And every good story - even the shortest ones - has these 6 points…or it’s not really that great a story, kitten.
Every one of those great movies, novels, radio shows & scrapbooks have the same 6 things to make them compelling & complete. If they don’t? Well, those are the movies we fall asleep halfway through or the novels we just can’t quite make it through. They’re missing something.
Because we are hardwired to LOVE a great story. We learn best through story; we connect with others by telling & listening to stories; we escape & relax by jumping into make believe stories, and we share & relive our own memories & lives through storytelling.
It’s why photos are so precious to us & why we love to keep memories to share. The stories of our lives are important!
So we better make them good.
This shape isn’t new. You may even recognize it from your High School English class (I know I taught a few classes about it, so if you were ever a student of mine you sure did), but did you know that you can use the narrative arc to tell your family stories too?
You can. You can use this framework to make sure that all of your memories are complete & interesting. Even the seemingly light & silly ones will have these ingredients, if you get creative.
Find a photo for each piece - or make a few notes to fill in the details, but be creative & have fun. That’s the key to making a story yours. Let’s pretend we’re making a vacation album (mostly because I’m dying for a vacation, so I’m going to pretend I’m hitting the Caribbean with my family).
We could fill the whole album with pictures of the sand & touristy cabanas…or we could tell the story. We could make it rich & alive & full of the texture of our actual vacation.
So that my family will actually enjoy re-living it as much as I enjoy telling it…and we’ll capture the fullness of the stories of our life…not just the pretty bits. That texture is really the best part anyways.
1. Set up your story first.
Who was there? When did it happen? Where were you & why do we care? You can answer these questions with a single photo, or you can set it up with a whole section.
My vacation album isn’t starting at the beach. We’re going to set this up with some context…how about a spread showing the stacks of paper on my desk, laundry on the couch & my I-haven’t-washed-my-hair-in-way-too-long ponytail. We can put in a few sullen teenagers too for added spice - with agendas already full of assignments to do & no time left over for each other.
This is where the story starts, right? These are the people who matter & this is the kind of situation that makes a vacation special.
2. Send the people toward a conflict.
Ok, so don’t set up your vacation to be awful, That’s not the point, but we all know that real life can have rough spots. This is the part of the story where we send our main characters out into the world together to face whatever comes our way.
The next spread in our vacation album could be, “Our Escape Plan,” & it can include the tickets, flight itineraries, maps & brochures. Maybe I’ll add a journal page with a checklist for all of our hopes for the vacation - our vacation bucket list. We can even put some photos of us making those plans together.
The story is developing & starting to feel important, right? We have some goals too…that’s always a good place for a story to start. I mean…could you imagine if Frodo & Sam were just going for a walk in the woods? Nope. They need to be heading to Mount Doom & they need to have a mission, or nobody cares.
3. Set out the conflict & its stakes.
If we just jumped right to the happy ending, our story wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. It also wouldn’t be very…well…true. Because life doesn’t jump from the ToDo list to the finished product, does it? Record the details that were difficult or tricky on the way to the sunset on the beach, kitten, so you can enjoy the view when you arrive all the more.
Maybe our flight is delayed, our luggage is lost or our tour bus to the ultimate dolphin emporium gets a flat tire. It’s a family vacation! Something ridiculous will happen, & we’re going to want to remember that. If your family is anything like ours, you know we’re also going to want to laugh about it, so we’ll go ahead and grab some pictures of us in the horrible hotel-lobby gift shop outfits we had to wear until our luggage turned up, & we’ll tell about the conflict that will lead us toward the whole point of the story.
Because every story has a moral. And every moral starts with a conflict. Ours may be that our clothes are all missing & my kids are growing up too fast to be that excited about a week on the beach with their mom. Sounds plausible, right?
4. Climax! This is the moment right before things work out ok.
So depending on the type of story you’re telling, this could be the hanging-off-the-cliff moment - the, “Will she make it?” moment right before the main character claws her way back up onto solid land (or in an entirely different story, she doesn’t). It’s the suspense & the excitement & the adrenaline of the thing.
Ok. So it’s a little tougher to pinpoint in our day-to-day life than in an action movie, but there is always a climax in every good story. You just need to find it & show it. Here’s how: look at what the point of the whole story is & work backwards.
Maybe we realized during this vacation that my kids & I are closer to being adults together than a family with little kids & that’s kind of scary. Maybe they finally let down their teenager-guard & we just had fun being together & we knew that it will be ok for our family to change, because it’s still our family no matter what.
Whatever the moral of our story is, the climax is the moment right before we realized it - the moment we nearly missed it.
So our vacation climax could be a spread showing photos of the girls being all grown up, next to a photo of them as sweet little girls from an old family vacation. I can write a note there about how it feels to see them growing up & how the time we get together now is bittersweet, because they are getting closer & closer to leaving the nest.
5. Find the moral & resolve the conflict.
This is the turning point. It’s when all of the tension you built up gets resolved & it becomes clear what the point of the whole thing is, & it’s the most satisfying thing about good storytelling. You just set up the pins, kitten. It’s time to knock them down.
This is that picture of us together on the beach - the one where they forgot to not smile for the camera & we all look serene & full of joy, or it’s the food fight in our hotel room when we got pasta in our hair & laughed til our tummies hurt or the dance-off in the restaurant when I thoroughly embarrassed them until they joined in - or all of the above.
It’s all of those beautiful, happy, vacation-y moments we captured that reminded us that even though things aren’t easy & life is textured with all kinds of difficulties (even in the Caribbean), we are a family & we will always be.
6. What’s the point? Tie up the loose ends, & make it complete.
This is the, “cue the credits” piece of every story. Some stories have sadness & some have laughs, but you should always tie it up at the end, so that it feels complete.
I think our vacation book will have a spread where each of us fill in a postcard to our future selves. We can remind ourselves of what a family vacation is for (even with rainy days & lost luggage), and we can maybe write a little dream or hope for future vacations - together or on our own. How fun would that be? I think I need to book this vacation, just so I can get the girls to write these postcards.
Can you see the difference between an album full of beach pictures & ticket stubs & the story of this piece of our lives?
That one vacation album will show a huge & important part of how our family has developed. It can tell more than the places we’ve been - it can show who we have been along the way.
And it can help us to never forget the real parts of the stories of our lives - even if they include bad gift shop T-shirts & grumpy teenagers, because that’s the truth about family.
And the truth is fantastic!
PS - you can read more about the shape of stories & find writing, blogging & biz tips on my blog. Here’s a great post on storytelling: http://www.withakwriting.com/brand-story-worksheet/
Kris is a writer, teacher, editor & biz-story coach who helps women raise their voices and share their best stories…with pancakes & Canadian maple syrup on the side. Find Kris at www.withakwriting.com, in her new Blog your Voice Bootcamp and on Creative Live with April Bowles-Olin.