At some point you’ve probably heard someone say it: “My life is so interesting that I ought to write a book.” Maybe they’re not talking about the daily play by play, but it isn’t uncommon for a person to go through an experience or several that they think warrants sharing with others, whether it be with the intention of imparting some life-lesson, or merely to entertain.
But here’s the rub – going through an interesting experience and writing about it in an interesting manner are two entirely different things.
Writing about your life in a way that will grab attention and make people care is hard. It goes beyond having a good story to tell, or even being a “good” writer. It’s a matter of making it worth the time and effort it takes to read, and surprise endings or solid grammar skills alone won’t do it.
We’ve all sat through a million stories that, once they ended, made us think “I wish that I could have that time back.” So how do you ensure that your story won’t have produce a similar result?
There are a few key things you can do to make people care.
Provide Historical Context
No matter what your story is, it’s just one small part of the larger epic of the world in which it’s set. If your story is going to mean something to other people, you need to show them how it’s a piece of the big picture.
So what was happening in the wider world while your story was taking place? Was the economy failing? Did war break out? Was there a world-changing technological discovery? Were there important events leading up to your experience, or did something Earth-shattering happen right after?
The point: you have to explain what was going on around you not only to give a social context, but to give it more impact.
Several episodes from Anthony Bourdain’s various shows accomplish this masterfully. Ostensibly, he’s making a show about food. But he rarely just arrives in a place, eats the food, and calls it a day. That alone would be mildly interesting at best, but over the years he’s gotten better and better at injecting the history, politics, and social circumstance of whatever destination he happens to be visiting, which lends significantly more meaning to his travels.
Provide Personal Context
Beyond social context, you also need to provide personal context. A snapshot story alone might be interesting, but it’s hardly engaging.
Besides providing personal details to sort of “set the stage”, you need to address some of the bigger aspects of who you are. What kind of person where you before the events in question, and how did you experience change you after?
Again, Bourdain is a great example of this. Why do we care about the opinions and experiences of some cook? Because we know some of the personal struggles he’s been through – from drug addiction to difficulties discovering what he wanted to do with life to the tribulations of launching his career. Seeing who he’s become today in comparison to who he was as a younger man is far more interesting than merely listening to some cook talk about food.
Personal context humanizes your story and makes it more genuine. It gives your audience something they can related to.
Consider Fictionalizing Your Story
Your story might seem interesting enough on its own, but it’s easy to lose perspective by staying too close to the actual events.
Fictionalizing your experience gives you the flexibility to add even more exciting details, or to at least pull back a bit and give it some room to speak for itself without having your emotions clutter the key message.
Consider inventing a fictional character and telling some of the story through its eyes.
Michael Chabon showed how effective this can be in Wonder Boys (read the book, see the movie – essential for any writer), in which he created a character that was a fusion of himself and one of his college professors, then sets him in a fictional plot. The result is more exciting (and funnier) than reality, yet it still retains the essence of Chabon’s struggle.
Details, Details, Details
A lot of people fail at writing a personal narrative because they think they’re telling a clear story, only to find that their audience is getting lost. This usually happens because they’re leaving out key details – whether by accident or because they’re intentionally avoiding some of the less flattering moments – and the readers suddenly find themselves asking, “Wait – how did we get here?”
Be sure to include all of the details that are essential to moving the story forward. To borrow from Seinfeld, you can’t “yadda-yadda-yadda” over the important points just because you might think they’re embarrassing.
Keep in mind that sometimes the most embarrassing details are also the most interesting.
Those embarrassing moments humanize your story and show that you’re a flawed person just like everyone else, and that vulnerability is essential to writing a story that will connect with audiences.
A willingness to accept and share one’s flaws makes that person (and therefore their story) gain sympathy, and sympathy translates into engagement. We’re all flawed people who are trying our best to hide it, and sometimes it’s relieving to hear someone come out and admit that they’re not perfect. It reminds us of ourselves, and makes the story more relatable.
The bottom line is that your story won’t connect unless people can relate to it and extrapolate a deeper meaning from it. The equation to achieving this involves providing historical, social, and personal context, being careful to include the most important details, and being open and honest about who you are.
If you’re having trouble adding all of this in, then you might be too close to your own story – fictionalize it and give it some room to breathe.