Your Story’s Weakest Link Revealed

“People have forgotten how to tell a story.” – Steven Spielberg

Jane Friedman used that Spielberg quote to introduce What Is a Story?, a popular article published on her site by guest contributor Philip Martin.

As Jane wrote, “It may seem to address a simplistic question, but I must agree with Steven Spielberg. . .So I hope you won’t be too proud to remind yourself what storytelling is all about.”

In reading (and re-reading) the article, my thoughts crystalized around what most stories lack, a precarious flaw that can cripple a story’s magic and potential.

No space for imagination.

Good editors know this well.

Good editors whittle down a story to its essential elements. Part of this is for improved readability. Part of this is for crisper plot development. Part of this is for sharper argumentation. Or world building. Or dialogue.

But the story’s real charisma comes not from these individual improvements but rather from the forging of these links together. (The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.) Such forging manifests in a light, sharp and strong story, a truly awesome power to behold.

This lightness, sharpness and strength creates space for the reader’s imagination to breathe. Rather than suffocating in endless details and exhaustive plot, the reader’s mind is granted the opportunity to truly “read between the lines,” which is nothing more than permission to indulge their playful curiosity.

Martin explains it thusly. . .

“You want to communicate to your audience: Here’s the best of what happened. I’ve chosen from my bag of storytelling tricks the best way to tell this tale to delight you the most. Pay attention! Details I select will be important. Yet, I will leave room for your imagination, dear listener or reader, to come into play.”

Unfortunately, many writer’s (if not most) tend to apply equal weight to all their writing. This “everything is of utmost importance” attitude weakens the punch of the story by starving it of oxygen. To save the story, the truth must be accepted – that while all the elements may be of equal quality, they are not of equal importance to the nature and needs of the story.

Legendary editor Robert Gottlieb explains it best. As advice to editors, he once said, “your job with [an overly passionate] writer is to be able to say, ‘You may have done an equally brilliant job on all of these things, but this has more weight than that, and you have to give some of that up.’”

Martin echoes this view with a glimpse from his own life, “I know would-be storytellers whose flaw is that they tell too much.”

Hence the need to simplify, which is the womb of imagination.

We’ve all left this force before, both in its weak and strong forms.

We’ve all read well developed, skillfully written books that were burdensome and boring on account of their insufferable detail. Conversely, we’ve all read less-than-masterful stories that were enchanting thanks to their curiosity-stoking nature.

And on wonderful occasions, we’ve all experienced those magical reads that are true paragons of storytelling owing to their keen descriptiveness that invites us to imagine more.

Considering all this, I’m left with one conclusion: that the many ailments that may corrode a story’s irresistibility, contagiousness and “staying power” are all born from stifled imagination.

Agree? Disagree? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.