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Story Obstacle #6: Extraneous Stuff

Oh, extraneous stuff!

Stuff that doesn't belong.

Stuff we think is funny.

Stuff that is filler.

Stuff nobody wants to hear.

Stuff that's irrelevant.

Stuff that makes people tune out.

It's got to go.

One of the hallmarks of a good story is cohesion.

When you tell a coherent story, your audience follows you from beginning to end without feeling lost or wondering "what happened to that thing she mentioned in the the beginning?" But being coherent takes work because, in actuality, life is incoherent. In fact, one reason we tell stories is that it helps us derive meaning from the chaos.

When you start, go ahead, throw everything in.

The first thing I do when starting a story is take notes. I jot down as much as I can remember about an event: every memory, description, and detail. Then, if I've got them, I check old journals for things I may have forgotten. Inevitably, I end up with way more material than I can use so the next step is to start paring it down to the essentials.

Many years back, I was buying books, minding my own business, in a bookstore when someone I barely knew excitedly called my name, someone who ended up having an unexpected impact on my life. While recently crafting a story about it, I started with the facts: I was in grad school, I didn't know anyone, I ran into a friend of a friend, we drank beer, we became roommates. Bam! my life changed forever.

Then I took notes and wrote down everything I could remember about that time in my life: the Frito pie, Bruce Springsteen's "Tunnel of Love," the funny outgoing messages we recorded on our answering machine, Melrose Place, the girls upstairs, and the night we broke the toilet. Really -- I included all of it.

Then take most of it out.

At first I didn't even know what this story was about, only that I had to tell it. Was it about trading in an academic life for one that was more creative? Was it a memorial to my friend who had passed? After playing around with a few different versions, I started to see that the story was about me discovering how it felt to be unconditionally loved. With that understanding, I was then able to make some decisions about what to keep (the toilet and the girls) and what to let go.

Try it out on an audience.

Audiences are important. Even though the anecdote about Melrose Place was colorful and listening to Bruce Springsteen's "Tunnel of Love would have set the scene, those details were secondary and unrelated to what I wanted to say.*

I recently heard a woman tell a story about how, in college, it was difficult to accept that she was loved. Her story included a lengthy description of a prank involving four students and a toothbrush. The bad news was that this detail was not only irrelevant to the larger story but was so vivid and disgusting (three guys spitting into, and one guy drinking from, the same cup) that rather than draw me more deeply into her story, it took me out.

And then keep trying.

Stories are meant to be told and the good news is that she, and every storyteller out there, can keep working on a story until it's right -- adding and subtracting details as they go along. Even the best stories evolve depending on the setting and the audience, but even when they evolve what remains important is that each detail serve the bigger picture so you can reel your audience in instead of letting them get away.

*I was working with a five minute time limit. The longer the story, the more time there is for digression, background, and color.

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