Words to the Wise
Is Your Story Just a Series
When I was a novice, trying my hand at short stories, I wrote a
story based on a period in my own life. The story had power,
because of a difficult relationship at its centre, but despite
many revisions, it lacked something. Not until I took a workshop
Lois Peterson called "Editing Fiction from the Inside Out"
did I put my finger on the problem. My story was not much more
than a series of episodes strung together. It lacked the
elements of dramatic structure that turn characters and events
into story—the five-stage structure, the three-act structure,
the hero's journey. It even lacked theme—I could not have
answered the question,
What is your story about?
Many famous stories have an episodic structure, The Odyssey
being one. Nowadays, writers are using the structure in memoir.
These stories are journeys, about the author's own life or
someone else's, and they lend themselves naturally to the
episodic structure. But for many of them, that's where the
Elizabeth Lyon, in Manuscript Makeover, offers one of the
best discussions of the pitfalls of the episodic structure. She
says, "Instead of an arc composed of an ever-rising slope that
crests at the long-sought climax, the episodic [story] looks
like an unending series of similar-size hills, too often
resembling the Badlands, pun intended!... Episodic structure
fails to capture and hold the reader." Lyon is talking about
fiction, but that doesn't matter: the elements of fiction apply
creative nonfiction, including memoir. My story,
autobiographical and basically memoir, resembled the Badlands,
and it didn't capture anyone.
Lyon's solution is theme. If what you are writing is probably
episodic, she says "you can strengthen it greatly by doing the
following: Emphasize one theme that runs like the Amazon River
through all the pages. Maybe that theme is betrayal, secrets,
loyalty, faith, survival, unity of family, or search for
identity. If you show every point-of-view character working for
or against that theme, you'll create a unity that can give the
reader an anchor of meaning throughout the book."
Ah, theme again! It's the answer to so many problems. In another
of her workshops, "Converting Memories into Memoir," Lois
Peterson offers an exercise to help find your theme. Finish each
This is a story of my life as told
through incidents and experiences that reveal how I ...
The main theme that runs through my life
is my ability to ...
Whenever I talk about myself, I end up
The elements/experiences that most
strongly shaped my life include ...
By the end of my memoir, I’d like the
reader to know ...
Several of my editing clients have used this exercise to great
effect, transforming their episodic journeys into captivating
Lyon, Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction
Writer Can Afford to Ignore,
New York: Perigree,
workshop notes from "Editing Fiction from the Inside Out," 2008,
and "Converting Memories into Memoir," 2010.
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