Have you ever listened to someone who doesn’t often get the chance to be heard? They spill their story, going on and on. Even when you shift your feet, move your gaze, or even tell them outright you need to get going. It’s okay for a while to offer the gift of listening, but then at some point you feel invisible amidst their rambling–they don’t even notice you’re not following.
Or have you watched a movie where a certain point is made over and over again, and the whole movie seems like nothing more than a way to serve the moral?
You’ve probably been in a situation where you didn’t feel engaged with a story.
Telling doesn’t let the reader engage.
Telling can be condescending to the reader when it’s one-sided. Colored by your current views, it doesn’t allow the reader to engage.
The reader can’t follow the cause and effects you see, or get from point A to point B when they aren’t involved in the journey. They don’t get to think for themselves and form their own opinions and conclusions.
Plus, you might change your mind about what an experience means. There’s limitless ways to interpret a situation. You’ll likely view it through different lenses over time.
It’s valuable to write the story for yourself.
In the process of writing about a personal experience, whether it’s for a personal essay or memoir, you can start by processing the raw experience. Through journaling or talking to a friend, therapist, or mentor.
Then you might catalog the lessons you learned to see them in a new way. You can get a lot out of this.
When it’s time to shape your story to be read by others, you might want to try using narrative techniques to create more engagement and connection for the reader.
The magic of a story comes from “showing, not telling.”
You might notice your writing is flat, unengaging, or uninteresting (or others give you this feedback). You’re excited to convey all the lessons you learned, but the narrative falls flat and your reader is bored.
“Showing, not telling” takes the reader with you on the journey.
If you’re writing a personal essay or memoir, you might include a scene of dialogue between you and the teacher who made a big difference in your life in order to SHOW what’s happening. In this way, you’re also letting the reader feel a part of it.
The most important thing isn’t the lesson itself, but the way you use tone, context cues, and creative narrative choices to SHOW the lesson you learned.
Stay in the experience.
By staying with the events themselves, the story you’re telling, and the central thread running through the whole piece, you can complete your piece without altering the narrative of the lessons. Stay with what happened; the things that can’t be disputed.
Your current thoughts and feelings may change. What happened in the moment? E.g. The room had blue walls. You laughed even though they expected you to cry. There were 50 people in the building. You were scared. You told him to pack his bags and leave.
Lead from the things that were true in the moment.
Story is a wonderful method to teach and learn–it’s how we as humans understand the world.
You don’t need to hit the reader over the head for them to understand what you’re trying to get across. You can make your point through mini-stories.
This is a more complex method than just sharing your past experiences, so it’s okay if it takes multiple drafts to get it right.
Take your reader directly into the action using sensory details.
I know it’s challenging to remember details from the past.
You don’t need to have a perfect memory–this exercise is about capturing details and emotional tone, authentic to the moment, without the benefit of years of insight and hindsight.
Memory is faulty anyway! It’s okay to use creative license as long as you’re in integrity; no one’s memory is perfect.
Here are 3 exercises I use with clients to help go from telling to showing.
Do you struggle with this? Reply and let me know.