Details help make stories better. Or more correctly, the right details help make stories better.
Storytelling author Doug Lipman calls the point of the story the ‘Most Important Thing’ (MIT). Having the MIT crystal clear is crucial to give stories a clear purpose. It allows the author to make some key decisions when they are telling the story – which bits to leave in, which to take out, which sections to focus on etc.
Let me give you a couple of examples to show you what I mean.
Here is a story from Girard and Lambert’s 2007 article The Story of Knowledge: Writing Stories that Guide Organisations into the Future
On a foggy autumn day nearly 800 years ago a traveller happened upon a large group of workers adjacent to the River Avon. Despite being tardy for an important rendezvous curiosity convinced the traveller that he should inquire about their work. With a slight detour he moved toward the first of the three tradesmen and said “my dear fellow what is it that you are doing?” The man continued his work and grumbled, “I am cutting stones.” Realising that the mason did not wish to engage in a conversation the traveller moved toward the second of the three and repeated the question. To the traveller’s delight this time the man stopped his work, ever so briefly, and stated that he was a stonecutter. He then added “I came to Salisbury from the north to work but as soon as I earn ten quid I will return home.” The traveller thanked the second mason, wished him a safe journey home and began to head to the third of the trio.
When he reached the third worker he once again asked the original question. This time the worker paused, glanced at the traveller until they made eye contact and then looked skyward drawing the traveller’s eyes upward. The third mason replied, “I am a mason and I am building a cathedral.” He continued, “I have journeyed many miles to be part of the team that is constructing this magnificent cathedral. I have spent many months away from my family and I miss them dearly. However, I know how important Salisbury Cathedral will be one day and I know how many people will find sanctuary and solace here. I know this because the Bishop once told me his vision for this great place. He described how people would come from all parts to worship here. He also told that the Cathedral would not be completed in our days but that the future depends on our hard work.” He paused and then said, “So I am prepared to be away from my family because I know it is the right thing to do. I hope that one day my son will continue in my footsteps and perhaps even his son if need be.”
Now, let’s compare that to the following story told by Paul Smith in his book Lead with a Story.
Out for a walk one morning, a woman came across a construction site where three men were working. Curious, she approached one of them and asked what he was doing. Clearly annoyed she had bothered him, he barked, “Can’t you see? I’m laying bricks!”
Not easily put off, she asked the next man what he was doing. He responded matter-of-factly, “I’m building a brick wall 30 feet tall, 100 feet wide, and 18 inches thick.” Then, turning his attention to the first man, he said, “Hey, you just passed the end of the wall. You need to take off that last brick.”
Still not satisfied, the woman asked the third man what he was doing. Despite the fact that he appeared to be doing exactly the same thing as the other two men, he looked up with excitement and said, “Oh, let me tell you! I am building the greatest cathedral the world has ever known!” She could tell he was eager to tell her more. But before he had a chance, he was distracted by loud bickering between the first two men over what to do about the one errant brick. Turning to the two of them, he said, “Hey, guys, don’t worry about it. This will be an inside corner. The whole thing will get plastered over and nobody will ever see that extra brick. Just move on to the next layer.“
Same story told two different ways.
For me, the story is all about people ascribing meaning to their work, finding purpose, and how through doing this, they can connect their day to day tasks with something larger and more meaningful.
Look at the details in the first story and how it aligns to, and reinforces these points. A couple of examples include showing:
- How the conversation with the third man was going to be different (“This time the worker paused, glanced at the traveler until they made eye contact…”)
- The sacrifices the man was making to be there (“I have spent many months away from my family and I miss them dearly”).
Each aspect of the first story and its details align to the point it is making.
Now, let’s look at the second telling of this story. The main difference in this telling of the story, apart from the obvious differences of when it was set, is the addition of the part about the ‘extra brick’ and the argument between two of the men about it. But it’s this addition that I have the problem with. I just don’t see how this element does anything to reinforce the point of the story. For me, it does exactly the opposite.
It’s a distraction. I’m wondering why I’m being told about the argument and what it means to the point of the story. When I am doing this I am not focussing on the key aspects of the story. But worse than that, it makes me actually think less of the third man and his focus on quality if he thinks it’s okay to just plaster over it because; “nobody will ever see that extra brick”. Not caring about the quality doesn’t sound like the underpinnings of the world’s greatest cathedral.
It also clouds the point of the story. I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to assume that someone who finds meaning in their work, connects it to a higher purpose and makes personal sacrifices to undertake it, will have higher quality standards than someone who doesn’t. However, by adding in the whole ‘extra brick’ and the argument between two of the men aspect to this story you have made me question this and taken me away from the point of the story.
As American basketball coaching great, John Wooden said: “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”