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What makes a Moth story a Moth story?

When The Moth, perhaps the nation’s best-known venue for live storytelling, alights in Las Vegas this month, its five performers will take the stage with nothing but mental outlines. No notes, nothing memorized word for word, no standup routines — just an understanding of their story thorough enough that they can tell it authentically. They’ll each get 12 minutes, give or take, to tell a tale, a narrative honed and contoured by 20 years of Moth best practices.

 “There really isn’t a formula,” says Jenifer Hixson, a Moth senior director. “I feel it’s like, how do you fall in love? It’s different every time.” But there are some fairly consistent traits of a Moth story.

TIME: Because you have limited time to tell your story, your story must be about a limited time. No life stories. “The less successful stories are ones that span a long time,” Hixson says. Sure, you can relate incidents separated by years — within reason. “You can be 10 and then you can be 20. But you can’t be 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20.” Which means you have to be choosy about …

DETAIL: “Everything feels relevant at first,” Hixson says. It’s not. Everything you do is clouded in details, most of them extraneous. Shave it down! “Don’t start with a ton of description. You can’t really spend a whole lot of time on the shape of the clouds.” This is one of the hardest lessons for storytellers to learn: “Talking people out a of scene that they particularly love, that’s always a challenge.” How do you know what to leave in? That depends on …

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“THE STAKES”: This is huge in Moth-world. This is your story’s crux — whatever you stand to gain or lose, the thing that makes it worth telling. While she’s reluctant to lay down hard rules, Hixson says she prefers to hear the stakes articulated in the first third of the story, lest the narrative go slack. “Do I believe there’s a story out there that would sing and be
gorgeous in which the stakes are revealed in the last paragraph? It’s possible!” But the exclamation point in her voice says it’s also unlikely. Your stakes should not only be real, they should …

BE FRESH: If your stakes are surviving illness, coming out of the closet, giving birth, or falling in or out of love, know that these topics — however consuming they are in your life — have been done and done again. This can be an uncomfortable truth. “Sometimes it doesn’t feel so nice to reject something that feels so deeply important to them personally,” Hixson allows. “But it’s gotta be different.” It’s also gotta have a …

TRANSFORMATION: To keep people involved for the duration of a 12-minute story, there needs to be change. Someone has to be different by the end. “There should be some major decision in your story,” Hixson says. Still, even as you change in the story, onstage …

BE YOU: Shy? Don’t try to be charismatic. “A shy person has to make people lean in,” Hixson says. Charismatic? Don’t pretend to be low-key; go ahead and grab the audience. “You need to go with your strengths,” she adds. And if the story makes you a little unlikable or reveals your unpleasant side, that’s fine, as long as it’s true. “Authenticity is really huge — try to be who you are.”

The Moth, November 14, 6:30p, $15, UNLV’s Ham Concert Hall, blackmountaininstitute.org

Disclosure: Nevada Public Radio is partnering with the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute to present this show.

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