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Telling Our Stories: A Guide to Writing Your Own Story

Here are the basics of crafting a personal narrative from beginning to end


Part of the Vitality Arts Special Report

(Editor’s Note: With Next Avenue’s Telling Our Stories initiative, we are inviting readers to write a 500-word personal narrative on a topic of their choosing. We are looking for insightful essays that illuminate a truth or teach us something new. Tell us a story about being resilient or brave or wise or funny or just about being who you are. Submissions are now open, and the deadline is Monday, August 31. In the following guide, by Minneapolis storyteller and teacher Dane Stauffer, you will find suggestions on how to write the story that is uniquely yours.)

“Everybody is talented because everybody who is human has something to express.” — writer Brenda Ueland, author of If You Want to Write

“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” 
― writer Anne Lamott, author of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

The creative act of storytelling is as old as language itself, and has the power to heal and transform. We are surrounded by stories: Stories in the news, tales from a neighbor or partner, movies, television, books, conversations.

If you have ever told a tale of your life more than once, then congratulations, you already know how to tell a story.

In sharing a story about an experience that may have been traumatic or “hitting a bottom,” both the teller and the tale are redeemed. It is “repurposed” the moment someone says, “That happened to me, too. Thank you for sharing it. I know I am not alone.”

If you have ever told a tale of your life more than once, then congratulations, you already know how to tell a story. In Minnesota, we are often asked to “tell that story about that one guy that you met at that one place that one time!”

Storytelling Basics

You know that a story has a beginning, middle and an end. With the idea of helping you to share your story with others and to do so with confidence, let’s look at these storytelling basics.

The Beginning: Set the Scene

Who is this story about? (Let’s say it is you.)

Where are you when this tale begins?

What does it look like, feel like, sound like?

What are you grappling with, hoping to achieve, or accomplish or understand?

What are you going to do about it?

How are you going to do something?

Why?  We, the readers or listeners, want to identify with you, we want to understand the stakes, and know how much you want this or are affected by this.

Usually, this leads to taking action, and that leads us to:

The Middle

This is where you encounter obstacles. Conflict. Setbacks. Surprises. You make adaptations to “stay on track” and to achieve your objective. Here is where the learning happens, the mistakes that make us laugh or cringe, the call to adapt, to persist.

The temptation to give up rises until, whether it was motivated by you, or by someone or something else, we come to….

The End

Our personal stories have resolution: “I was changed, I’ll never be the same, I set them straight, that was that, I resolved from then on to be…”

Where you began is different from where you ended up, even if it’s back in your own backyard, but with a changed perspective.

Beyond Structure to Gold

My colleague and bestselling author Tony Loyd, whose podcast culls and showcases stories of resilience, uses the acronym, ‘SOAR,’ to clarify the concept of structure:

S– Set the scene (Who? What? and Where?)

O– Obstacles were encountered

A– Action was taken

R– Resolution. How did it turn out?

Behind all of this technique, though, is the gold and that’s found in the sharing. Why share this story? Maybe you want the reader to feel something. Learn something. You want to warn us, or inspire us with an insight you gained.

5 Signs of Effective Storytelling

As you write, you know you’re being effective when:

1. You stay on track. Find a balance between clear details and over-explaining. Beware of “ranting” about a subject — that can lead to losing a beginning, middle and end. Read your story aloud to trusted listeners who may tell you, gently, when they need more details or if they are losing the thread of the story in “detours” and parenthetical phrases. Remember, readers are thinking: “Then what happened? And then what did you do? And what happened after that?”

Telling Our Stories spot art

2. You know your ending before you start. Remember the point you wish to make, the experience you want us to share.

3. You tell the story like you are talking to a trusted friend. Tell it like you talk.

4. You are invested in the telling. Use your senses. The reader wants to hear the birds, smell the bread baking, feel the wind, be in the crowded subway.

5. You offer moments of connection and commiseration. Convey the emotions with your words to help the reader “lean in” to your story.

Sharing Your Story

By sharing stories, in written form, on stage, on a podcast, around a campfire or at a hospital bedside; anywhere we tell a story, we are sharing ourselves.

And by sharing ourselves, we can create the space for others to tell their own stories and give ourselves the chance to read, listen, lean in and share in that great exchange of story.

For More Inspiration

You can get other help by reading these essays on Next Avenue written for the Telling Our Stories initiative:

Telling Our Stories: The Joy of Writing  by Elizabeth Berg

Telling Our Stories: This Moment and Why I Write by David Mura

Telling Our Stories: You Are A Writer by Mary Schmich

These three personal essays recently appeared on Next Avenue and are examples of how a strong narrative voice can engage a reader:

A Writer’s Dispatch from His Twin Cities Community by Michael Kleber-Diggs

My Visit with Bud from ‘Father Knows Best’ by Steve Uhler

I Know My Neighbors Better By Looking Outside My Window by Caren Lissner

By Dane Stauffer
Actor/writer/singer/director/educator Dane Stauffer recently starred as Roger Caldwell in the IVEY award-winning musical Glensheen (Best Actor in a Musical, Broadway World). He has toured North America and Ireland, starring in Triple Espresso. His CD "Mama, I Can Scat!" has just been released digitally. With a career spanning cabaret, theater, film, television and radio, Dane also teaches empowerment through storytelling and theater arts to children and adults in all settings.

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