In case you are not familiar with The Moth, it is a not-for-profit devoted to ‘true stories told live.’ The stories are short, intimate, and funny. Most Moth storytellers, including Janna Levin, draw from one (or several) moments of profound personal transformation; more often than not, these moments were catalyzed by foolishness, futility, character flaws, or failure. While polished in plot, setting, and character development, the best Moth stories retain raw, honest sincerity and offer an uplifting moral.
In this post, I’ll deconstruct Janna Levin’s Life on a Mobius Strip, the lead-off story in The Moth’s new book. I recommend you enjoy the video below and then read my analysis.
Tip #1: Develop a richly plotted story
Plot, setting, and dialog-rich character are the key elements that add texture to a story. Let’s examine how Janna developed the first element, plot. As shown in the table below, notice that Janna impressively wove dual-plots that converged in the end.
Boiled down, the essence of plot is the topsy-turvy journey characters must undergo is search of the answer to a profound question. The types of questions that work best do not have an obvious or even a single answer; in fact, depending on the path taken, diametrically opposed answers may be equally viable. Despite that challenge, storytellers (usually) share their answer to the question at the end in the form of a revelation that allows the protagonist to achieve her goals and live happily ever after.
Sometimes characters know the question the storyteller is exploring, and sometimes they do not. In Plot A, Janna as protagonist knows the question and frames it early on as, “The hazard for a scientist working on something so esoteric is the possibility that it just might not be true or it might not be answerable.” She is asking: Is it worth dedicating your professional life to fundamental scientific research when it is unlikely that your effort will amount to anything? In Plot B, in contrast, Janna as protagonist does not know the question: Do we get to choose who we love?
Quite cleverly, these two plots share a common theme summarized by the overarching question: Are our lives determined by fate or free will? At the end of her story, Janna discovers the answer in the symbolism of her anatomically unusual son – Love, like the universe, is unpredictable, improbable, circular, and worthwhile.
|Plot A||Plot B|
|Once upon a time and every day…||(1) I was working at Berkeley as an astrophysicist obsessed with an esoteric, probably unanswerable topic||(2) I met Warren, an uneducated obsessive compulsive musician, in a coffee shop in San Francisco|
|Until one day…||(4) My fellowship ended and I accepted a job in Cambridge, England||(3) Warren moved in with me|
|And because of that…||(5) I shifted to the exciting topic of Black Holes and got to hang out with Nobel laureates||(6) Warren worked as a dishwasher and focused on his music|
|Until finally…||(8) I wrote a book about the universe and the unraveling of an obsessive compulsive mind||(7) Our relationship ended explosively|
|And after that…||(9) I returned to San Francisco…||(10a) … and saw Warren working in the coffee shop
(10b) We married a year later
(10c) We had a son whose internal organs (harmlessly) are reversed
|And the moral of the story is…||(11) Love, like the universe, is unpredictable, improbable, circular, and worthwhile|
Tip #2: Get laughs early and often
Compelling personal stories, including if not especially traumatic ones, need generous helpings of humor. I find that humor can typically be classified in three buckets: superiority (ex: laughing at people with bad judgement, particularly those in positions of authority); surprise (ex: absurd overstatement or understatement); and emotional release as a salve to embarrassment, discomfort, or fear (ex: gallows and scatological humor).
Janna used all three types early and often. She got her first laugh with superiority humor a mere nine seconds into her story with the following: “Einstein famously said, ‘Only two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity.’ Then he added, ‘And I’m not so sure about the universe.” Though it may be painfully obvious, this is superiority humor because implies that people are infinitely stupid. Since Einstein’s and Janna’s audiences were in on the joke, they get to feel superior to the rest of the world.
(Note: I advise speakers to avoid quoting famous people, especially at the opening or closing of a speech. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. The main exception is when the speaker either knows the famous person or heard the quote first-hand. Janna reveals another exception which is when the quote perfectly sets up the fundamental theme of the story and ties to a major story element – in this case, Janna is an astrophysicist studying whether or not the universe is infinite.)
Janna’s second laugh relied on surprise humor in the form of understatement as follows: “Warren came charging past me the first day I saw him and pinned me with his blue eyes and said, ‘You’re the astrophysicist.’ (pause) Which I knew.”
She employed release humor a bit later on when she recounted living in low-cost accommodations upon arriving in England, “… we spend a few weeks in a coin-operated bed-sit in Brighton. If you ran out of pound coins, your electricity went off and the lights went out. We often ran out of pound coins, and towards the end we were so despondent we would just sit in the dark.”
By the end of her 16 minute 20 second story, Janna garnered 31 laughs – a rate of 1.9 laughs per minute. While shy of the stand-up comedy standard of four to six laughs-per-minute, the rate is both impressive and typical of entertaining personal stories. If the laughter density is too low, below 1 laugh-per minute, a story becomes heavy and dull; if the laughter density is too high, above 4 laughs per minute, a story loses meaning and becomes just a pleasant, in-the-moment experience.
Tip #3: Be vulnerable
Over the course of the story, the audience learns that Janna holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from MIT, did post-doctoral work at Berkeley, hobnobbed with Stephen Hawking and Nobel laureates at Cambridge, wrote and published a book that “came out of me fully formed,” and has a healthy, happy family. If Janna had led with all of this, or even any of this, the audience would have immediately disconnected from her. However, she paired vulnerabilities with each of her bona fides – foolishness, frustration, futility, and failure always preceded good fortune:
- The futile pursuit of fundamental science precedes Janna’s disclosure of being an MIT-trained astrophysicist.
- The frustration of living in squalor precedes Janna’s opportunity to work at Cambridge with Stephen Hawking.
- The failure of her relationship precedes Janna’s book deal.
- The foolishness of falling in love with the wrong kind of man precedes Janna’s happy family life.
The Bottom Line
While I have touched on the most powerful insights that I drew from Janna’s story, there is much more richness to explore in character and setting development as well as in Janna’s engagingly raw verbal and non-verbal delivery. Please listen to her story and share what struck you as valuable in the comments section below.