FROM EARLY CHILDHOOD, stories are an integral part of our lives — and for good reason. It is through stories that we learn about life, the culture we live in and its mores and expectations. Stories contain lessons and offer archetypes as role models, helping us to learn what is possible in life, and that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. They warn about the dark side of human nature and inspire us to be the best we can be.
Stories are so integral to who we humans are that even our memories are a form of storytelling through which we understand life experience.
But there are stories and then there are STORIES — powerful narratives that stay with us and affect our lives long after we’ve heard (or watched) them.
Those of us who read and write memoir know that stories fashioned from life can, in some ways, be more powerful than those of the imagination because they represent real people in real situations with real obstacles and triumphs.
So, what’s the difference between a STORY that provides a powerful and lasting experience for the reader and a story that’s just okay?
There are many elements to good storytelling. The following 4 ingredients, however, are essential if you want your story to have an impact.
1) Powerful stories depict universal human experiences.
They communicate some truth about what it means to be human, reveal the light and dark sides of human nature and/or human society, and elicit emotional responses from their readers. Even if readers have not experienced the particular situation depicted in the story, it connects us with our core emotions: love, anger, fear, sadness, grief, joy, etc. If a story doesn’t hook readers’ emotions, they will not be engaged and there is no compelling reason for them to want to find out what happens.
2) Powerful stories have a core message or theme.
The story’s theme is connected to some aspect of the universal human experience. An enduring example of theme in fiction is Lord of the Flies, in which Golding explores the darker sides of human nature related to belonging, power, influence, and greed.
Plot is “what happens” in a story and theme is “why” it is happening. Themes in stories help us learn about ourselves and others, including other cultures and ways of living.
Examples of universal themes in memoir might include:
- Belonging and Loneliness (Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown; In Pieces by Sally Field)
- Love and Loss (The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion; Wild by Cheryl Strayed)
- Complicated Family Relationships (You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie; Don’t Call Me Mother by Linda Joy Myers)
- Power and Corruption (Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth)
- Childhood Innocence / Innocence Stolen (A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah; Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs)
- Overcoming Illness or Disadvantage (Educated by Tara Westover; Born a Crime by Trevor Noah)
3) Powerful stories contain more than one level of conflict.
Powerful stories all contain a struggle between two or more opposing forces. In fiction, that struggle is typically between a protagonist and an antagonist. In memoir, the antagonist might be someone in power inflicting abuse or other limitation on the narrator (the protagonist). Or the struggle might be against a situation, such as poverty, illness, or loss.
Conflict comes in two forms: internal, in which the character struggles against two opposing emotions — for example, loyalty vs. desire for freedom — and external. In which the character struggles against external forces that impede her progress.
Both types of conflict are essential ingredients for creating a compelling story. Without conflict, you don’t have a story, you have an anecdote.
4) Powerful stories inspire through transformation.
Overcoming adversity, coming of age, shifting from victimization to empowerment or fear to freedom, gaining a new understanding about a situation, or changing from a desire for revenge to forgiveness are all examples of the types of transformations that occur in literature. If your characters aren’t transformed by their experiences in some way, the story will fall flat.
In, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou inspires us through her story of overcoming bigotry and abuse.
Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom shows us a way to maintain hope and joy, in spite of living a life of oppression and suffering.
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls inspires us by demonstrating that we can rise above our circumstances, though we may have to endure losses along the way.
I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea.
Watch the following two video clips. Identify the universal experiences, themes, internal and external conflicts, and/or transformations if any. Then discuss in the comments section.