Richard and Judy Dockrey Young: Making Your Family Story Worth Telling

Judy and Richard
Guest article by Richard and Judy Dockrey Young

Every family has stories. Family members involved in those stories find them fascinating. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the human race couldn’t care less. To make your family story come alive, focus not so much on family and more on story.

Give your characters multi-dimensions
A story must have characters, the actors in the action of the story. Make your characters interesting by giving them several layers. “My Uncle John...who never left the house without his red suspenders...” Mention veterans’ service, any good works for which the character is remembered, anything unique that adds to the listeners’ understanding of who your characters are. “Your Aunt Dolly, who was the only woman to win the Barker County Fair pie eating contest...” Your listeners (or readers) must care about the characters and about what happens to them. Make them human, not superhuman (unless your Uncle Albert was surnamed Schweitzer) or simple stereotypes. Make them sympathetic, such that we care about them; we feel with them the pain of the problems they face.

A well-told story must have a plot, or storyline, and that almost always involves a problem that needs to be solved. In fact, most anecdotes from families already involve a problem faced by the members since simple daily events like cooking breakfast rarely evince a memory worthy of being preserved in an anecdote. If all you have is an event like how Grandma cooked breakfast, compare it to modern kitchen gadgets...use thought-provoking and memory-evoking words to recreate the event. “She made white sausage gravy so thick the spoon would stand up in the bowl!” Even properly presented, such a non-event might be dull to your listeners and readers.

Go beyond just the facts
The listener (or reader) also needs to know the setting, the ambiance, the milieu of the story. Don’t just list a lot of cold facts (...the northwest corner of Township 9 Range 11 in Bowie County...) Use words that pull up memory pictures like “log cabin, Dust Bowl, North Woods, Arizona desert, brownstone, Victorian home” etc. Use sensory words (taste, smell, touch, sound, sights) and emotional ties (“I loved the way she always put honey into hot tea.”) Include details you remember about the room, the house, the barn, or wherever the story takes place. A long list of facts, with no sensory or emotional ties, is usually boring. Compare “The log cabin was really old.” to “The faint scent of pine lingered, even though the logs of the cabin had been cut fifty years before.”

Once you create characters listeners/readers care about, in a setting they can understand and appreciate, the plot or storyline must flow quickly to keep their attention. Rising action describes how the problem unfolds and worsens. The climax--which is usually not the end of the story, unless it’s some kind of joke story--tells how the problem was solved or the event came to an end. After that, the so-called falling action or d√©noument (French for “untying the knot”) should be very brief. Most inexperienced storytellers talk long after the story has technically ended.

Combine dialogue and traits
Unless your story must be absolutely exact in its details, consider combining two or even several characters into one for simplicity. For example, have the uncle say what he actually said, plus what the neighbor said. The fewer the characters, the tighter the construction of the story.

If it’s a comic story, you might stretch the actual happenings for comic effect, but don’t go overboard. “Uncle Josh got bit three times by that billy goat before he realized it wasn’t...” (he really only got bit once, but if he stuck around to get bit twice more, the effect may be funnier.)

Repeated images can give structure to action and may add humor (“No matter where we moved to, pretty soon there was a pile of useful junk behind the chicken house...”) But, again, don’t go overboard.

One of the best tests of your story (or memoir) is peer review by non-family members.

Best wishes and may all your stories be well-told!

Richard and Judy Dockrey Young of Kimberling City, Missouri are authors of nine books on storytelling. They present workshops and programs for children, libraries, professional storytellers, and nonprofessionals. They may be reached at

Photo: Mark Anderson

What storytelling techniques have you found most useful, or troublesome, in writing your life story?

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