super fun, but it is easy for kids to get distracted and forget that they need to be seen and heard to get the most points.

Make it Memorable

If a skit sticks out in the judges’ mind they are going to get a higher score. Here are some ideas that triathletes can employ to add some extra zing to their shows.

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Backdrops Set the Scene

Every Meet the teams get a back drop holder and large swaths of paper to help tell their story. Get some advice about effective backdrops and time management.

Costumes make the Character

How do you know if your hero is a fire fighter or a bull fighter? The costume of course!

Props add Pop

The materials in a P.A.R.T.Y. prep are often the same, so there’s no reason students can’t practice making all sorts of things before the day of the Meet.

Close Reading

Skits aren’t just for fun, they are also a chance to earn points. Triathletes must read and interpret the prompts and scoring rubric without help from their coaches.

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P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box, Resources

Easy Links to the P.A.R.T.Y. in a Box Series

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Over the years, US Academic Triathlon has asked students which event is their favorite. Surprisingly, the breakdown has always come out to be almost exactly split into thirds, with each of our three events taking an equal part of the pie.

Last season we provided a series of tips for improving the skit planning and performances for these students who don’t find it quite so easy. In case you missed it or need a refresher before heading into the last Round Robin Meet on February 19, we’ve provided links for the series below.

Theater Etiquette

Front and Center

Make it Memorable

Backdrops Set the Scene

Costumes make the Character

Props add Pop

Close Reading

Looking for more creative ways for your students or child to reach their full potential? Stay tuned for our next series on Multiple Intelligences that starts next week!