When you set out to write a person’s life story – your own in a memoir, an ancestor’s story in a family history, or a biography – one of the most difficult problems is deciding what to leave out.
Many of us, particularly if we are inexperienced writers, see our principal job as reporting. We try to create a factual chronicle of what happened. All events great and small. That’s legitimate, but it’s not necessarily very dramatic, or interesting.
If we want to engage our readers we need to root around in the facts to discover the stories buried there, because stories create meaning from events.
You may hear the central element of story called plot, conflict, action line, or story arc. Whatever it’s called it is the way and author creates a chain of causally related events leading to a climax.
Novelist Oakley Hall, explains in his book, The Art and Craft of Novel Writing. “Plot is an arrangement of events, an ordering of raw life…Life furnishes plenty of stories, series of events recorded in their chronological order, but few plots, which must make sense emotionally and/or intellectually. A plot is a story plus causal relationships in a meaningful sequence.”
Creating this causal chain begins with the character’s motivation. What does she want? What’s her goal? The story begins when the person becomes aware of that goal and decides to act upon it.
The person’s struggle to achieve her goal results in a series of actions on her part which often involve overcoming obstacles preventing her from reaching her goal. This struggle is the conflict which lies at the heart of the story.
Once you have identified the central conflict, you can make some important decisions about what factual events contribute to understanding it. Many writers telling their own stories feel compelled to include events, because “they really happened just like that.” True as that may be, the events may not belong in your story. If they are not directly related to your story’s central conflict, leave them out. Your story will be more coherent and dramatic as a result.
Adair Lara, explained in her Writer’s Digest article, The Key Elements of Writing a Good Memoir, the choice an author must make, “It asks you to know not what is important or meaningful to you, but what is important or meaningful to the story.”
What you ultimately do include should begin with a trigger or initiating event. Something happens to make the character decide to pursue the goal lying at the heart of the conflict.
The story goes on until the conflict is ultimately resolved. Short story writers used to say only three resolutions were possible. The character achieved her goal. The character failed to achieve her goal. The character “came to realize” something about her goal to resolve her conflict. Once that point is reached, end the story.
By choosing the events you include carefully you allow yourself the opportunity for interpretation of their meaning and the feelings and emotions they engendered.