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The Most Important Thing

by Doug Lipman

An edited version of this article appeared in Storytelling Magazine.

Table of Contents:

Polishing the Nicks
Getting a MIT on the story
The example of participation
The Next Most Important Things
I Couldn't See the MIT for the Nicks
Coach a rising star
The case of the missing episode
What's in the way?
Structural support
The First and Last Thing


Polishing the Nicks

In seventh grade "shop" class, we were taught to make a plastic letter-opener. After cutting out the plastic shape with a saw, we used a coarse file to smooth the nicks left by the saw blade. The coarse file, however, left scratches, which we smoothed with a fine file - which left finer scratches. Next we used emery paper, then steel wool.

All this time, the edges of our letter-openers were cloudy, not shiny. But after the steel wool, we used a polisher. It was magic! Finally, we had dramatic results: the edge was shiny and transparent.

Naturally, it was tempting to skip from the saw straight to the polisher. One day, our teacher held up someone's letter opener and said, "What happens when you polish before you use the coarse file?"

I remember raising my hand with the answer: "You get shiny nicks!"

As storytellers, we have a similar problem. It's tempting to shine the pieces of a story before we have removed the "nicks" from it. The result is smooth and polished, but not well shaped. It may hold an audience from moment to moment, but it will not achieve maximum power and clarity. At worst, both the audience and the teller will lose their sense of purpose.

More often, we don't even know how to polish a particular story. We're at a loss for how to remember, adapt, or perform it. In these cases, it can help to start back at the saw.


Getting a MIT on the story

A crucial step in the learning of a story is to find the Most Important Thing (MIT) about it.

For each teller, the MIT will be different. For example, try reading, outlining and telling the following simple story:

The Stonecutter
Once, a poor stonecutter worked every day, chipping away at huge stones on the mountainside. But he was dissatisfied. He saw a rich man passing by, and thought, "I wish I was that rich man." A magical spirit was listening, and granted his wish. He became the rich man!

As the rich man, the stonecutter felt infinitely powerful. He gave his servants order after order. But one day the sun shone hotly on the rich man. "The sun is more powerful than I. I wish I were the sun!" The magical spirit granted his wish.

Now he was the sun. He shone down on the earth, scorching it mercilessly. But one day a cloud passed in front of him. "The cloud is more powerful than I. I wish to be that cloud!" Again, the magical spirit granted his wish.

As the cloud, he blocked the sun day after day, causing darkness and cold weather. But one day a wind came up, and blew the cloud away. "I want to be the wind!" Again, the magical spirit granted his wish.

As the wind, he blew dust storms and hurricanes. Nothing could stand in his way. But one day he came to a mountain, and couldn't move it. "The mountain resists me. Let me be the mountain." Once more, the magical spirit granted his wish.

As the mountain, he was immovable. Nothing could budge him. But one day he felt something chipping away at him. It was a poor stonecutter. "The stonecutter is mightiest of all! I wish I were a stonecutter." One last time, the magical spirit granted his wish.

Now that you've told the tale, ask yourself, "What is the most important thing for me about this story?" Please note that no answer is correct; you seek only what the story means to you. In a recent beginning storytelling workshop, my students came up with these answers:
The most important thing about the Stonecutter story is:
  1. It's about the futility of seeking power.
  2. It's always best to be yourself.
  3. The sense of ritual that repeats with each character.
  4. You can't be happy being someone else.
  5. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.
  6. It's predictable after a while; I like the repetition and suspense of waiting for who the next character is.
  7. It would be easy to get children acting it out.
  8. Everyone looks up to someone.
  9. It gives us a sense of imagining other people's perspectives and problems.
  10. It shows how we are part of an interconnected cycle of nature.
Each of these answers is equally valid. But each will lead to different ways of adapting and telling the story.

For example, if the MIT for you is that everyone looks up to someone, you will tell the story differently from a teller whose MIT is the ease of involving children in participation.

In fact, almost every element of the story should be affected by your choice of MIT. Should you add participation or puppets? If that furthers your MIT, yes. If it hampers your MIT, no.


The example of participation

For an example of how the MIT affects your telling of a story, let's look at the element of participation. If the MIT for you is the futility of seeking power, any participation should highlight that futility. In this case, your stonecutter might say a refrain for the audience to learn, like this:

I want to be, I want to be
The most powerful one in the world.
Or like this:

No one can push me around!
No one can push me around!
Now I am rich, now I am rich;
No one can push me around!
On the other hand, if the MIT for you is that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, your character's refrain might be:

If I were the sun,
If I were the sun,
I'd be better off,
If I were the sun!
Similarly, if your MIT were the repetitious ritual in the story, you might add a series of several chants and songs for your audience to join with:

Now I am rich!
Now I am rich!
This is the life,
Now that I'm rich!

Ohhhh-ohhhh! Who is that?

The sun, the sun, the dagbusted sun!
The sun, the sun, the dagbusted sun!

Well, if you can't beat 'em - join 'em!

I wish I were the sun
I wish I were the sun
If I were the sun, I'd be having more fun
I wish I were the sun!

At the other extreme, if your MIT were the imagining of other people's perspectives, you might want to emphasize the stonecutter's different sensory experiences as sun, cloud, wind, etc. In this case, you might decide that any physical participation detracts from what you want to communicate: the inner imaginative experience.


The Next Most Important Things

Please note that you can have other goals in addition to the MIT. You can have even a dozen goals within one story. But the second, third and fourth goals must not interfere with achieving the goal that you choose as most important.

To understand this, consider another decision about the story: whether to adapt it to a more contemporary setting. If the MIT for you is to show how we are part of an interconnected cycle of nature, you might still have two choices:

  • On the one hand, the story might be most instructive if it's set in contemporary society, where our dependence on nature is more hidden.
  • On the other hand, the story's theme might be clearest in an elemental, agricultural setting.
What matters more to you: application to contemporary problems, or clarity of the concept? Your primary goal could be achieved in either setting, so you can base your decision between them on a secondary goal.


I Couldn't See the MIT for the Nicks

A few years ago, I experienced how the MIT could help me as I struggled to adapt a story.

I was working on stories for the Jewish holiday of Passover, which commemorates the Jewish people's Exodus from slavery under Pharaoh. I turned to the great compilation of Jewish legends on biblical themes, Legends of the Jews, by Louis Ginzberg. There I was rewarded with vivid details about the Exodus - from the twelve trails through the divided Red Sea (one each for the twelve tribes of Israel) to niches in the vertical, glass-like walls of water that held whatever food each Israelite needed at the moment.

One passage struck me as being like a "formula tale" - a story with a simple, repetitive structure, like "The Gingerbread Man" or "Henny Penny." It described how, at each event of the Exodus, some of the Israelites complained, while others were grateful. Some even complained about the holy manna - but this absurd complaint made it obvious to Moses that their mentality was at fault, not his leadership.

I decided that this passage could form the basis for a tale in which I could tell the story of the Exodus, and also make a point about the nature of freedom. As a result, I created a song mentioning some of the events Ginsberg described. I made the song cumulative - to allow me to sing it several times in the course of the story, adding the new events as they occur. It's final repetition went like this:

    First we escaped,
    Then they didn't catch us,
      Then the Red Sea parted;
    Then we found water,
    Then the water was sweetened,
    Then we found manna to eat!
      We keep getting every thing we need!
      We keep getting every thing we need!
I proceeded to add a narrative with all my favorite details from Ginsberg. Along the way, I realized that the song could help me with the point about freedom: I could have some of the people sing it with the positive verses (above), and others sing the negative view of the same events:

    First we were slaves,
    Then Pharaoh chased us,
      Then the Red Sea blocked us (etc.)
      What will happen to us next?
      What will happen to us next?

When I performed the story for friends and later for other audiences, it well went enough. People listened and liked it. But I felt dissatisfied. Something wasn't right about the story, but I didn't know what.

In spite of years of preaching about shiny nicks, I had fallen for their temptation myself - yet again.

When I decided to record a cassette of freedom stories for Passover, I told my story to Jay O'Callahan, my primary rehearsal buddy. He loved the details from Ginsberg, too. But he asked me the dread question: "What's the most important thing for you about this story?"

Having just told the story, I could give the most honest answer. What I most wanted to get across was the contrast between the two ways of viewing the same events. The "complaining view" is the view of the powerless, of the "slave mentality." The other view is the view of those who have internalized freedom.

Okay, now I knew the Most Important Thing. Since the story seemed vague and unwieldy, I knew it was time to remove everything that didn't directly support the MIT. Perhaps the story would be incomplete that way, and would need to have some elements re-inserted. At least I'd know if it worked better when stripped down.

What elements supported the idea of the two points of view? Certainly, the song - since it could be sung one way for each point of view. What else? Obviously, the events in the song had to be described, or else the song wouldn't have meaning. Anything else? I guess not.

I told the story in its most bare-bones form. I described the events of the Exodus, and how some people sang the song one way, and how - at each step - others sang it the opposite way.

The result? Boredom. The story had structural clarity, but it lacked the spark of life that the legendary details had given it.

What should I do? Should I add those details back? They weren't contributing directly to the MIT, though, so I hesitated. Was there another way to add the spark of life without diluting the MIT? The MIT was about point of view; what if I tried to give life to a point of view?

I thought about "the people" who had the negative point of view. What if I created one specific person to have the negative thoughts? How could that be fun, and not just off-putting?

My next step was to imagine such a person, and tell the story from that person's viewpoint. To do so, of course, I had to find the negative point of view in myself - an unpleasant task. With my rehearsal buddy present to encourage me, though, I gave it a try.

Voila! The negative personality who came flowing out of me turned out to be a "wise guy". Suddenly, I was flooded with memories of high school, where, as a relatively powerless student, I had resorted to a rebellious attitude - with an edge of humor. Ginsberg had certainly not suggested anything humorous about the slave mentality, but this was my natural way of relating to it and expressing it.

Once I let out my wise guy, the story seemed to take shape on its own. At my next performance of this story, I forgot to let the "positive" people sing the song their way until the very end. Reflecting after the show, I realized that this omission made the story stronger.

The final story, "What Will Happen To Us Next?" has been recorded. The cassette version can be heard on Now We Are Free: Stories and Songs of Freedom, For Passover and Anytime.


Coach a rising star

The concept of Most Important Thing can be as helpful to the storytelling coach as it is to the storyteller. The next three sections describe coaching sessions in which the MIT was critical to a storyteller's success.


The case of the missing episode

A student of mine was creating a long fantasy story, but was stuck. She wanted her hero to have a moment of testing, of making a crucial mistake, but she had no ideas for that episode.

After she told what she knew of the story, I asked her, "What's the most important thing about the hero?"

She said, "He's the one who is himself."

Her answer contained the guidance she needed. If his journey is to become himself, then his failed trial should be a decisive moment in which he is not true to himself.

With the task defined in that way, she came to her next coaching session with a lovely, poetic scene that fit her hero - and her goals for her story - perfectly.


What's in the way?

Another coaching session showed how the MIT can guide the teller past emotional difficulties.

A storyteller came to one of my coaching workshops with a mystical, moving - but diffuse - autobiographical story about his father's death. After he told it, I had no idea how to help him. So I asked for the MIT. I said, "What makes you want to tell this story?"

He replied, "This sounds strange, but it's the joy of my father's death."

I asked him, "Where is the joy involved in the story?"

He didn't hesitate. "At the moment he died. I was home, and felt this overwhelming joy. Only later did I learn it was just when he died."

I asked him to tell that scene again. Then I told him my reaction: "I didn't feel the joy. What would it take to get the joy into that scene?"

He stared off into space. He said, "I can feel what's in the way."

"What would it take," I asked again," to get through that block?"

He began to cry.

In order to experience the joy, he has to go through the grief that was blocking it. I feel sure that after a few hours of crying, he will be able to enter the joy easily and describe it powerfully. Once he knows the MIT in his story, he can aim for it - and persist against any obstacle until he has clear access to the story's most important emotion.


Structural support

Another professional storyteller, Debbie Rittner, came to me for help with a comic, true-life story about her recent trip to Israel. After she told it to me, I asked what she wanted help with.

She said, "I'm not sure which parts to include, and which to leave out."

Predictably, I asked her what was most important to her in the story. She answered, "It's how I kept expecting things to go wrong, and good things kept happening anyway."

I agreed. She had invented a very clever, humorous conceit: she described her negative expectations in such a way that every time something good happened, she was disappointed - and I, as the audience, was amused.

I said, "From what you say, there is a two-part structure to each funny episode. First, we learn what disaster you expect. Then, we learn what actually happened. The best episodes will include both parts. Then, to make this work as humor, you need to find a way to let the positive outcome come concisely and quickly, with a clear relationship to your negative expectations. Sneak up on us!"

In her next versions of the story, I think she has succeeded in selecting the episodes that strengthen the story's essence - and, as a result, in making us laugh.


The First and Last Thing

Whether you are learning, adapting, telling, or creating a story, finding the Most Important Thing can help you succeed. If you are teaching storytelling or coaching storytellers, you can help others succeed by applying and sharing this principle.

Many artistic decisions - small and large - can be expedited by evaluating them in light of the MIT: whether to change a story-within-the-story, whether to stand up or sit down while telling a story, or whether to use accents, costumes, props, etc. Knowing the story's MIT can even help with program selection, evaluation, and advertising!

Your concept of a story's MIT may change with time, of course. If so, you may need to re-think any decisions you based on earlier concepts.

Not only can you apply the principle of the MIT to an entire story, you can also apply it to each section or scene within a story. When you have perfected your story, you will know - consciously or not - the MITs of each scene. These mini-MITs each enable the MITs of each section, which in turn feed the MIT of the entire story.

Stories, of course, have much more than a MIT. They also consist of words, sounds, actions, images, characters, and much else.

But the most important thing about any story is - by your own definition - the Most Important Thing.

Copyright © Doug Lipman



Doug Lipman

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This page was last updated on Friday, November 28, 2003
Copyright©2003 Doug Lipman