Five Reasons Your Stories Put People to Sleep

Most of us know what goes into a compelling story. Relatable characters, dramatic conflict, high stakes.

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.

Photo by Christi Merrill

5 thoughts on “Five Reasons Your Stories Put People to Sleep

  1. Of the no-nos on this list, tangents are my weak point. I do a lot of free writing, so I tend to stray from my outlines. Although I agree they’re not as entertaining to readers, sometimes I get usable ideas from them. 🙂

    I also find the proper names tidbit interesting! That’s a good point…your readers don’t need to know every specific name and title, only the ones relevant to the story. I should go back through some of my stuff and make cuts.

    1. Jill, I have a friend who defends to the death her embrace of tangents. But she’s talking about stories from her day that she shares with a friend over coffee. So I would agree that for some forms of writing — novels, perhaps — and storytelling, some richly detailed COMPELLING tangents are okay. Especially with an indulgent audience of one good friend.

      And for free writing, of course, I would imagine anything goes, right?

      Regarding names and titles, when I’m reading news stories I skip over all of those, which can mean half a paragraph. I’m so bad with names anyway, so when someone’s telling a story and names everyone, even a “character” who appears in just one sentence, I get impatient.

      Thank you for commenting!

      1. Very true! Although, what I’d consider a compelling tangent may be mind-numbing drivel to someone else, so I’ll just have to be careful. Free writing is my favorite exercise because sometimes words flow out without my knowledge, and then I look back and wonder where in my brain they came from. 🙂

        P.S. You’re most welcome!

  2. I think the most important thing you can do is ask yourself these questions and put them in your blog. How, when, where and why. This will keep your reader interested. So many writers go off on tangents and then you ask yourself what’s the point.

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