But sometimes the difference between a well-told story and one that puts listeners into a coma is not so much what you put into is as what you leave out. After all, God may be in the details, but not all details are created equal.
So get rid of the clutter. Here are five places to start.
1. Tighten the Plot
When you’re telling a story, do you find yourself saying “and then” over and over? What you have there may not actually be a story, but just a long sequence of events. Which is rarely as fun to listen to. In movies (good ones, at least), any scene that does not propel the narrative forward gets cut. If it just repeats a point made in an earlier scene, it gets cut. If it’s boring … you get the idea.
2. Stay Off Tangents
I compare stories to a tree. As much as possible, you want to move in a straight line, from the base of the trunk to the top. Any time spent out on the various branches (or worse, twigs) is a tangent, a distraction and a possible dead-end. Stick to your point (presuming you have one).
3. Cut the Bit Players, Supporting Cast and Extras
Who’s the star of your story? Make it about him or her. It shouldn’t be an ensemble piece in the style of, say, Magnolia. Save that for your screenplay and pick a hero or a villain and stick to them.
4. Eliminate Proper Names
What’s in a name? Often, not much. Company names, precise job titles, even names of people are just labels we put on things. They often don’t have any intrinsic meaning. Unless a company is Google or Kraft, it’s probably better to say what it does than what it’s called. (A boutique agency, a small venture capital firm, etc.) Assistant Vice President for Sales, Midwest Region? Just say you’re in sales. And unless a person has a Dickensian moniker that illuminates character — Mortimer Tightfists or Snidely Whiplash — most characters outside your protagonist don’t need to be named.
5. Get Rid of Dates
Lawyers in particular love precise dates. But of the five Ws, “when” is often the least important. The case was decided March 27, 2008. Just say “the 2008 case.” Or better yet, “the case.” Only include dates if they’re meaningful to the story. My girlfriend dumped me … on February 14. I went to work on Wall Street … on September 11, 2001.
Practice a little discipline when you’re telling stories and your listeners will thank you.