A personal story might be your own or someone else’s experiences. It could be a family history, a memoir, or a story about a particular event. It might be book length or much shorter. You might be planning to sell it, post it on the web, or simply want to print a few copies for family members.
Whatever your goal with your story, these simple principles will help make sure it doesn’t end up gathering dust on a shelf somewhere.
1. Put the reader first
This is the first rule of all writing, and the one that is most easily forgotten. So often we are driven by what we want to write and why we want to write it. However, the secret to readable, engaging writing is to think first about your reader’s needs and wants.
You might want to:
- inform them – what level of education do they have, how much can they understand? If your material is very technical but your audience is not, you might need to ‘translate’ it into less technical words.
- inspire them – what type of things lift their spirits, and how can you tap into that and add to it?
- motivate them to action – what is it about your message that connects with a perceived need or desire that they already have?
- entertain them – what do they find enjoyable?
To put the needs of the reader first, you first need to know your reader. This might be quite well defined, or you might have to make some intelligent guesses.
Putting the reader first is a wobbly science, and no writer can get it 100% right, so don’t let the thought swamp you. But you will find your writing grows and develops as you take the trouble to really understand your reader, and strive to put their needs before your own.
2. Don’t give me ‘the facts’, tell me a story
Some stories end up sounding like a police report, full of facts but lacking that warmth that draws a reader in. Facts are what you use to fill in a form; stories are what you tell each other around the campfire. They includes facts of course, but also emotions, description, and something of the personality of the teller.
If you’re not a natural storyteller, one simple technique to help you develop this in your writing is to stop regularly and imagine you are writing a film script for your story, with instructions for how the roles are to be played. Would the director and actors have enough information to create the right scenery and show the correct emotions, or would they have to make it up as they go along?
Another way is to sit down over a coffee with a good friend who understands your project, and get them to ask you questions as you try to tell the story. Take notes about what questions they ask, as it helps show you what kind of extra information and ‘colour’ a reader might enjoy.
3. Be selective about including dates
Many personal stories become clogged with dates, especially family histories. People think: it’s a history, so it has to have lots of dates. No, it doesn’t. Only put the date in if it matters. By their very format, dates disrupt the look of text, distracting the brain and interrupting the flow of meaning. The reader has to stop and ask themselves: Is this date significant? Do I need to remember it? How does it relate to the date I read two sentences ago? And then they get tied up doing mathematics, and lose the thread of what you were trying to communicate.
The date someone is born or married might be important, but many other dates are only significant if they coincide with something else. For example, if you tell me you bought your first Elvis Presley record on November 22nd 1963, I’m not too interested. But if as you were handing over your money in the record store you heard a radio broadcast telling you that JFK had just been shot – now that’s interesting.
Focus on the broad sweep of events and how they fit together and influence each other. Look for progression and development over time. Try saying, ‘Three months later…’, ‘Only two days later…’ or ‘The following year…’ instead of listing yet another date. These will be more readable and meaningful to most readers than a long jumbled list of dates. Try to stop at regular intervals, look at your writing, and ask: So what? Certain events happened, but what difference did they make to your characters, yourself, the reader, or other events?
One last comment about dates: if you are planning on an international readership, don’t use abbreviations like 3/10/91. What I just wrote is the tenth day of March in the USA, but the third of October in Australia and the UK. Neither way is right or wrong, it’s just different usage. Spell out the month, and you save yourself a possible miscommunication.
4. Include dialogue
As Alice in Wonderland said, ‘What is the use of a book without pictures or conversation?’ Nothing enlivens a story like dialogue.
If you are writing about things that happened hundreds of years ago, this might be difficult, unless you want to write a fictionalized history. (That is also a valid option. Just identify it as such in your introduction.)
But dialogue can be a worthy addition to other kinds of personal stories. Take a look at many of the biographies in a bookstore. Do they have dialogue? Do you think someone was there taking it all down in shorthand at the time? No. People rely on memory.
You might think it’s hard to remember what people said, but sit down with a friend and get them to ask you about the particular event. You will find yourself saying things like: And then she said to me, ‘I’m going home now, I’ve had enough of this.’ That’s dialogue. Compare these two options:
- Roger told Jean he wanted to go to the shop to buy matches, but she never saw him again.
- As he headed out the door, Roger called out, ‘We’re out of matches. I’ll be back in ten minutes.’ That was the last time Jean ever saw him.
Record it to the best of your memory. If you’re worried that your memory ain’t that great, put a disclaimer on the back of your title page to say that these are your memories and others may remember events differently. If the dialogue is hiding away in someone else’s memory, record that too. Ask them what happened and they’ll naturally start to tell you what people said.
A good way to retrieve such dialogue from your own or someone else’s brain is to sit down with a friend and a voice recorder and discuss what happened. Dialogue that is discussed aloud is often more natural than if you try to write it just from memory. Once you’ve written it down, read it aloud to yourself, to make sure it sounds like something someone would say.
5. Do your research
A personal story can become more interesting when set in the context of historical events, or a social or cultural situation.
Can you go to the location where some of these events occurred? What does it look like? Think about the climate, the public transport system, and the local industries. Find out what type of shops, churches, schools there are. What is the social, economic and employment situation of most of the people? Build a world around your story.
Who was involved in the events of your story? If they are still alive, can you interview them? Prepare a list of questions, sit down over a coffee together, start up your voice recorder, and get chatting.
If it happened in the past, research what else was going on in the world at the same time. The web can be a great place to discover relevant history, but so can a real library. Often they have old books relating to the local history that you can’t find anywhere else.
6. Write the way you talk (within reason)
Communication is far less formal than it used to be, partly because of the internet. If you write the way you talk, most readers will find it more engaging and easier to read. This can mean using contractions like ‘don’t’ instead of ‘do not’, and even addressing your reader directly. But bear in mind point 1 – find a style that your intended reader will find most engaging.
7. Analyse what you like about other people’s personal stories
Collect some of your favourite books that you would like to emulate. Read them slowly and carefully, and think about what it is that you like. Is it the dialogue? The description? The humour? The brutal honesty? Then think about how you could do the same thing in your own book. Your topic might be quite different, but there might be a general principle that you could transfer.
8. Set the scene with vivid description
This doesn’t mean using three adjectives for every noun. In fact that is one of the biggest mistakes novice writers make, and it just ends up sounding flowery and overdone. Keep your description spare, but vivid. Close your eyes, go back into your memory, and use your senses to guide you: sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste. If the memories are someone else’s, ask them to do the same exercise, and use your voice recorder to get their answers.
- What can you hear? A train going past, a dog barking three blocks away, a door creaking open, a mosquito buzzing…
- What can you smell? Smell is perhaps the most evocative sense, and many experts say it is the one that stays in our memory the longest. The metallic smell after rain, the sweetness of new-mown grass, the mustiness of an old library, stale sweat in the back of an old taxi…
- What can you feel? The healing warmth of sunshine in winter, the tickle of a breeze on the back of your neck, textures that are smooth, rough, slippery, sticky…
- What can you taste? Creamy butter on fresh baked bread, the tang of a lemon, salty tears, charred toast…
- What can you see? Don’t limit this to the obvious things but add the extras that flesh out the scene. A sharp sunbeam in your eyes that makes you wince, a shadowy figure in the distance, a brassy red fire engine going past on the road…
9. Things to try when you get writer’s block
- If you normally write on a computer, try writing by hand for a bit.
- Start in the middle – you don’t have to begin at the beginning, you can go back to it later.
- Write in a different location (maybe a desert island would be nice!).
- Talk to a friend who is a positive thinker, and tell them why your project is so worthwhile.
- Just write – sometimes after a few minutes slogging it will start to flow.
10. Believe in yourself
Your story is worth telling. And you don’t have to be a university English graduate to be able to tell it. If you launch into your project believing you can do it, it releases the right brain to generate creativity. Just write, and enjoy!
Article copyright © 2010 Belinda Pollard
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