admin – Breath Life into Your Life Story
With the blossoming of family history as a national hobby, more people than ever are coming to understand the importance of writing their own story. Most of these would-be authors are not typical memoir writers—the wealthy, the celebrated, or the literati—but everyday people writing about everyday experiences.
If you are reading this introduction, chances are that you, too, have thought about writing your life story. Perhaps you are a member of the “Greatest Generation” and want your children to understand and remember the values the shaped your life. Or maybe you are a “Baby Boomer” who is reaching retirement age and finding you have an abundance of memories and time to record them. Possibly you have been inspired by the remarkable number of best-selling memoirs published about ordinary lives.
Many of the “everyday folks” who try to compose their life stories have had little writing experience since leaving school, and it usually shows. Too many of them manage to turn interesting lives into uninteresting life stories because they lack the skill to do otherwise. Typically, the problem isn’t the content of their stories; it’s the way they tell them. There’s a huge difference between merely recording the facts of a life and shaping those facts into a compelling narrative.
We all know people who are born storytellers and can make the most mundane experiences seem like enchanting adventures. We envy the spell they cast on their listeners, who seem to hang on to their every word. It’s a gift, you may say. Perhaps … but writing an interesting story also involves skills that you can learn, practice, and apply.
This volume will introduce you to those skills. Written for novices and more experienced writers alike, it presents techniques long used by fiction writers to craft compelling characters, places, and stories. It shows how to apply these techniques to writing an unforgettable narrative.
For example, you will learn how to:
• Show rather than tell.
• Animate the people in your story so they become believable, interesting characters.
• Re-create your world so readers can visualize places, styles, and attitudes as they were in “your day.”
• Write at the gut level, revealing how your experiences affected you, and infusing your story with warmth and humanity.
• Keep your readers turning pages by applying the techniques used by suspense writers.
• Begin with a bang, with an opening that makes readers think, This is going to be a great story!
We have long believed that life stories written about everyday people can be as absorbing as novels. You’ll find here ways to expand your vision of what your life story can be. We have taught these techniques for years to people who have attended our classes and seminars, and we have had the satisfaction of seeing many of our students blossom into wonderful writers. We have seen them grow to the point that they can create fascinating, inspiring narratives for their posterity or even the general public. A number of them consistently win prizes in international writing competitions. You will find two of these award-winning stories in Appendix D.
An important feature of this volume is our Learn by Doing exercises found in each chapter. These writing prompts are not intended to be busy work. If you complete each exercise, you will have a tremendous start on your life story. The exercises introduce new ideas, skills, and approaches that will spark your creativity and nudge you out of doing things in the same old way.
It’s obvious to most people that they can’t learn to play the piano or master an athletic skill simply by reading a book about it. The same principle applies to writing. We learn by doing. For ease of reference, we have repeated the exercises all in one place as Appendix 1.
If you are the kind of person who likes to read a book quickly, we encourage you to start over again when you’ve finished and read this one a second time at a measured pace, alternating reading with writing. Your life story won’t be written in one sitting, but if you keep at it, you will be richly rewarded.
As you write, we encourage you to practice what we preach. It may mean the difference between a life story that languishes on a dusty bookshelf and one that thrusts itself into your readers’ hearts.
Lights, Camera, Action! Zoom in on Key Events
We love going to the movies. It’s entertaining and relaxing to sit in a darkened theater and escape from our worries while we watch other people’s lives dramatized on the Big Screen. As the characters struggle with problems and interact with each other, we often feel as though we know them. They seem so real. That is the seductive charm of movies.
Let’s say that one Friday night we go to a movie advertised to be about the Civil War. Our expectations high, we sit in the theater munching popcorn, waiting to be transported back to 1860s America. Instead, when the lights dim, a distinguished-looking actor appears on the screen against a plain white background. He stands behind a podium, looks directly into the camera, and in a sonorous voice announces, “This film is about the Civil War. The year is 1861 and Abraham Lincoln is president of the United States. The war began over the issue of slavery. It was the North against the South….” Suppose the movie slogs along in this vein all the way to its conclusion, the actor tediously reciting facts about the war.
We were expecting to be transported back to that time in history, to see soldiers fighting on smoky battlefields, to hear the crack and boom of gunfire, to feel what it was like to be in the heat of battle. What happened to the dramatic scenes that could bring this story to life?
Boooo! We want a refund!
Of course, the film we’ve described doesn’t exist, but we can imagine being trapped in a theater for two hours watching someone relate facts about the Civil War. The point is this: Merely telling what happened makes for an uneventful story in any media. Scenes, on the other hand, bring events to life, whether they are stories made into movies or stories made into books.
Instead of simply summarizing your experiences like the narrator of our fictional movie, why not try a creative approach? Borrow a technique from Hollywood and intersperse your narrative with dramatic incidents from your life. Resurrect some of those sad, funny, poignant, and frightening moments from your past and re-create conversations, behavior, and emotions as you remember them.
For many of you, this may be new territory. Unless you’ve taken creative writing classes or have a particular bent for fiction writing, you may feel intimidated about trying the more inventive form of written expression required to construct a dramatic scene. Most people have had more practice with expository writing—the kind of writing required in school for term papers and in the workplace to create memos and business reports. Unfortunately, when used exclusively to reconstruct the story of your life, it results in lifeless characters and a lackluster rendering of an interesting life.
If you lack experience with creative writing, it doesn’t mean you can’t learn something new. Most students who enroll in our classes begin with the assumption that they will simply summarize their experiences on paper. When we show them how to bring people and incidents to life on the page, they become converted—particularly after they practice and develop their skills in this form of writing. We continually marvel at what accomplished writers people can become when they are open to new ideas and are willing to practice. This chapter will give you the groundwork you need so you can invigorate your stories with compelling scenes.
Summary vs. Scene
Now let’s return again to our Civil War example to examine the difference between exposition and the style of writing required to craft a scene. For this exercise, we’ll look at examples from two sources: the Encyclopedia Americana and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind.
Both focus on the same topic: the devastation and loss of life that occurred in the battle for Atlanta. However, each example approaches the subject differently, producing substantially different results. Let’s first examine an excerpt from the encyclopedia:
Gen. William T. Sherman’s Union army fought its way through the battles of Dalton, Resaca Kingston, New Hope Church, and Kennesaw Mountain to the outskirts of Atlanta. The Federals repulsed Confederate counterattacks northwest and east of Atlanta, then forced the defenders from the city after a victory at Jonesboro. The key city of the Deep South was taken. In the campaign the Federals lost 4,428 killed, 22,882 wounded, and 4,442 missing. Confederate losses were 3,044 killed, 21,996 wounded, and 12,983 missing.1
This paragraph, an example of expository writing, presents a great deal of information and covers a broad expanse of time in a short amount of space. This is what exposition does well. But while this excerpt satisfies our need for facts and figures, it doesn’t make us feel what it was like to live through that experience. It maintains an emotional distance. It tells what it was like, but it doesn’t show us.Notice below how Margaret Mitchell’s description of the same events offers a different perspective. Mitchell doesn’t ry to provide a history of the entire campaign. She doesn’t say anything about most of the famous battles associated with the fall of Atlanta. Rather, she zooms in on one specific individual, Scarlet O’Hara, and one specific moment in time.
She pushed her way swiftly through the crowds, past the packed hysterical mob surging in the open space of Five Points, and hurried as fast as she could down the short block toward the depot. Through the tangle of ambulances and the clouds of dust, she could see doctors and stretcher bearers bending, lifting, hurrying… . As she rounded the corner of the Atlanta Hotel and came in full view of the depot and the tracks she halted, appalled.
Lying in the pitiless sun, shoulder to shoulder, head to feet, were hundreds of wounded men, lining the tracks, the sidewalks stretched out in endless rows under the car shed. Some lay stiff and still but many writhed under the hot sun, moaning. Everywhere swarms of flies hovered over the men, crawling and buzzing in their faces, everywhere the blood, dirty bandages, groans, screamed curses of pain as stretcher bearers lifted men.2
Rather than giving us facts and statistics, Mitchell thrusts us into the action, so we find ourselves walking alongside Scarlet O’Hara, seeing through her eyes, hearing through her ears. The encyclopedia gives us detailed historical background, but Mitchell seizes our emotions and demands our attention. Who could resist reading further?
What Makes a Scene?
To better illustrate the difference between summary and scene, let’s examine what happens when an expository sentence is transformed into a scene.
Here’s the summary sentence:
“I was born on November 28, 1933, in Springfield, Illinois, in the height of the Great Depression—one more mouth for my unemployed father to feed.”
Now, here’s the scene:
“Either make yourself useful, Harry, or get out of here,” Aunt Emma shouted at my father on the day I was born. Dad glared at his sister a moment, then seeing she meant business, he tossed his newspaper onto the floor and began collecting dirty dishes from the kitchen table.
Amid all his clumsy clattering, Dad and Aunt Emma heard a baby cry and looked toward the ceiling, in the direction of the sound. “Looks like you got yourself another mouth to feed, little brother,” Aunt Emma said, shaking her head as Dad trudged up the stairs toward the bedroom.
It was November 28, 1933, in Springfield, Illinois, the middle of the Great Depression. Dad was out of work, and I had come howling into his life, his eighth child in twelve years.
What makes this example a scene?
• It focuses on a specific moment in time, not a generalized time frame.
• It includes people talking to each other and exhibiting different kinds of behavior.
• It reveals personalities through what these people say and do, not from what the author says about them.
Taking Dramatic License
Good scenes contain all kinds of details that help readers visualize what is occurring—details that may cause some writers to squirm. For example, how does the author of the previous scene know what was said and done by his father and aunt on the day he was born? Obviously he doesn’t, though he may have learned something about the incident from one of his relatives. He may have known his aunt thought his father was foolish and incompetent. He may even have heard his aunt’s sarcasm as he grew up, so it was easy for him to imagine her berating his father.
Some writers hesitate to take the liberty required to re-create a conversation they may not have witnessed or remember exactly. (Who can remember exactly what was said in any conversation?) They’re cautious because they feel readers will question their integrity as writers if they add details they can’t document. They worry about putting words into peoples’ mouths and offending living relatives. They prefer to adhere to the facts as they remember them.
The reality is that the authors of all the best memoirs take dramatic license of some sort—and we all know it, although we likely don’t think about it very much. Most memoirs contain conversations the author can’t possibly remember verbatim unless someone recorded them. Nor can the author recall exactly all the details of incidents that occurred years before, details she inserts in her scene to make it more vivid for her readers. We understand this, trusting the author has probably done her best to recall the event as honestly as she can.
Memory is an illusive thing. So is truth. Different family members can experience the same event and describe what happened in different ways. Which account captures the truth?
Even our own recollection of events changes over time, as does our understanding of those events. Our experiences continually shape our view of our lives and ourselves. If we had written our life story ten years ago, it probably would be a different story than the one we would write today. Which one would be truer? That’s hard to say, for in each case we would try to capture the emotional truth of our recollections at that time.
So if you decide to add scenes to your life story to make it more interesting, you’re going to have to draw upon both your memory and your creativity to re-create the past as you remember it. It may involve adding details you’re unsure of to help your readers visualize the incident, but you’ll likely capture the essence of what happened, and your readers will find your story far more engaging because of it.
Using Dialogue in Scenes
If your scene includes more than one person, they’re probably going to talk to each other. That’s good because we learn a lot about people from what they say.
There’s no better way to illustrate your mother’s personality than to get her talking. In the example used earlier in this chapter, we become acquainted with Aunt Emma from what she says. We learn she’s industrious, a bit bossy, and exasperated with her brother. Her statements are more illuminating than if the author had simply told us, “Aunt Emma was a bossy old biddy who criticized my father for his laziness.” Instead, Aunt Emma’s statements allow us to deduce this information for ourselves, which is far more interesting and powerful.
Beginning writers rarely include dialogue in their memoirs. Perhaps this is because it seems easier and more natural to tell a story from our own point of view. We’d rather summarize for our readers rather than allow them to think for themselves. Maybe we are afraid they will reach the wrong conclusion. Nevertheless, when writers include dialogue in their writing, they are usually surprised at how interesting their stories have become and how much more effective they are at getting across their point of view.
When You Can’t Remember What Was Said
“This is all well and good,” you may be saying. “I see where dialogue could spice up my story. But I can’t remember what was said in a conversation that occurred decades ago. There is simply no way I can use dialogue when describing a scene from my childhood.
“Most of us could not accurately reproduce a conversation that took place yesterday, much less one that occurred decades ago. As we have said, authors of popular memoirs know this, but it doesn’t deter them from capitalizing on the innate appeal of dialogue. They give it their best shot, knowing that their story will retain its integrity because they’ll probably get it mostly right.
Examine how Pulitzer Prize-winning author Russell Baker reconstructs a conversation from his childhood in a scene from his memoir, Growing Up. Here he introduces us to his charismatic Uncle Harold who. Baker tells us, is an incurable liar. Harold and some relatives are playing cards in the dining room. Baker, a child at the time, is an onlooker. Downstairs in the parlor lies a man in a coffin, which is not unusual because their landlord sometimes rents the parlor to an undertaker. Uncle Harold begins the conversation by announcing that the old gentleman in the coffin did not look dead to him.
“I could swear I saw one of his eyelids flicker,” he said.
Nobody paid him any attention.
“You can’t always be sure they’re dead,” he said.
Nobody was interested except me.
“A man I knew was almost buried alive,” he said.
“Are you going to play the jack or hold it all night?” my mother asked.
“It was during the war,” Uncle Harold said. “In France. They were closing the coffin on him when I saw him blink one eye.”
The cards passed silently and were shuffled.
“I came close to being buried alive once myself one time,” he said.3
Would it be reasonable to believe Baker remembered exactly what was said during that card game he witnessed when he was just a kid? Of course not. Did this bother any of the millions of readers who made his story a bestseller? Did it bother the judges who awarded the book the Pulitzer Prize? Obviously not!
It’s likely that Harold made quite an impression on his young nephew with his hair-raising stories. If Baker didn’t re-create the conversation verbatim, he wrote words that captured the gist of what was said and the spirit of the occasion. He could simply have summarized this incident for us, but by creating a scene with dialogue he made his Uncle Hal more real and interesting.
Adding Dialogue to a Story
One of our students turned in a writing assignment in which he recalled a childhood Christmas and how disappointed he was when he did not receive the gift he hoped for. The sketch did not contain any dialogue. Although it covered a subject of considerable interest, it seemed flat when read aloud.
As an experiment, we asked Walter a few questions about the characters in the story. Then we analyzed the emotions that were presented, summarized them, and created an imaginary dialogue to capture what might have been said that Christmas day many years ago.
When we read our dialogue-enhanced sketch in class, everyone agreed the story was livelier than it had been. They also learned more about the characters than they had originally. However, the most interesting comment came from Walter, who said, “Strangely, your dialogue is almost exactly as I remember it.
“How had we been able to create dialogue we had never heard in the first place, and the only person who had heard the original conversation endorsed it as being eerily authentic? Because we understood the circumstances, knew a little about the characters, and could imagine the essence of what might have been said. Since nobody could remember the exact words, our reconstructed dialogue seemed real.
The lesson is that although we cannot hope to duplicate precisely what was said, we can generally shoot close to the mark. So go for it. Enliven your scenes with some conversations. You’ll be surprised how much more interesting and moving your story will become.
Disclaimers for the Squeamish
Writers who are skittish about making up dialogue may feel better if they protect themselves with statements like:
• Given what I remember about Mother and the incident, she probably said something like the following: “…”
• To the best of my recollection, Dad said on that occasion, “…”
• It would have been typical of Grandma Jones to say, “…”
• Uncle Jake allegedly said, “…”
If you must occasionally use qualifiers, go ahead. In general, however, it is better to leave out “hedge clauses” because they are implied anyway and tend to clutter the story, detracting from the feeling of immediacy in the portrait you are painting. Your readers already know your dialogue is “as you recall it” and not a verbatim transcript.
Another way to help ease your conscience about fabricated conversations is to include a disclaimer in your story’s preface. For example, you could write something like this:
The conversations included in this life history have been recreated from memory. While I do not recall exactly what was said, I have tried to capture the spirit of these occasions to illuminate the personalities of the individuals involved.
The thing is, if you taped a conversation and transcribed it verbatim, it wouldn’t make good reading. It would probably contain uninteresting small talk and half-finished sentences, things no one would care about. The dialogue you create should sound like natural speech, but it should be stripped of the non-essential blathering that fills most conversations. Each utterance should do useful work in moving the story along, establishing the emotional tone of the incident or illuminating something about the people in the story. So avoid fluff like:
“Hi, how are you?” “Just fine, thank you.” “You’re looking well.”
Such statements do not add anything to your scenes. Watch, though, that you don’t make your characters sound stilted and stuffy by filling their speech with too much useful information, called “information dropping.” Also be aware that most people don’t speak in complete sentences. We speak in fragments. We use slang. We interrupt each other. Remember these things when you construct conversations. The people in your scenes should sound natural, like themselves.
Dialogue is often the most important part of a scene. To get it right, you may want to do some research. Listen to conversations around you and notice how people talk. Read passages of dialogue in novels to see how it’s constructed and what’s revealed about the plot, setting, and characters through what people say and do as they’re talking to each other.
Most important, practice! Write out some lines, then read them aloud to see how they sound. Ask others to read them aloud. Your ear will be your best judge of whether or not it sounds natural.
Finally, ask yourself whether your dialogue advances some goal you have for writing the scene in the first place. Does it illuminate character? Does it build dramatic suspense? Does it show an important point of view? If a particular conversation doesn’t accomplish a specific goal, consider whether the information could be better communicated through exposition.
What Events Make Good Scenes?
You can’t make a scene out of every event in your life unless you want to create an awfully long book. Select events that lend themselves to a scene. Then use exposition to link the scenes together, to provide background information, to summarize an expanse of time. The following types of events provide good material for scenes:
• Humorous incidents
• Frightening situations
• Moments of crisis
• Events that illustrate personality
• Incidents associated with life-changing events such as birth, marriage, illness, death, starting a new job, enlisting in the military, moving to a new town, encountering a new acquaintance
• Anecdotes that add sparkle, interest, and understanding to your story
Scenes do not need to be long to serve their purpose. For example, you might notice potential in an expository sentence such as, “Grandpa always removed his working boots before he came in the back door for supper.” It should be easy for you to expand on this by making some simple adjustments:
Grandpa took off his working boots, then opened the back door and came into the kitchen. He plopped down at the head of the table and gave me a weary look. “What’s for supper tonight, Junior?” he asked.
Although we both knew the fare was bread and milk, I said, “Roast beef, mashed potatoes, and cherry pie,” because I loved seeing his face break into a crinkly smile.
This short scene lets us into the lives of the boy and the old man and we find ourselves suddenly curious about their relationship and wondering why they always had bread and milk for supper. We begin to care.
Transitions: Moving between Scene and Exposition
Ideally your narrative will contain both scenes and exposition. How do you move back and forth between them without confusing your readers? Use transition words or sentences to communicate the shift. Notice below how a transition statement can be used to introduce the previous scene:
I lived with my grandfather throughout most of my childhood. We grew so close we had established routines that never varied, like our dinner menu.
Transition to a specific moment in time
One day I surprised him. (Narrowing the focus with the phrase one day prepares the reader for the brief scene that follows.)
Sometimes the opening sentence, in this case “Grandpa took off his working boots, then opened the back door,” will clue the reader about the transition to a scene.There are a number of phrases that help introduce a scene, phrases such as
• On one occasion …
• I’ll never forget one incident …
• That reminds me of the time …
• For example …
• Then there was the time I …
• This is best illustrated by …
Include scenes in your personal history and you’ll keep your readers with you to the end. Now it’s time to practice.
– Make a list of at least ten life-changing events (turning points) that influenced who you are today. Your list may include such events as a move to a new location, achievement, a marriage, a crisis (illness, death, job loss, disaster, divorce), a chance remark from an acquaintance. For this assignment, list events that occurred at a specific and place, such as the day you decided to get married, for instance, rather than things that happened over time, such as your growth as a person as you adapted to married life.
– Choose a life-changing event from your list and develop it into a scene. Use dialogue that re-creates emotions you and others felt at that time. Try to avoid a scene with only “talking heads.” Give your characters something to do when they speak so readers can visualize real people in a specific setting. For example, a mother could be drying dishes while she talks to her family. Perhaps she tosses the towel onto the sink when someone says something that irritates her. Actions like these make scenes feel “real” because we can visualize what’s transpiring.
– Select an event in your life that did not have enormous significance in itself, but illustrates a particular character trait of yours or of another person in your life. Re-create the event as a scene. Use the principle of showing rather than telling so your reader can draw his or her own conclusions.
NOTES:1. “Civil War,” Encyclopedia Americana, International Edition (Danbury, Conn: Grolier, 1999), 6:798.
2. Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind, 60th Anniversary Edition (New York: Scribner, 1996), 360-61.
3. Russell Baker, Growing Up (New York: Congden & Weed, 1982), 178.