Every story has a timeline, but that doesn’t mean we have to tell events in order. Professional writers often end up cutting or moving the first sentences, paragraphs or even chapters of their stories. They find that the background, or “backstory,” doesn’t have to come first to get readers interested. In fact, too much background can be boring.
The night my grandfather tried to kill us, I was five years old, the age I stopped believing in Santa Claus, started kindergarten and made real rather than imaginary friends.
A good way to find your story’s most riveting moment is to think of the scene you would use in a movie trailer for your life. You don’t want to give everything away in your opening—just as an ad for a movie wouldn’t—but you need to hook your audience.
Don’t sweat it if you don’t have a murder-and-mayhem opening. In most stories, the drama is subtle. Consider starting with a moment of irony or surprise:
Try telling the story to a captive (and forgiving) audience. When your listeners lean forward in their seats and start really paying attention, take note—their reaction means they’re riveted. Try starting your tale at that point.
5. Include all the juicy details
I had a college writing teacher whose passion for detail bordered on reverence. “It’s those divine details that will bring your pieces alive!” she’d declare. “What was playing on the jukebox at the restaurant? Was his brown wool jacket scratchy against your cold cheek?”
“Details may seem uninteresting or insignificant to you, but they’re important,” Spence advises in Legacy. “Pay attention to them. Your reader will find them more meaningful than general descriptions.”
Include the details you remember most vividly. A friend of mine who’s a professional musician best recalls sounds—a melody, the lilt of her aunt’s voice, the patter of rain on the porch roof. My husband, a mechanic, seems to have a 3-D memory. He talks about the layout of his childhood homes, and where he played with which toys.
But don’t go overboard—be selective with the details you include. “[Use] well chosen-details to convey information and feeling,” Selling advises in Writing From Within. “The most interesting and useful details seem to be those that give a glimpse into the character” or event you’re describing.
Say you’re describing the years following your parents’ divorce. You recall peeking through the curtains as your mother’s new boyfriend drove up. Would you emphasize the dusty white lace curtains or how the man straightened his thinning hair in the rear-view mirror of his dented-up Datsun? Your story isn’t about housekeeping: Describe the boyfriend.
Details are also key to conveying your composite memories from often-repeated events. For example, my memories of childhood Christmases blur together. The best way I can bring these to life is with a single, detailed anecdote:
One year during the family Christmas program, my brothers and I acted out the Nativity. We didn’t have enough actors, so Chris played both a shepherd and the angel who talked to him. John piled blankets across his shoulders and called himself all three wise men. Rich represented both the donkey Mary rode to Bethlehem and the stable animals. As the only girl, I was just Mary. I sat on Rich’s back and tried not to laugh. Nights like these instilled in me respect for—and a sense of humor about—religious things.
Having a hard time remembering details? “Concentrating on one stage of your life at a time will stir up rich details and feelings,” Spence suggests. “Look deeply into photographs or handle an object connected to the time or person you are trying to describe. Read old letters, look through a yearbook or listen to music connected to a certain time.”
Though being specific is important, don’t get bogged down by minor details. You’ve probably heard a storyteller falter: “Wait, no, it wasn’t 1946, it was 1945 … oh, maybe not … ” When that happens, a story loses its momentum. If you don’t remember exactly when you moved to Illinois and it’s not vital to the story, don’t fuss about it.
6. Make your point
This last secret to successful storytelling is the most significant: Your story has to mean something. “You would be surprised how many people forget that a story is supposed to [embody] a human truth,” Rainer says in Your Life as Story. “What drives me crazy is stories that go on and on and never have a satisfying conclusion. Unless it makes a point, you don’t have a story.”
Your point doesn’t have to be a sweeping moral truth, but you need to have a reason for telling the story. What did you learn? How did you grow or change, physically or mentally? How did you come to see the world differently?
You can state your point directly, as in some of the anecdotes I’ve shared. My grandmother says she learned “when I make a deal with my dad, it sticks and cannot be changed because of negligence.” The best stories show how the person feels throughout, so that by the end, you don’t have to spell out the main character’s change of heart or perspective. As Selling writes, “It’s not enough to mention a feeling at the beginning of the story and another at the end. Our feelings and those of the [other] characters have to be added to each moment of the story.”
Consider the feelings conveyed in my grandmother’s story: She loved the pig; she cried when it died. She was heartsick at the thought of losing her summer’s wages. She learned about disappointment.
Some would-be storytellers don’t like to get all flowery about their feelings, and that’s OK. The more simply you state your emotions, the better. If you felt sad, betrayed, or shocked, just say so: “I was shocked.” Just make sure your listeners know why from the surrounding narrative.
Once you complete one story, you’ll soon think of others to tell. Though each tale will likely have a different format or topic, several episodes strung together will begin to create your life story.
As we tell our stories, we often find new meaning in our lives’ events. We are richer for it, as are those who listen, in the present or in the future. So search your memories, clear your throat, and start stringing those pearls.
Get Started Writing Your Life Story,
Writer’s Digest: Memoir
Writers Online Workshops
• How to Write the Story of Your Life by Frank P. Thomas (Writer’s Digest Books)
• Legacy: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Personal History by Linda Spence (Swallow Press)
• Writing From Within: A Guide to Creativity and Life Story Writing by Bernard Selling (Hunter House)
• Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach with Kristen Keckler (Writer’s Digest Books)
• Writing the Stories of Your Life by Elsa McKeithan (Trafford Publishing)
• You Don’t Have to be Famous by Steve Zousmer (Writer’s Digest Books)
• Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer (Tarcher)
From the March 2009 Family Tree Magazine