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Sunday, October 19, 2014

Listening to a master explain the craft of storytelling

John Madormo
By Ted Slowik

Regular readers will know that while I'm deeply interested in developing skills and proficiency as a musician, I'm most passionate about songwriting and storytelling. On Saturday, I listened intently for more than an hour as an accomplished master storyteller spoke about the craft.

John Madormo spoke to teachers who are education alumni of North Central College in Naperville during a Homecoming Weekend event in the school's library. Many know John as a longtime professor of broadcast communication at the college and general manager of WONC-FM 89.1, one of the nation's finest college radio stations.

John established the John Drury Awards to honor excellence in high school broadcasting. The awards are named for a late ABC7 Chicago newsman, and currently the reigning No. 1 high school radio station in the country is at my own alma mater, WLTL-FM 88.1 at Lyons Township High School in LaGrange. But I digress.

A few years back, about when he turned 40, John decided to pursue his dream of becoming a Hollywood screenwriter. Sure, he had a successful career as a college professor and a wife and kids, but he talked about that "What If" theme I've written about often. Only he described it as "Living On Someday Isle," as in "someday I'll write that book" or "someday I'll sail around the world."

So John started spending his lunch hours and late nights learning to write screenplays. Here's an important point he made: If you want to seriously make room in your life to pursue your dream, you've got to give up something. For him, it was watching late-night television. A modest sacrifice, right? In my case, I'm giving up live performances in 2015 to focus more intently on writing something great and lasting.

For the past 10 years or so John's been walking to Nichols Library in downtown Naperville and writing for an hour during lunch, inspired by the books around him. Some days he would only write a paragraph, but he was one paragraph closer to his dream. He finished a few scripts, shopped them around and even had some optioned, meaning producers licensed the rights to turn his screenplays into films. He sold the rights to one outright, though none has been green-lighted yet.

He said people in the industry have called his work very original, but John explained that sometimes being original is simply combining two or more influential existing works in a new way. He says his story "Coach Dracula" is a mix of "Dracula" meets "The Bad News Bears." John says he started writing for younger audiences so he could create something he wouldn't mind having his daughters read.

Along the way someone suggested to John that one of his screenplay ideas might pitch better if it was based on a book or series of books, say, like Harry Potter. So John started writing stories about a 12-year-old character that became Charlie Coller: Snoop For Hire, a series of middle-grade mystery novels published by Penguin Books. The third book is being released this fall.

John's books have been added to the reading lists for public schools across the country, including Chicago Public Schools, New York City's Bank Street College of Education, and schools from Arizona to New Jersey. He regularly visits schools to talk about writing, appears at conferences, author talks and book signings. He's found success and a second career doing what he's passionate about, and he's an inspiration not only to many young readers but to many adults who might be thinking "What if" or "Someday I'll."

The best part of John's talk Saturday was listening to him describe the craft of storytelling: character development, story arc, the three-act drama, foreshadowing, cliffhangers and so on. Every great hero is flawed in one or more ways. Great villians have a redeeming humanizing quality, like Dr. Evil petting his cat in the Austin Powers movies. John knows writing across many media: radio, TV, film and literature. The elements of successful storytelling are the same regardless of the form, and they apply to songwriting as well.

John's a great writer and a fascinating speaker. If you have kids in second through fifth grades you should have them read John's books, and if you ever get a chance to hear John give an author talk you should go listen to him.