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    « Recalling Details in Autobiography and Memoir | Main | Writing Narrative Family History »
    Friday
    Apr232010

    The Art of Story Telling in Memoirs and Family History

    One of the first pieces of advice a novice writer is likely to hear is, “Show don’t tell.” But what does this really mean? Essentially it means learning how to use descriptive details to give your stories a sense of time and place and an emotional tone which will help readers feel what is going on in the story as you relate it.

    Begin by being specific. For example if you are telling a story that involves a car show the reader what kind of a car. Is it “a faded, rusty old Chevy Nova held together with Bondo” or a “sleek metallic blue Porsche Carrera?”

    Your story is about a beautiful morning. Help the reader experience the beautiful morning by involving her senses in the description. Is the sun warm? How blue is the sky and how white are the puffy clouds? Would she hear sparrows signing in the tree? Smell the roses blooming in the garden? Would she feel the moisture on the lawn?

    Use the right word – le mote juste as the French would say -  to show exactly what you mean. Don’t say, “He ran fast,” say “He sprinted.” Mark Twain once advised crossing out all the adjectives and adverbs and rethinking what you have written. But the right adjectives and adverbs can sharpen your description. Here are some examples of choosing the right adjective or adverb. (italics added) In Four meetings Henry James wrote, “I saw her but in diminished profile.” In her short story Girl on a Plane, Mary Gaitskill wrote, “He sat down, grunting territorially…” And Lorrie Moore in her story Community Life wrote, “She wished to start over again, to be someone living coltishly in the world…”

    Writing guru Natalie Goldberg advises, “Don’t tell readers what to feel. Show them the situation, and that feeling will awaken within them.” Or ask Mark Twain put it, “Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.” Contrast the sentence:

    He sits on the couch holding his guitar.

    with the more evocative

    His eyes are closed, he’s cradling the guitar in his arms like a lover.

    Another way to bring your stories to life is by using dialogue. Let your reader listen in on the conversations of the people you are writing about. But keep a couple of ideas in mind. “You can’t reproduce real speech,” said creative writing professor Josip Novakovich. ” You can approximate it now and then, but your dialogue should be quicker and more direct than real speech.” The conversations you include in your stories must be edited. “Dialogue should convey a sense of spontaneity but eliminate the repetitiveness of real talk.” You know?

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