We’re all passionately interested in our own lives – or should be. Our moms are interested in them too– or should be. But if we want our real life stories to reach an audience beyond our own bellybuttons and the people who used to be attached to them, chances are we have some work to do.
What turns a personal experience into an engaging story? At a recent workshop, I suggested looking at personal narratives through Four I’s:
Let’s look through each lens one at a time, optometrist-style. Click-click.
- Inviting: If you want readers to enter your story, you must invite them in. Think of the opening structure as the entrance to a home. Whether it’s your style to fling the front door wide, or to create a more measured approach, be sure the way is clear and welcoming. Don’t ramble all over the place, talking to yourself, and leave your guests behind. Pick up the place a bit. Nobody wants to trip over unnecessary words, poor spelling, and bad grammar. But don’t go overboard and make your writing too sterile and formal, either. Maybe a preposition at the end of a sentence is just fine where it is.
- Immediate: As a writer prone to introspection, I have had to cultivate attention to sensory details. In blogging, especially, it’s easy to get too “thinky.” Get your mind out of your head and walk around the scene. Was the sun shining through a window onto the bedroom floor? Could you smell garlic on your hands? Did the grocery cart wheel rattle? Did somebody say something? A few words describing sight, smell, or sound can take the reader into your experience faster than a worm hole across deep space. So does a line or two of dialogue. No need to go on and on with long, descriptive passages, though. Just drop a specific physical detail here and there, like seasoning.
- Intimate: You’ve invited someone into your story, into the scene of your personal experience. Now is not the time to hide in the bathroom. Reveal yourself. Say what you came to say. Be vulnerable. My own tendency is to rush past feelings and get to analysis and summary. I would rather tell you what it all meant than show you. But stories should connect us with others, and that can’t happen if you’ve left your force field up. I’m not saying get naked. Over-exposing is definitely not the same as creating intimacy. Be relatable. Let your readers know you trust them enough to share how you feel. Try pushing a tiny bit past your comfort zone, and see what happens. Take the risk of being known.
- Illuminating: Storytelling is as basic an instinct as human beings have. We tell stories, as Joan Didion famously wrote, “in order to live.” Stories draw meaning from experience—shining a light in the mysterious darkness. A good story illuminates, even if it’s just a flickering a-ha (or ha-ha). It doesn’t have to be dramatic, or even profound, but there should be a spark of insight that flies into the heart or mind of your reader, and kindles their own understanding of what it means to live.
As the optometrist says, is that better?
Image via GraphicsFairy