How to Tell Powerful Personal Stories That Will Captivate Your Readers
Several lessons from one of my favorite writing craft books
A year or two ago, I read a book called The Memoir Project after hearing the author, Marion Roach Smith, speak at a writing conference.
Marion illustrated all of her writing advice with stories, recounting her experiences writing for The New York Times and NPR and her struggle to pen a memoir about her mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Marion is a powerful storyteller. I lost my own grandmother to Alzheimer’s, and Marion’s words drew me in and resonated with me.
Afterward, even though I previously didn’t have any intention of writing a memoir, I hurried to the book table to meet Marion and buy a copy of The Memoir Project. Marion was kind and encouraging and wrote in my book, “Tell your tale and write on.”
I dove into The Memoir Project on the flight home, and since then I’ve kept coming back to it for tips on how to improve my writing.
Don’t let the title fool you. This book isn’t just for memoirists.
Telling compelling stories adds another dimension to our writing. This fascinating Infographic shows how the human brain is hardwired to respond to storytelling differently than other forms of writing.
If you’re writing an article about Alzheimer’s, you could just quote studies and statistics. Or you could go one step further by including the stories of Alzheimer’s sufferers. The second method will impact your reader more than any study or stat could.
Whether you’re a blogger or any other kind of nonfiction writer, you can use the techniques of memoirists to connect with your readers on a deeper level.
Here are eight storytelling tips that I learned from The Memoir Project:
1. Everyone has a story to tell
You may not think that you have any stories to tell, but that’s not true. Everyone does. Marion suggests using a notebook to help you find and develop story ideas.
“Here’s a tip I learned from my husband, a fine former reporter and a really great newspaper editor: Get yourself a pack of inexpensive spiral pocket notebooks, and when you are taking in a landscape — whether emotional or physical — turn that notebook sideways, like a sketchbook. I know how crazy this sounds, but you won’t care after you see how effortlessly it signals your subconscious that you’re looking for something different…
Turn it vertically to report the who, what, when, and where of the topic. Go sideways for the why, where you deepen and broaden your view. Your subconscious loves little cues like this.”
You can carry the notebook with you so that you can jot down stories as you observe them in your daily life. Or you can use the notebook to help you remember the stories that happened to you years before.
2. Focus on telling your truth
One of the difficulties of writing about events that happened to you is that you often must rely only on your own memory. Marion gives some tips on how to tell an honest story while preserving your unique perspective.
“‘Here’s how I see it’ is a powerful phrase to keep in mind, as is ‘Here’s how it happened to me,’ or ‘Here’s how I felt.’ Make no claim that your version is the only one. If you do not shoot for the whole truth and nothing but the truth, we’re going to get along just fine. Understanding the difference is essential to your success.
…Foremost in memoir, we expect your voice. That’s the slant: your take on the world. It’s what we’re looking for when we buy your book, listen to you on the radio, pay for a magazine that features your essay, or read your blog.”
3. Answer the question: What is your story about?
When you’ve chosen a story to tell and are ready to begin writing down the facts as you remember them, it’s important to pause and reflect on this question: What is your story about?
The answer to this question will help you determine the focus of your piece. It reminds me of the thesis statements I wrote for my essays in high school and college.
“What is your story about? Your answer to this might be something as precise as ‘revenge.’ That’s manageable. I would argue that something as small as a blog post or a personal essay can be reduced to one word…
What I had intended to explain was that right around the fourth paragraph, the writer must tell the reader what the piece is about — what’s at stake, what’s up in the air, what to value if it’s taken away.”
4. Make your theme universal and uplifting
When you determine what your story is about, you will be able to hone in on a theme that can elevate your piece from being a story just about you. A universal and uplifting theme will make it relevant to your readers as well.
“Never write a story because you want to exact revenge or betray someone…Instead, while writing about the hideous aspects of life, you should attempt to teach us something about the behavior of those involved, about your behavior, about all human behavior. Let us into your story by shedding light on our own dilemmas, fears, happiness, or wide-eyed wonder.
…You have to give readers a reason for this thing to live on in their hearts and minds. Only then can we find your scene lively enough to enjoy, or learn from, or be appalled by.”
5. Lead your reader by the hand
Marion also stresses the importance of stepping back from your story and examining it as if you were the reader. Does the story flow logically and chronologically? Is there anything you need to explain in more depth? Any parts of the story that need more context?
“I’ve lived these scenes, but you have not, and you won’t see how one idea links to the next unless I show you. Keep in mind that your story is deeply embedded in you and so well known to only you that unless you tell it with great care, we will not understand it, no matter how much it dazzles you.”
6. Use every page to drive a single story forward
We live 1,440 minutes in one day, and our lives can change dramatically in a single moment. As we write our personal stories, we need to make sure we are only including the most important moments: the ones that drive our story forward.
Yes, you might have lots of interesting stories to tell, but make sure you only tell one at a time.
“The tell-all indicator that a memoir writer is in real trouble is the insistent phrase ‘But that’s how it happened!’ Writers who say this while the piece is getting a hard edit from someone else are sinking fast. How it happened is not what makes it interesting. That it happened at all — why it happened and where you go from there — is interesting.
…So those are the three rules of memoir. They ask you to tell the truth by making every page drive one story forward and have a context the reader can relate to.”
I share more editing tips in my post below.
How to Edit Your Writing: An Effective 7-Step Process
A reader recently asked, "What is your best advice for editing?" I was about to type up an email in reply, but then I…
7. Save deleted paragraphs for future inspiration
As you edit your piece, you may struggle to cut out the paragraphs that don’t move your story forward. After all, they’re so beautifully written. Not to fear. Just because you cut them doesn’t mean they can’t live again in another story. Save them for inspiration.
“And how about those paragraphs that go off in a totally different direction, bringing in an entirely new story? Hack ’em, though here’s the message of the morgue: What you kill is there for another day, so put those excised sentences or paragraphs in a file where you can retrieve them later.”
8. Use your theme as a guide as you write and edit
Never lose sight of the original theme. That’s what gives your story direction and makes it resonate with the reader.
“The goal of a good edit is for the piece to read like a sleigh ride: smooth and fast. It can, if not a word is extra, not a phrase is flabby…While editing, check back with that original pitch and see if you’ve done what you promised to do. What did you set out to illustrate? Have you fulfilled your obligations?”
If you’re looking to strengthen your storytelling skills, I definitely recommend getting a copy of The Memoir Project. It’s a quick, delightful read with lots of fantastic actionable advice illustrated with Marion’s own personal stories.
And if you feel a little self-conscious about sharing your personal stories, the book is the perfect way to gather motivation and encouragement.
This article was originally published at nicolebianchi.com.