Few things test my patience like listening to a meandering story that wanders from tangent to tangent without ever getting to the point. Learning to focus your story on the essentials may be the hardest part of storytelling, which is why I compare storytelling to a tree.
That means when you’re telling a story, you want to move pretty much in a straight line — like you’re following a tree trunk from the base to the top. Any time spent out on the branches (or, God help us, the twigs) is a tangent and possible dead end where you risk losing your audience.
Why is Focusing Your Story So Hard?
There are many reasons our stories tend to wander:
- We tell stories without any particular goal in mind. In business, simply amusing the audience isn’t a good enough reason to tell a story. Your story should have a clear purpose — most likely to reinforce the message of what you’re trying to communicate (teamwork, efficiency, creativity, etc.).
- We’re not objective. It’s hard to stand outside of ourselves to determine what our audience actually wants and needs to hear. When it concerns us, everything seems important! So think hard about your audience. And understand that even when the story is about you, it’s really about the listener, and the valuable lesson your story offers them.
- We value accuracy over entertainment. Nailing down a precise date, name or other small detail may be important to you, but it doesn’t always lend meaning to the story itself. How helpful is it to the listener to know whether your character is your second cousin once removed or your first cousin twice removed? Just call her a cousin!
- We don’t practice our stories enough. Rehearsing a story over and over helps you fine tune the details. Winging it, on the other hand, leads to tangents as you explore and test the material along the way.
- When we’re tired, our minds are unfocused. Do what you have to do to stay alert and on task — caffeine, energy bar, stretching …
I explore this issue in more detail in my forthcoming book on storytelling. In the meantime, here’s a quick lesson and links to more information.
Watch the Video
This short (1:43) video on the importance of sticking to the point of your stories is from a recent presentation I did. (Transcript below the video.)
Transcript of the Video
I compare storytelling to a tree. And this is where people get really hung up. You want to start at the base of the trunk and move more or less in a straight line. And any time spent out on those branches (or twigs) is a tangent and a possible dead-end were you could lose your audience.
Among the classes I took at Second City was sketch writing, and they reinforced for us a really strict structure. You start with a strong premise of the sketch — it might be “people in love will overlook any deficiency in their partner.”
And this was an actual sketch that Steve Carrell did in his early days at Second City. A young man and woman “meet cute” in a laundry room and he reveals very early that he’s a serial killer. But nothing — no matter what amount of lurid detail he provides for her — nothing fazes her. She’s more and more excited about the potential in this relationship.
So you write these scenes and they have to be very tightly woven. Every single element, every line of dialogue, every action, every word has to support that premise. You can’t go out on a tangent. And if it does, it has to be cut.
This was a hard thing for writers starting out to figure out: you could have a really funny joke, but if it doesn’t serve the premise, it has to go. Funny for the sake of funny is not good enough.
And in the same way when we’re telling stories you might have one more point of information, one more piece of data, one more funny aside, but interesting for the sake of interesting is not good enough it it doesn’t serve the goal of your story.
For More Help on Focusing Your Story
This subject is near and dear to my heart, so I’ve written about it a lot. You can check out past blog posts where I’ve talked about:
- The importance of making choices when telling stories.
- How to eliminate the clutter that puts audiences to sleep.
- What Harrison Ford can teach us about staying focused.
Of everything I’ve said here, the most important thing to keep in mind is this: interesting for the sake of interesting is not good enough it it doesn’t serve the goal of your story.
[Image credit: personal photo]