By: Michelle Gunnin
To tell a story, you must first live a story. I do not want to arrive at the end of my life only to realize I have neglected to truly live. It would be a shame to look back and see I handed my pen to those around me, rather than taking it up myself. You see, I am the author of my own story. It is me who chooses the characters within it. I also pick the setting, and while the plot may not always be within my control, my reaction to the elements presented to me determines the resolution. I can become a victim, or I can be a heroine. I can walk in deception, or I can live with integrity. I can sit and watch the world, or I can participate in making a difference.
As writers, we say there is power in the pen. I couldn’t agree more. There is power in expression and engagement. If my life is a book, I should find all the elements of a story written upon its pages – ups and downs, ebb and flow, suspense and mystery, along with comedy and romance. I KNOW that there are problems, as well as solutions, in my life. Seeing this truth brings more definition to the choices I make. I find that looking at my days through the eyes of a writer gives me a new perspective on the ordinary everyday events. I can build in some action, or I can slow down the pace accordingly. I can intensify the drama, or I can remain even keel. It is up to me, the author, to tie the threads of plot together to create meaning.
Once I recognize I am living a story, the inspiration for my writing is all around me. Be it fiction or a memoir, I can pull ideas from within the chapters I am living now, or have lived in my past. The possibilities are endless. Each story element can be viewed separately and then woven together into an intriguing tale that captures the reader. All the best storytellers are excellent at weaving the fundamentals together seamlessly, so the reader doesn’t even see the parts unless they are intended to be seen. The masters of this craft create such realistic connections with their characters that the reader trusts the words, and trusts that the author is taking them on a journey that will be worth the time. They draw you in and, as a reader, you become part of the story. It feels as if you are a participant, not just an observer. Your heart is invested and when the story ends you want it to keep going.
Most writers are voracious readers. We love a great story…to read them, and to write them. Though we may not be aware of it, when we consume books we are doing research. We make a note of how other authors tell their stories. We pay attention to their voice and determine if it is authentic, or if they are trying too hard. So much of how a book reads, and if it is good or not, goes back to the story we are living in real life. If we are armchair quarterbacks who live life from the couch or from behind a computer screen, it will show in our writing. To tell a story, you must live a story.
If you are writing fiction, your choice of setting is important to your story. Your real life experiences will aid your believability. If you are the product of a small town, the fictional town in your head will be realistic, and that translates to reader buy in. Even in a memoir, your description of the setting can be a key element. Don’t assume people understand your background, show them. In fiction, if you write about a place you have not ever experienced, your reader will know it. This is the reason authors go to the places they write about. I can’t think of a better reason to travel than to be able to immerse myself in a particular setting so that I can communicate what it is like there. If only I had the money to do so!
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I will say your characters have to be believable. They have to have strengths and weaknesses. They must be accurate, like real people. What better place to get ideas for your characters than your own life? Borrowing traits from your family and friends to use in a fictional story is perfectly acceptable. In fiction, you can even combine two people into one, or pull personalities from numerous other places. Your protagonist can have a quirky side like your Aunt Matilda. Your antagonist can be a self-absorbed narcissist like your boss. Just don’t forget to give them different traits as well so they are true to human likeness. In a memoir, you pull out the characteristics you see in the people you know, but you have to be careful not to fictionalize them. You cannot know motives and internal thinking of your characters the same way you do in fiction. It is important when developing the story to remember, in memoir, it is your story, so you are the main character.
The plot of a good story is rarely simple. There are twists and turns that lead the reader deeper and deeper. The plot is why books are always better than movies. The nuance and details are more in depth. In movies, there is just not enough time to get into the all subtleties contained within the pages of a book. Once again, you can use your life as an example. Tension builds in dramatic moments. Car accidents happen out of nowhere. A friend dies unexpectedly. Life is regularly upended. Then there are quiet times of contentment. Peaceful seasons where things move along smoothly. Building the action is important no matter if you are writing fiction or memoir. A climax, where there is an ah-ha moment or some sort of conflict that ends is a fundamental element of the plot that real life prepares you for unlike anything else.
How many of us have problems? I see those hands! The answer is ALL of us, and your characters all should have them too. However, in a story, there is usually one BIG problem. It is something that prevents the protagonist from achieving his/her dream – an obstacle, really. When you are blocked from something you aspire to do, how do you react? Do you give up and switch gears? Do you dig deep and push through? What is your response? There are no wrong answers. Different characters will have different reactions. The key is to have a problem that fits the story. You have to look honestly at your own life and pull from it. That is easier said than done. Especially in memoir, because you have to face the darker parts of your life and put them into words. However, you will find, that the reader responds to the darkness because he/she recognizes similar problems from their own life. This is a valuable connection to make.
In real life, how many of our problems are solved quickly? How about neatly? Do you ever wrap something up with no loose ends? Real life can be messy. There may be a partial resolution to an issue, but not everyone is happy in the end. Scars are left behind in some kinds of problems, and so your characters should have scars. Some obstacles are too great to overcome. Other hindrances are miraculously solved, and the characters live happily-ever-after. Sometimes as a writer, you have to consider what your reader wants before you find the solution. Then you intentionally choose if you are going to give them what they want, or you are going to go less predictable and leave some things hanging. Either way, you can draw from your own life so that you connect with theirs. Memoirs are easier in this respect. What happened, happened. You write it. If it is not resolved yet, you say so. However, even if the external problem isn’t solved, usually there is an internal resolution, an epiphany in which you saw something about yourself that you didn’t notice before or a transformation of your heart.
Taking details and experiences from your own life is one way to create a story that resonates with readers. It builds that ever-important trust with them. It makes them feel as if they are a part of the story because you don’t just tell it, you show them a real life that they recognize. Remembering that you are authoring your own metaphorical book translates to the actual books you write. To first live a story, makes it much easier to tell a story.
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