How to Make Your Story “Work”

by Memoir Mentor on August 4, 2010

I’ve taught memoir writing for the last 14 years and have read hundreds of student stories. With all that experience, I’ve learned to distinguish when a story “works”… and when it doesn’t. I’ve also been schooled by my students’ opinions. You see, most of my students read their stories in class so they can be critiqued by their classmates. While these critiquing periods are generally positive in tone, I can’t help but notice when students genuinely love a story and when they’re mostly being kind.

Besides teaching, I’ve honed my eye for a good story by judging writing competitions. Though I always read submitted stories in their entirety, I can generally sense by the end of the first page whether a manuscript will go into my discard pile or be considered for a prize.

For what it’s worth, here are four suggestions for improving your stories so they better resonate with readers and rise above the competition:

•  Hook your readers with an engaging beginning. Too many novice writers open their stories with back story that explains what led up to the interesting part…which we never learn about until page two! Begin with the interesting part—or a taste of the interesting part—and give us the back story later, and keep the back story short and concise. Look over previous stories you’ve written and consider whether you could open them with a more engaging beginning. A scene? A startling statement? Some pithy dialogue? See Les Edgerton’s Hooked for help in this area. I’ve reviewed his book here.

Keep it personal. A memoir is supposed to be about you, so be candid about your thoughts and feelings throughout your story. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing more important to the success of your story. I see it demonstrated every week in my classes. The stories that go over best in class are the ones that reveal the feelings and vulnerabilities of their writers. How were you inspired, depressed, frightened, or excited about the events you describe? Put that in your story. You’re writing to reveal who you are. Keep that goal in mind. I wrote more about this topic here.

Turn incidents into scenes. Experiment with dramatizing key incidents in your life instead of merely summarizing them. Think of a scene as a little vignette you might see on a stage. Say you’re writing about the night you got engaged. You could summarize it by saying you were sitting in Morton’s Steakhouse on May 10, 1963, when your fiancé reached across the table and handed you a small black velvet box. That’s summary. Instead, re-create the event from start to finish, as if it were being dramatized. Include dialogue, internal monologue, gestures, facial expressions, behavior—all the details that will make your readers feel like they’re experiencing the moment with you. Nearly all published memoirs use scenes to re-create life events. If you’re fuzzy about how to do this, browse through some popular memoirs and analyze how it’s done. Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle is a good place to start. You can also check out chapter three in my book Breathe Life into Your Life Story for a broader treatment of this topic.

Fill your descriptions with specific details. How did things sound, smell, taste, and feel? Too many writers only focus on how they looked. If there are flowers in the garden, call them geraniums, or whatever they are. If you ate breakfast before heading to school, exchange breakfast for cold cereal—better yet…Corn Flakes. It’s more visual, more real. Describe hair styles and clothing styles. Let us SEE the town you grew up in with lots of distinguishing details. Good stories shine with specifics.

I’m teaching a four-day course at Brigham Young University in a couple of weeks. I’ll be discussing each of these techniques in my classes—in detail because I think they’re important. Your stories will resonate more with your readers if you pay attention to these four areas. They may even win some contests!