Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 8 of 12: Show Rather Than Tell

Cover of Winter's Bone, a novel
8. Think of your lifestory as scenes in a movie

I dislike movies with narrators. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Get on with the story fer cryin' out loud. Narration at the beginning signals I’m not going to like the movie, while narration later in the movie bogs down my interest. Narration instead of action is a roadblock to my enjoyment, whether it’s words on the screen or voice over.

Synonyms for telling are narration and exposition. A certain amount of exposition is necessary to move along your story, but only the more important parts deserve longer expositions. The lifeblood of your story is interaction of characters. What did you do when they came into and went out of your life and how did you feel about what occurred?

Scenes in movies
Think of your lifestory as a series of scenes in a movie. In the movie business, big screen or television, writers put together stories using only four scenes. Wait a minute. How is that possible? Simple: The scenes are indoors night or day and outdoors night or day. That’s it. Nothing else. Everything happens within the framework of those scenes.

In your lifestory you may be an observer of a scene or you may be in the scene. Close your eyes and visually walk through the scene. Who are your characters? What are they feeling, doing, and saying? Where have they been? Where are they going? Why are they doing things? What results from their actions? When will they reveal their secrets? How are they going to get out of this mess?

Creative writing instructor Robert McKee, in Story, his handbook on the craft of screenwriting: "Never force words into a character's mouth to tell the audience about world, history, or person. Rather show us honest, natural scenes in which human beings talk and behave in honest, natural ways . . . In other words, dramatize exposition."

Action scenes don't need words. Characters in the movie Jurassic Park seek safety inside a laboratory. The camera shows a bowl of motionless water on a lab table. Small ripples appear in the water and become increasingly stronger, low thumping noises get louder, then a dinosaur crashes into the lab. Jumped outta my seat!
Words on paper
Freelance editor and mentor Bobbie Christmas says this is telling: "Harry was nervous. He wondered if the police sketch looked so much like him that he could be recognized." She says this is showing: "Harry raked his clammy hands against his jeans. He gawked at the bulletin board. The police sketch gazed back at him, his image exactly. He tugged at his collar, gulped, and glanced around to see if anybody recognized him."

Daniel Woodrell begins nearly every chapter of Winter’s Bone describing a harsh Ozarks winter. His characters rely on winter settings: 

“Weather burst on the woman’s hat and shoulders, wet spray jumping. She touched Ree’s hood, rapped knuckles against the ice to break it fine, and swiped the pieces away.”

“Ree stomped the ice and it creaked but did not crack wide. She took another step, and another, then came back for the ax. She stood on the ice near the willow, raised the ax and put all her feelings into the whacks she delivered unto that pond.”

"Black ice lay slick where the road bottomed, and the truck slid a surprise twist sideways and completed most of a circle before rubber found dry asphalt again and Gail yanked the squealing tires straight. She yelped and slowed fearfully to a shambling pace, then suddenly stopped altogether and sat trembling, overlooking a steep bank of scrub and a frozen cow pond."

Sorry to say the movie version did not do justice to Woodrell's winter scenes. Alas, the director didn't ask my advice.

Photo courtesy Little, Brown and Company

How have you overcome the urge to tell rather than to show action?

Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 7 of 12: Old-time Western Movies Got it Right

Alfred "Lash" LaRue (1921-1996)
7. Open with action or something interesting.

When I was a boy in the 1940s I enjoyed going to the ten-cent movie theater just off the square in my hometown and watching black-and-white cowboy movies. My heroes included Johnny Mack Brown, Whip Wilson, Hopalong Cassidy, The Durango Kid, Red Ryder, and Lash LaRue. Sorry ladies, no female Western movie heroes back then. (There was Judy Canova, but she was not in the same league as the men.)

To put those old movies into perspective for you young'uns, Lash LaRue taught Harrison Ford how to use a bullwhip in the Indiana Jones movies.

The Western movies of my youth often began with a stagecoach roaring down a dusty road, the bad guys chasing and shooting, the stagecoach guard lying on top and shooting back. Soon the stagecoach was surrounded by the bandits. The guard would jump onto the horse of a bandit and they went tumbling down a hillside.

Flash forward to the Indiana Jones movies—they all begin with action, or an exotic mystery that quickly leads to action.

How experts do it
Novelist James Patterson begins I, Alex Cross with a young woman wearing only her underwear, running through woods with bullets whizzing past and being slapped and scratched by tree branches. She stumbles onto a rural road, flags down a pickup truck, and climbs into the cab.

“Don’t let them get me,” she says to the driver.


“The men.”

“What men?”

“The men from the White House.”

You have to turn the page.

Cultural historian Teva Scheer is author of Governor Lady, the biography of America’s first female governor, Wyoming’s Nellie Tayloe Ross. Scheer begins with seven-year old Nellie and her family standing on the banks of the Missouri River near St. Joseph, watching their bluff-top house burn to the ground. Then she fills in the backstory.

How I do it
My brother and I are writing our family history. Suppose we began like this:

“I was born July 29, 1939 in a house in Marshall, Missouri, the second of three boys.” Dull. And a sure-fire way to stop readers from turning the page, or even finishing the page.

Instead, we start like this:

“Dad never liked his given name, Aloysius Elias. ‘What kind of parents give a name like that?’ he said on several occasions. Parents of strong German heritage, I learned.”

When I speak to groups I start my talks with something that grabs attention, such as:

“I used to be a pretty nice guy until I started using computers.”

“I don’t like it. It’s hard work, time consuming, boring, I would rather be doing something else, and there is nothing in the Bible about it.”

Quotes can immediately establish rapport with your audience and set the tone for your stories. Here are several I've used:

“There never was an uninteresting life. Such a thing does not exist.” Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens, 1835-1910).

“It is not enough to write to be understood. We must write so we cannot possibly be misunderstood.” Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894).

“I retired 17 years ago and have been behind in my work ever since.” Shirley Povich (1905-1998), sportswriter for the Washington Post.

Whether it is the first chapter in your book or the eighth, begin with the action or something interesting. Your readers will love it.

Photo courtesy

How have you used action or something interesting to open your stories?

Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 6 of 12: The William Zinsser Model

William Zinsser
6. Freewrite without editing or censoring

It’s easy to get bogged down in too many details when writing the first draft of your lifestory.

“Wait a minute,” you say. “My life is about the details.”

Yes, but . . . (There is always a but, right? Some purists declare everything before but is erased in the mind of the reader or hearer. But, that's not today’s topic.)

Yes, but notice these words in the opening statement: bogged down, too many details, first draft.

Writing and editing are different processes. I’ll have more on editing in a later tip. When writing your lifestory you should have a first draft you clean up by adding, deleting, rearranging, clarifying, and re-purposing days or weeks after you wrote it. If you stop to do those actions while writing it you may never have a draft to finish.

Bozo and Cheerio Syndrome
Suppose you are writing about your twelfth birthday party at your grandparents’ house. Your grandparents hired Bozo the clown and his dog Cheerio. You strike through twelfth; it was your eleventh birthday. You strike through grandparents; it was your uncle and aunt. Oh, and the clown’s name was Cheerio and his dog was Bozo. You trash the whole thing until you can get it exactly right. You could go on like that and never write the story.

It’s okay to make your first draft ugly. This is the hardest part of writing for me. I always want to do the Bozo/Cheerio routine, even though I know I shouldn’t. Many writing gurus say write it and worry about fixing it later.

Also in your freewriting don’t try to censor yourself. Eliminate from your thoughts ideas such as this is not an interesting story, I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, my family remembers it differently, this is too personal, I’m not a writer (see last week’s post on this one). Go ahead and write what you are feeling and decide later whether to include it or modify it. Open your thoughts to all possibilities.

William Zinsser Model
Ninety year old William Zinsser has had a distinguished career as columnist, university professor, freelance writer, and author of eighteen books including two on memoirs. In On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, 30th Anniversary Edition, he suggests this model for writing your memoir:
  1. Write about one event today; could be in longhand, could be on the computer, could be one page or several pages. Just one event. “Don’t be impatient to write your ‘memoir’—the one you had in mind before you began,” he says. 
  2. Tomorrow, write about another event. And the next day and the next until you have written thirty or sixty or ninety stories or whatever fits your purpose. Do not edit or arrange the stories as you write. 
  3. When you have written all you want, lay all of the stories onto the floor and arrange them in the order you prefer. Rewrite to your satisfaction.
VoilĂ , you wrote your memoir.

Photo courtesy William Zinsser

How have you overcome your urge to edit and censor as you write?

Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 5 of 12: Don't Try to be a Writer

Our book cover
5. Write in your natural voice, as though you were telling a story to a friend.

Students in my lifestory writing classes frequently say, “I’m not a writer.”

Stay with me, I’m going to get negative before I get positive.

I remember a scene in a movie from many years ago—can’t remember the name of the movie—in which an Army drill instructor faced a group of new recruits for the first time. “I tell you now, you will never make it,” the instructor barked.

Some established writers, agents, editors, and publishers tell aspiring writers the same thing; that writing what people want to read is hard, scary, and painful, therefore newbies won’t make it.

Consider these

  • Harper Lee, Pulitzer Prize winner for To Kill a Mockingbird, on why she never published another book (she wrote two others): “I wouldn’t go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money.” 
  • Michael Perry, author of three bestselling memoirs: “I just wrote and wrote and wrote for years, and then one day (after nearly a decade of writing every day and submitting work every month) the marbles aligned, not that the metaphor is perfect. I’m still trying to keep those marbles in line, and the table is forever tipping.” 
  • Paul Gallico (1897-1976), novelist and sportswriter: “It is only when you open your veins and bleed onto the page a little that you establish contact with your reader.” 
  • Susannah Breslin, short-story writer: “This is your roulette wheel, and when it lands on every number but the one you picked, and you realize that after years of work, you haven’t made more than a pittance at what you thought would be your new career, you will call it a day.”
How do you counter such negativity? Your image of what a writer should be may be skewed to unreal expectations. In the finality of things you need to be you. You need to write your lifestory the way you remember events and how you were influenced without being restrained by arbitrary standards of so-called experts.

Don't try to be a writer
This doesn’t mean you abandon effective storytelling techniques, good grammar, and proper punctuation. Learn your craft and then you can break the rules. Your finished product should be you; not Harper Lee, Michael Perry, Paul Gallico, or Susannah Breslin. On the other hand, it salves me to know Gallico told New York Magazine: “I'm a rotten novelist. I'm not even literary. I just like to tell stories.”

How do you be you? Rather than staring at a blank page or empty computer screen struggling to write like a writer, try telling your story to a digital voice recorder. You can buy them for thirty dollars to three hundred dollars. My thirty-dollar recorder does everything I need.

Tell your story into the recorder just as you would tell it to a friend. For my book with Dorsey Levell, Dumb Luck or Divine Guidance: My 31 Years with the Council of Churches of the Ozarks, we did a series of audio recorded interviews which we then transcribed and edited. Dorsey is a great storyteller; he readily admits he is a much better storyteller than a writer. Some who know him told us that reading our book was like having a cup of coffee with him and listening to his stories. Exactly the result we were going for.

Book cover designed by Eric Baker of Blue Sky Design.

Tell us how you used a digital voice recorder for stories of family, friends, or clients.