One of my favorite bloggers, award-winning journalist Richard Gilbert, recently had a post Lessons from Writing My Memoir. They were lessons that both memoirists and family historians might consider.
Gilbert described dealing with three elements in telling his story – scene, summary and reflection. Scenes tell stories with the classic elements of setting, character, conflict and resolution. They employ the elements of drama. Summary on the other hand simply tells the reader what happened rather than letting it unfold before her. The reader is presented with a collection of facts. Reflection is the author’s attempt to capture the lessons, insights or wisdom to be gained from events in the past. All three are important tools in the writer’s toolkit.
The problem is, of course, choosing when to employ each tool. Most of us are like Gilbert who said, “I had memories but some gaps and too few images.” The incomplete memories and shortage of stories is often even more acute if you’re writing a family history. So many people resort to mostly summary accounts of the past.
Gilbert had the same problem. But his book got better when he started “…realizing that I didn’t grasp the importance and power of dramatic presentation – scenes – to convey an experience … and let me tell you, scenes are infinitely more powerful.”
Keep this in mind as you work on your book. It’s worth the time to try to find stories to replace summary in as many places as you can. Interviews, or at least conversations, with relatives or friends can help fill in partial memories to allow you to transform summary into scene. You can’t always do it, but where you can you should.
Scenes which tell stories dramatically will bring the people in your book to life. The stories will also help make the insights you draw from events in your reflections more easily understood and vivid. Make the most of the stories you have. Your readers will thank you for it.
Click here to read Richard Gilbert’s full post.