Good stories have automatic details

Estimated read time: 3 minutes

story with detailsDuring storytelling sessions in 2013 I’ve caught myself referring back to stories I wrote between 2003 and 2007 while working for The Gazette. One of those was a look at traffic tickets. Overall, I learned that if people fought their ticket there was a 50-50 chance that their fine was reduced or the ticket was dismissed. Of course, the newspaper article didn’t stop there and shared stories from people who actually did that.

The Example

One of those stories involved a Tiffin woman who told the judge that she could not have been speeding because she was driving by a church and always says a prayer when she drives along that stretch of road. Had she been speeding she would not have had enough time to finish the prayer, she said.

The Added Details

I share this story with the details above verbally during presentations and training sessions on how to tell a good story. I then ask the audience: “What did the church look like? Who can describe it to me?”

Usually a handful of hands go up.

“It was a white church, near the street.”

“It was built with bricks, brown. The front door was white.”

Other descriptions follow. None match up, of course. How could they? I didn’t describe what the church looked like. I don’t actually know what it looked like.

How do people know? I’ve asked groups this and typically the answer goes something like this:

“That was just how I pictured it.”

Good Stories are Memorable

Perhaps, engaging and interesting stories draw people in so much that they add some of the details themselves? They visualize the story and fill in the unmentioned details based on their own experiences? Is that possible?

I’m not saying we should leave out details that are necessary for a story, but perhaps good stories that are engaging are more memorable because they provide a visual in a person’s mind.

Perhaps the takeaway for us storytellers: Share the basics. Share only what really needs to be shared. The listener imagines some of the other details and remembers your story later on.

The Wrap

What’s the point of sharing this?

First of all, I heard these answers first in casual conversation during a group session. I’d never put much thought into people doing this. I started asking groups I was speaking to more deliberately. I started to hear a recurring theme: People add their own details to a good story. It just happens.

Second of all, it made me think about what details to share. For this kind of story there are all kinds of things that could be shared:

  1. What kind of road she was driving on.
  2. The type of her car.
  3. The weather.
  4. Details about the police car or the police offer.
  5. Etc.

But would those details when told actually add to the story? Probably not. In fact, a listener might tune the storyteller out if there are too many potentially unnecessary details.

Sometimes even typically important  facts might not be that important. For example, when I share this story in presentations I never mention how fast the ticket said she was going or what the speed limit was on that road. And, nobody ever asks. Perhaps, while traditionally this might be considered an important fact, it doesn’t actually add all that much to the gist of the story.