This post is for memoir writers. A slightly different version for storytellers is available here.
“If you’ve remembered something very well — a fight, a kiss, a plane ride, a certain stranger — there’s a reason. Keep writing until you figure out the significance of your most vivid memories.”Kate Corrigan
We all intuitively know what a story is. If you watch a movie, you can tell pretty quick if the story is good or bad. But put pen to paper to write your own and questions like these nibble at your confidence:
- “Is this a story, or is it just something that happened?”
- “If it’s just something that happened, why does it matter?”
- “Would anybody want to read about this?”
- “I’m not a writer. I’m just crazy.”
When you do manage to push aside concerns long enough to string some words together, the first draft tends to be disappointing. Maybe you’re trying too hard, or it reads like a bunch of bullet points. Maybe you were right to doubt.
No. Stop that thought. Why? Because the value of a story rarely comes out in a first draft.
In this post I’ll discuss the most basic of story type, a news report, and then compare the difference with a more developed story. That should help you take your series of events and turn them into a proper story.
There’s nothing wrong with reports. When I want to dress appropriately for the day, a weather report lets me know whether I need an umbrella or a jacket.
Most reports go like this:
- Something good/bad happened or is happening.
- Summary or call to action.
Reports usually end with a summary or a call to action.
- Summary: “So if you’re heading outside today, bundle up!”
- Call to action: “People agree, the mayor needs to be held accountable!”
News reports are written fairly quickly and are meant to be consumed quickly. If there are people we meet in the story, it’s a fleeting mention, someone like a mayor who has a public profile, or a man-in-the-street quotation. There is drama but we rarely learn the ending.
Stories are about people
In a story, on the other hand, readers get to know the characters involved. They have relationships that are shifting or firm, roles they play at work or in their community.
They’re like friends we make but with no strings attached. We want authentic characters, people we can feel moving and breathing. They aren’t perfect in every way, because that’s both really boring and intimidating.
Readers are also looking for certain patterns of events in a story. That is:
- The main character wants something. Or, something happens to make them want something.
- Something stands in their way. They overcome it.
- They grow.
Let’s take a look at each in turn.
They want something.
The character doesn’t just want a sandwich. They want to win a contest, or a certain person’s love. They want to get out of one situation or into another. They want to change their life.
Sometimes this wanting is precipitated by an event. They receive some news, meet someone, lose something, find something, there’s an accident, or they receive a diagnosis.
Whatever it is, this event changes their life somehow and propels them to take action toward the goal. But this makes it sound like a mathematical formula, and it isn’t.
For argument sake, let’s say you’re diagnosed with a deadly disease. Wouldn’t you then be motivated to find a cure?
That’s how story works. One thing happens, which makes you strive for a response to what happened.
Something stands in your way. You overcome it.
In your quest to achieve your goal, the road cannot be easy. You need to have at least a couple of obstacles that block your progress. Readers want to watch as you size up the challenge, struggle to get over it then figure it out and get past it.
One of the biggest challenges in writing about your own life is to figure out what you were really struggling with. In some cases it’s easy.
If you enter a marathon, it’s a struggle to get yourself training, to develop your stamina. If you are performing a show, you need to get that act together. To win the attention of the person you want to love, you need to figure out what they want then see if you can give it.
But not all struggles are so clear cut. Life can be messy. By writing about it, you are defining what the struggle was. It requires considering the situation from all angles.
Potential obstacles include:
- Yourself > If you’re trying to lose weight or handle a challenging relationship, you might be your own worst enemy.
- One or more people > Everyone wants something from you. What they want might not be what you want. You also might not be able to give other people what they want when you need it.
A mother with a job, children and a husband has to juggle all of their needs. If one of them is more needy than the others, it can mean the other two miss out.
We all want and need things from each other. It is these conflicting needs that create the obstacles we need to get through. For more on this, see my 3-part posts on roles and relationships.
The past can haunt us until we decide on how to frame what we were struggling with. Through language, with our struggle defined, we are better equipped to deal with that struggle or let it go.
Pulling it all together
The first step is always to write a crummy first draft. Write a bullet list. Jot down your random thoughts. Get it down in chronological order. Kick that inner editor off your shoulder and just write.
Then look at it and ask yourself:
- What am I really struggling with here?
- What is it I really wanted? What did others want from me or for themselves?
- What values does this experience speak to?
- What did I learn from this experience?
Using your answers, your task as a writer is to contrast your perspective in that time with what you know now, then to share the lessons you learned. You don’t sugar-coat the moment, or paint yourself as wiser or more noble version of who you are.
This process helps you to better understand what happened, who you are and why this event matters.
My storytelling philosophy
The earth beneath our feet is always moving.
In life we desire stability while we also wait and wait and wait for what’s coming next. We want to be safe and secure, but we also want more than what we have, which means taking risks.
Stories are a means to find the stability we crave, and grow. To accept the moving nature of life events, to get past those obstacles that stand in our way and in the process, change and grow.
Stories allow each of us to consider what we’d do if placed in a certain situation. They are about how we survive the challenging changes of life.
Changing your life is hard. Whether you want to lose weight, or become something you’re not, it takes making concrete changes and sticking with them. Most of us aren’t great at doing that. It takes a few stabs. A few fights with ourselves or our relatives.
But in overcoming the obstacle, you learn something. You as a person change and grow. You gain wisdom about yourself, others or the world in general.
The change you go through in a story doesn’t have to be huge. The difference can be as small as a change in your mindset. How one day you learned the value of… kindness, generosity, friends, birthdays… or something else.
Stories are places where we struggle to understand what it means to be human. What matters and what doesn’t.
“The world is not a collection of things, it is a collection of events. The difference between things and events is that things persist in time; events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical “thing”: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. Conversely, a kiss is an “event.” It makes no sense to ask where the kiss will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not of stones.”The Order of Time, by Carlo Rovelli. A concise, elegant exploration of time.