Stories – Knowing what to leave out
“You need emotion to make a story compelling. But every story is really just a sequence of events that need to be told in the right order. Extraneous information slows a story down and can have people wondering about the ultimate point. It’s like telling a joke: You don’t go on detours about what the chicken was doing for the last three weeks before it crossed the road. You tell only the parts that propel the joke forward. The same applies to storytelling.” – Art of Charm
Campfires draw storytellers and audiences like moths to flames. The forest primeval, moon and stars, unknown animals hiding in the darkness, wind soughing through the trees, branches that snap, cries of birds, isolation from well-lit, safe, and civilized places, all these combine into a natural arena for the telling of tales.
If you read through sites like the Art of Charm, you’ll find many tips for telling a captivating story (with or without the campfire), including understanding that “Every story has an emotional core, and that emotional core is how the storyteller feels about the events they’re describing. Everything else is just window dressing.”
Don’t Duplicate Reality
Ineffective storytellers and those who can’t seem to tell a joke properly often think more is more. They not only put into too much window dressing but tell you how the windows were made and installed. The result is tedious because it’s not really a story, it’s a transcript.
While short passages of transcript-like, step-by-step narration can add impact, they usually destroy impact. They have all the excitement of a 24-hour webcam. The author and the storyteller must determine what’s not essential, what destroys the pacing, that dilutes the excitement and the fear and the derring-do.
Writing guidebooks frequently use the examples showing the difference between a recording of a real-life conversation and the same conversation as distilled by an author or a storyteller (because amateurs frequently believe that duplicating real life is the best way to convey a realistic story). While some say our lives are large-order stories, slices of life are not stories. For one thing, the reader/audience cannot spend the same amount of time reading or hearing a story as the same event took to unfold in front of that 24-hour webcam. Yes, you can say the webcam footage is real. But here’s the thing: real isn’t a story.
The successful author and captivating campfire storyteller will leave out most of that the webcam shows–or what their memories of the actual events they witnessed can recall. If you’re a reporter writing for a daily newspaper, you’ll take the most important moments of that webcam footage or that memory and put them first. Then you follow that up with increasingly minor details. That style is called the inverted pyramid because the most important stuff comes first.
Efficiently Moving from Beginning to End
The storyteller and the author do the exact opposite. They place the most important stuff at–or near the end–of their story or novel. As the story unfolds, the writer and the storyteller are very conscious about going from beginning to end in a dramatic way whether the story is driven by the plot or by a character. When thinking about what to leave in or leave out, the key is: does this fact, conversation, description, or thought propel the story forward? If not, it doesn’t belong there because it’s more transcript than art.
When a good editor says, “you need to tighten this up,” s/he means that the writer didn’t leave out enough of the stuff s/he should have left out and/or that even the important sentences are filled with extra words. When the Art of Charm says that the storyteller’s feelings about the story art important, we can take this advice in many ways. One way is that if the writer or storyteller doesn’t care, then neither will the readers or campfire audience. Another way is that when the writer or storyteller cares a lot, s/he will find it easier to pinpoint which “extra” scenes, descriptions, and dialogue weaken the tale-telling experience.
Knowing what to leave out is a true part of the art and craft of keeping the reader’s and listener’s participative attention.