Q: How do I avoid a “this happened, then this happened, then this happened,” approach to my memoir and still include all the significant events? — “Blah, Blah, Blah”
A: Dear “Blah, Blah, Blah”:
It’s all in how you shape it.
Think of how we live. This happens and then that happens, and then something else happens. Right? But it’s not a story unless it’s shaped into one. Let’s look at how to shape a story. Here are some writing tips.
1. Beginnings Every story needs a beginning, middle, and end. Where do you start a story about an incident or a part of your life? It’s good to start close to the incident or time you’ll cover. You may like to begin in the action of a scene, use a line of dialog to jump into scene and follow it with background/context. Or ask a question. No matter what, your opening line should attract a reader’s interest, not be laden with facts and information. If you think the facts belong up front, still work to keep that first line engaging.
When you read over your first draft, ask yourself these questions: Is the first paragraph a warm-up I used to get in the mood to write? Does the story really start in a later paragraph, not the first one? Is there a great first line buried in the middle of my story? Make the changes you need to make to write an opening that engages a reader and creates the opening shape to the story (or chapter).
2. Focus You should be able to answer the question, “What is this about?”, in a sentence when you get to the end of a short memoir. When you review your first draft, ask yourself that question. Did you start the story close to the point the subject, or focus, of the story begins? Is there a climax, or dramatic height, to the story? If so, did you give it the attention it needs or rush over it? Have you kept to a single well-focused incident (or a few well-focused incidents) or do you go all over the place with tangents that could distract from the focus? Can the tangents be new, separate stories?
3. Feelings Feelings add emotional impact and help a reader know you better. Have you described feelings with dialog, narration, or dramatized actions to convey your feelings and the feelings of other people in your story? Have you told about and shown feelings when it seems right to?
4. Redundancies Redundancies bog down writing. Read your piece over to see if you have you repeated yourself in the same sentence or later in the story. Keep the most effective version and be ready to revise if it’s needed. Sometimes combining what you’ve said about the same thing in two places is perfect in that one right spot!
5. Dialog Dialog brings a story to life. It takes a reader into “real” time (the present time of the story), helps bring a story to life. Dialog also communicates a lot about a person if it conveys how they spoke, what they’d say in a given situation. Check to see if you’ve used dialog. If you haven’t, see if you can illustrate a scene with just a spoken line or two. Dialog should always help move a scene forward; only use words that add something – not everything we say moves a scene. Pick and choose what’s needed. (In real life we can get away with a lot of “blah, blah, blah” but in writing, every word has to matter.) And try to express the speaker’s personality when you can with what they say. Ordinary words like “said” are best for noting the speaker. Avoid adverbs (she said sadly), directing a reader about how to interpret words, use the language in the dialog and actions surrounding the dialog to convey that message instead.
6. Details Sensual details (colors, shapes, smells, sounds, textures) make a story more immediate and real. Details add a sense of veracity that generalities do not: you were there. And sensual details bring the reader in by creating emotional impact. Will the reader “see” your story? Will they “hear” the street sounds outside your window? Have you used precise language, avoided vague adjectives (like “beautiful,” “wonderful,” “nice,” “pretty”)? Can you replace vague adjectives with specific, descriptive ones so the reader can have her own impression? Have you used identifying details (type of flower, drink, cookie, dress, music)? Are there descriptive details — colors, smells, textures, sounds, tastes — you could add without overloading and appearing forced? You want to sound natural while you paint a word picture. If you’ve included smells, have you described them as well as you can? Are there details you could add or some that could be taken out?
7. “Trim the Fat” Are there portions that don’t contribute to the overall impact you want? Do nonessential words slow the reading and lessen the impact of sentences? Refine, refine, refine. It will pay off for you and all of your readers.
8. Ending Does your story drop off suddenly and unintentionally? It should not. Does it summarize what you’ve just written about? This would be another form of redundancy. Does it reveal an epiphany or a deepened understanding of something or someone that happened because of the incident described in the story? Reflection is essential in memoir. Give your story a clear and compelling finish. It’s as important to leave a reader feeling interested and satisfied as it is to appeal to a reader’s curiosity at the start.
Do you have a question about writing memoir? Send it to me in a COMMENT to the blog post, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There’s more about writing and memoir at www.suzannesherman.com, so be sure to visit me there and sign up for my newsletter for writing tips and info on submissions to my upcoming book, “100 Years In the Life of a Girl: True Stories of American Girls 1910 – 2010.” Contributions will be accepted soon for the next in the series, “100 Years In the Life of a Teenaged Girl 1910 – 2010.” And I’m offering two consecutive one-on-one programs at Story Circle Network, so check out the SCN September class schedule and sign up to get my personalized help with whatever you’re writing.