Many people who set out to write a memoir or family historian see themselves as reporters. Their duty is to recount things exactly as they happened. What’s important is getting the facts right so that their account is correct. Unfortunately the result is often boring.
Even nonfiction needs drama if it is to appeal to readers. Making sure your story has it means plotting it well. Certainly when one hears the word plotting one thinks of fiction. But in truth plotting is developing a dramatic way of telling any story.
One element of creating a dramatic arc for your memoir or family history is to avoid a rigidly chronological approach. Begin with a dramatic moment in your life or the life of an ancestor to create interest which will draw your reader into the story:
- Great grandmother loses her husband to TB leaving her with five kids and a 160 acre Kansas homestead
- An ancestor in the old country makes the decision to go to the United States
- You decide to chuck a moderately successful career as a corporate attorney to buy a winery
- You receive a cancer diagnosis
What happens next?
Beginning with a dramatic moment will not only engage your readers, it will help you to decide what to include in your narrative. The backstory, the events which occurred before that opening moment should be included only if they help the reader to understand what brought your character to that point or the way in which she will handle the challenge that moment presented. A number of superfluous events drop away from the story, because although they really happened, they did not relate to the central conflict of the story presented in that opening scene.
Both the events which follow the dramatic opening and any critical backstory are best presented in scenes. Use details of setting to bring the reader into your character’s world. Use action to create drama. Don’t tell the reader about what happened, show the events to him. Dialogue is a great tool in creating scenes. Use it.
One technique that works effectively in deciding which events in your life or your ancestors’ lives make for good scenes is to think of the story you are telling as a movie. Your movie can only include twenty scenes (or 15 or 10). Which moments in the life story you are telling are dramatic enough to be chosen for one of those precious scenes. Now only the really good stuff, the stuff that will really engage your reader will appear in your book.
By finding the drama in the life story you want to tell, you can make sure that you have a memoir or family history that your intended audience will want to read.