Personal Writing and Storytelling Devices

Storytelling Devices for Memorable Personal Writing

Oh my goodness, you are NEVER going to believe this! So starts many a true story.

But when telling interesting news have you ever said:

“Hang on a minute. Just let me start from the beginning will you?”

Like that story about your cousin’s wedding when Uncle Harry ended up dancing on the table then running off with one of the bridesmaids?

Sometimes a story is just too good to share only the edited highlights. To help your listener enjoy and understand what really happened you need to get them clued up on the background details as well as the actual punchline and the final outcome.

We all know a story has a beginning, middle and end but sometimes, because we know it so well or are in a hurry to share it, a story spills out willy nilly. Then we have to backtrack because we forgot to mention an important detail or introduce an important new character properly.

Storytellers need to remember these personal writing tips and include them in every single story, whether we’re telling it orally, or writing it to share on our blogs or elsewhere.

Memorable Personal Writing and Story-Telling Tips

1. Story Order

Every story needs a clear beginning, middle and end. As we get more confident and experienced in our writing we can play around with plot devices like flashbacks or starting our story at the end then writing about how we got to that point. But to begin with chronological order is unbeatable.

The opening and closing sentences are the most important sentences in your story. The first line gets the reader hooked and sets the tone for the story. The last sentence wraps things up and gives the reader closure. Try writing the first and last sentences of your story before you write the whole thing.

2. Writing tone

Will the tone be humorous, descriptive, serious, confidential or dramatic? Imagine who’s going to read the story and what tone will appeal to them then stick with that tone throughout the story.

You may combine two tones but once you’ve chosen the tone it gets easier to choose the right words to use to tell your story.

3. Plotlines

Like other stories personal writing deals with these four elements:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • Why?
  • When?

Who – Even though you’re writing your personal story you might be focusing on other characters. It’s probably you but, if not, you need to decide who your main character is. They are your hero or heroine and need to be kept in the spotlight. Every story needs a main character, an obstacle that causes their transformation and an end result.

What – We usually start writing with a clear idea of what happened and what our story will cover. But often other ideas pop up and we can get distracted so you’ll need to ask what really happened each time you edit the story. Can you explain what happens in one sentence?

Why – Why do you want to tell your personal story? What makes it important, memorable, interesting, funny or poignant? How do you want your readers to feel at the end of the story? Maybe you want to inspire them, share a moral message or make them laugh.

Choose your words to evoke feelings without telling your readers how you want them to feel. To help your reader experience what you experienced you have to give them clues about how you felt without making it obvious. Remember to show, not tell your readers how you felt.

When – Some stories are set in a timeless era and an anonyomous place and they work. But usually it’s best to set a clear scene and time to help your readers transport themselves there.

4. Rewriting

In the essential personal writing tips I mentioned:

“You’ll need to write something to discover what your story is. Then you’ll have to rewrite it to work out why your story’s important, and rewrite it again to make the story clear to your readers.”

Rewriting and editing is key. Even if you can tell a good story in the first writing it will always improve the  more you work on. Great stories and books have been carefully constructed, revised and improved and it’s worth spending time on. I don’t know about you but I’d prefer to write one great story than several so so books.

But put limits on rewrites. Don’t be a perfectionist and do quash your inner critic. Set a time line for finishing your story or publishing it on your blog. None of us are going to be great writers unless we practice and keep churning out new writing.

Remember no story is ever perfect and writers are often their own worst critics, but your story needs to be told so writing it down is a great starting point. Before you start writing ask:

What’s the most important point you want to make?

What’s the effect you want to have on the reader?

Then keep reminding yourself of those points are you write, revise and edit.

5. Use dialogue

Dialogue creates immediacy and give other characters a voice that makes them real. Use dialogue to change the tone or pace of your story and give readers candid insights.

6. Embellish where needed

Don’t be afraid to embelish  your story or exaggerate a bit. In real life we often underplay stories but personal writing is not the time for that.

Embellished stories are still true, so don’t just write that someone looked like a wierdo. Tell us they had google eyes, a festering pustule on the end of their nose and a snow drift of dandruff on their shoulder.

Creative embellishment is your job as a story-teller so play up your personal story – have fun with it your readers will too.

Making Personal Writing Memorable

We might say “you’ll never believe this,” but a good storyteller makes people suspend their disbelief and captivates them completely. A good storyteller writes stories that are so memorable other people tell them too.

What do you think are the most important elements about personal writing and telling your story? It might be one of these points, or something completely different. Let us know in the comments!

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In the weeks ahead we’ll cover showing not telling, themes and self-discovery. We’d love you to join our hot personal writing team!

Author: Annabel Candy

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Max Bronson April 7, 2011 at 9:28 am

Hi Annabel,

I read Stephen King’s “On Writing” last year. He recommends, when someone finishes their first draft of their novel, to put it away for at least 6 months before coming back to it.

What do you think about this time period for novel writers?

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Annabel Candy April 7, 2011 at 9:57 am

Hi Max, thanks for dropping by, it’s great to see you here. That’s a great book and we should let our blog posts “rest” for a day before publishing so we can review and improve them.

I’ve got the manuscrpit for a novel all written and that’s a question I’m not really qualified to answer but it sounds about right – not too short a time that you can’t see the problems in it and not too long that you lose interest and move onto another project!

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KT May 6, 2011 at 8:30 am

This is good advice…. I’m just getting into blogging for real for real… and I really love the introspective storytelling part. It is definite good advice to let the blog post chill unpublished, at least overnight. I ALWAYS come back and find somewhere where I could have made something clearer or sound more compelling. Great tips!

GutsyWriter April 7, 2011 at 11:20 pm

I’ve put mine away for a month, but not six months. It depends if you’re starting a second manuscript at the same time. Just my opinion.

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Sandra / Always Well Within April 7, 2011 at 10:23 am

I confess that storytelling is not my number 1 forté. I think a personal story needs to be punch. I tend to get too embroiled in the details and probably lose people halfway through. These are excellent tips. I especially like the idea of writing your first and last sentences first.

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Annabel Candy April 7, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Hi Sandra, well I have a lot to learn too:) I’m just happy to be working on my storytelling skills because I think they’re so important for personal and business blogs! I’ll be keeping an eye out for your stories:)

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Jen Gresham April 7, 2011 at 10:49 am

You may not want to begin in the middle of the story, so to speak (though it isn’t a bad idea either), your story should nearly always begin with action and set up the conflict.

Jon Morrow also talks about stitching your content–one sentence should force the reader to read the next to find out what happens. If your reader isn’t egging you on after each sentence, your story will only be average.

That’s an advanced technique, and I’m still practicing it, but very effective when you get it right!

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Annabel Candy April 7, 2011 at 3:38 pm

Thanks Jen, I love reading just about anything by Jon or you! It’s all about practice and I’m having fun with it although I definitely haven’t reached the advanced stage myself yet! Just trying to get better:)

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GutsyWriter April 7, 2011 at 11:17 pm

I’ve been learning and am still learning, for the last five years. You said you’ve written a novel, which I would find even more difficult to write than my family/travel/adventure memoir. I kept a journal in Belize and had 140,000 words, which I’ve worked over and over to get to 84,000 words.
I wish I’d started out with the structure and through line (message) first, rather than struggle to fit it into shape later. The only advantage to doing it after, was how it enabled me to “get rid” of anything that wasn’t related to my message. I didn’t know enough about writing five years ago. I had so much “telling” and not enough “showing.” Plus a memoir is a balancing act with the right amount of narrative, dialogue, inner thoughts, and has to read like fiction. I just listened to an interview with a published author who said even she has to hire an editor to go over her manuscript. I believe this is crucial in today’s competitive market.

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Annabel Candy April 8, 2011 at 8:19 am

Hi there Sonia, great point. All those published authors have editors poring over their work editing and refining it. Wish we were so lucky. So interesting to read your processes. I’m the same – I usually just let things flow out naturally and see what comes but trying to be more disciplined!

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GutsyWriter April 8, 2011 at 2:26 pm

It’s really a process or a journey, as they say, and we all doubt ourselves. I think it’s funny to hear famous authors say, “I feel like what I write is crap, one day, and then I love it another day.”

Jennifer Garza April 8, 2011 at 5:51 am

Yes, an editor is like a good therapist – they give you an objective point of view. Most times, we’re complety unobjective concerning our own lives and our own words ;)

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Annabel Candy April 8, 2011 at 8:33 am

Hi Jennifer, lovely to see you again and thanks for adding that. So true:)

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Cherry Hanz April 8, 2011 at 1:26 pm

I love to read and I love stories. A great story will compell you to read, even if the writer is a little rough around the edges, but a great story and a great writer will change you forever – Francine Rivers and “Redeeming Love”, one of my all time favorites.

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Annabel Candy April 10, 2011 at 2:29 am

Thanks for the reading tip, Cherry! Always love those.

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Stafford April 8, 2011 at 6:07 pm

Hi Annabel, after one and two half novels, with a hundred agents not willing to even take a peep, I reckon it has a lot in common with a jail sentence except there is no parole!

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Annabel Candy April 10, 2011 at 2:30 am

Hi Stafford, never give up!

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Amy Parmenter April 8, 2011 at 9:28 pm

AC!

The most important part of a story – especially these days – is the headline. People are busy. They’re scanning. You can have the greatest story in the world, but without a headline that grabs their attention and says ‘Stop. Read this.’…your story will be missed.

As in ‘Why I Slept With Someone I Didn’t Even Know’ :0)

Then, the first line of the story should be equally strong…just to reinforce that they’ve made the right decision…and will keep reading.

Funny that you should be writing about this, because I’m redefining myself as a story teller. It’s what I’ve been getting paid for for years, as a journalist…and now I’m ratcheting it up a notch, to help businesses and individuals tell their stories too.

Hope all is well….

Amy
The ParmFarm

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Annabel Candy April 10, 2011 at 2:32 am

hi Amy, great to see you here and thanks for the top tips. So true. I love the headline writing and have heaps of ideas for those. Need to work on my firstlines now:)

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Sue April 9, 2011 at 2:46 am

Hi Annabel,

This was a great post. A couple of months ago, I attended a workshop on editing narrative and the instructor (an editor with years of experience and a quick wit) covered all of the same points you’ve covered here. One other point that was raised in the workshop is to watch that the writing doesn’t stray too far or too often into explanatory text or editorial asides as they pull the reader out of the story.

I’ve occasionally seen memoirs that drift (or perhaps they segue) into entire chapters of explanatory text or hypothesizing about a theme or issue that’s related to the memoir but really isn’t part of the events that move the story along. I find it pushes me right out of the story and it’s often a challenge to re-engage with the flow of the narrative after long detours into explanation land.

A couple of really great books on writing and telling personal storiesare William Zinnser’s book “On Writing Well. The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction” which includes a chapter on memoir writing, and “Writing About Your Life”, also by William Zinnser.

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Annabel Candy April 10, 2011 at 2:33 am

Hi Sue, another great tip and such an easy trap to fall into. Love the reading tips too. Thank you!

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Taty April 9, 2011 at 6:00 pm

Hi Annabel, I love story telling, but live! I find it hard to express what I really feel just using words.. I need to be using my whole body and eyes.. I guess its a latin thing.. but great post, specially now I’m writing for my blog. Maybe you can give us all some times on How to show your personality or something like that..
All the best, Taty

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Annabel Candy April 10, 2011 at 2:35 am

Hi Taty, you should try Toastmasters or oral storytelling where body language adds so much. Writing in a second language is hard!

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Galen Pearl April 10, 2011 at 12:45 am

This is such a terrific post. I teach professional writing (legal writing and contract drafting), and even though it has its own style, much of what you are saying is still very applicable.

And in my blog writing, I know that when I follow your suggestions here, I get more response from readers.

Thank you for this excellent advice!

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J.D. Meier April 12, 2011 at 12:45 am

I like your point on writing tone … I think that sets the cadence.

It’s a subtle thing but cadence really is important, just like comedic timing.

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Penelope J. April 16, 2011 at 4:20 am

Annabel, Something many writers overlook is the emotional element in a story, whether it be a blog post, a memoir or a novel. As interesting as the story may be, Uncle Harry running away with a bridesmaid only becomes relevant and memorable when he, she, and/or the storyteller come across as real people with real feelings. The story can’t just be told, it must reveal how his action had repercussions, or why it came about that he did this (his wife was sexually unresponsive/he was uptight and repressed until then, he’d just made/lost a million $, etc.), and how it affected other people close to him. The reader has to be made to care. When you write, especially memoir, you have to dig deep and bare your emotions, i.e. “go naked in public.” Too many would-be writers try to get away with just “telling” a good story, but it’s the emotion behind it that will grab the reader every time. For most writers, that is the most difficult to achieve. I’d suggest an exercise to kick start this: write about your most intimate moment and what happened to change you. Sex, death, and personal humiliation are particularly difficult to handle. Then share with a writers’ group or in a short story, article, or blog post.

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Annabel Candy May 9, 2011 at 9:58 am

Hi Penelope, thanks so much for the excellent suggestions. That is so crucial – taking the brave step of really sharing.

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Farhan June 9, 2011 at 11:22 pm

Thank you so much this really help my studies

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Jeanette January 20, 2012 at 12:02 pm

Thank you, your posts are always nailing it for me.

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