No More ‘Blah Blah Blah’

Some people worry their life stories won’t translate to the page, that they’ll sound dull (“this happened, then this happened, then this happened”).

It doesn’t have to be that way. It’s all in how you shape it.

Think of how we live. This happens and then that happens, and then something else happens. Right? But it’s not a story unless it’s shaped into one.

Here are some writing tips to help you shape a story. Life isn’t dull and never should sound that way!

1) Beginnings Every story needs a beginning, middle, and end. Where do you start a story about an incident or a part of your life? Start close to the incident or time you’ll cover. You may like to begin in the action of a scene, use a line of dialog to jump into scene and follow it with background/context. Or ask a question. No matter what, your opening line should attract a reader’s interest, not be laden with facts and information. If you think the facts belong up front, still work to keep that first line engaging. When you read over your first draft, ask yourself these questions: Is the first paragraph a warm-up I used to get in the mood to write? Does the story really start in a later paragraph, not the first one? Is there a great first line buried in the middle of my story? Make the changes you need to make to write an opening that engages a reader and creates the opening shape to the story (or chapter).

2) Focus You should be able to answer the question, “What is this about?”, in a sentence at the end of any short memoir. When you review your first draft, ask yourself that question. Did you start the story close to where the subject, or focus, of the story begins? Is there a climax, or dramatic height, to the story? If so, did you give it the attention it needs or rush past it? Have you kept to a single well-focused incident (or a few well-focused incidents) or do you run all over the place with tangents that could distract a reader? Can the tangents be new, separate stories?

3) Feelings Feelings add emotional impact and help a reader know you better. Have you described feelings with dialog, narration, or dramatized actions to convey your feelings and the feelings of other people in your story? Have you told about and shown feelings when it seems right to?

4) Redundancies Redundancies bog down writing. Review your writing to see if you’ve you repeated yourself anywhere. Keep the most effective version and be ready to revise if needed. Sometimes combining what you’ve said about the same thing in two places is perfect in that one right spot.

5) Dialog Dialog helps bring a story to life. It takes a reader into “real” time (the present time of the story), helps bring a story to life. Dialog also communicates a lot about a person if it conveys how they spoke, what they’d say in a given situation. If you haven’t used dialog, see if you can illustrate a scene with even a spoken line or two. And remember: Dialog should always help move a scene forward; only use words that add something – not everything we say moves a scene. Pick and choose what’s needed. (In real life we can get away with a lot of “blah, blah, blah,” but in writing, every word has to matter.) And try to express the speaker’s personality when you can with what they say. Ordinary words like “said” are best for noting the speaker in taglines. As much as you can, avoid adverbs (she said sadly), directing a reader about how to interpret words. Instead, use the language in the dialog and actions surrounding the dialog to convey that message.

Dialog should always help move a scene forward; only use words that add something – not everything we say moves a scene. Pick and choose what’s needed.

6) Details Sensual details (colors, shapes, smells, sounds, textures) make a story more immediate and real. Details add a sense of veracity that generalities do not: you were there. And sensual details bring the reader in by creating emotional impact. Will the reader “see” your story? Will they “hear” the street sounds outside your window? Have you used precise language, avoided vague adjectives (like “beautiful,” “wonderful,” “nice,” “pretty”)? Can you replace vague adjectives with specific, descriptive ones so the reader can have her own impression? Have you used identifying details (type of flower, drink, food, car, music)? Are there descriptive details — colors, smells, textures, sounds, tastes — you can add without overloading and appearing forced? You want to sound natural when you paint a word picture. If you’ve included smells, have you described them the best you can? Are there details that could be taken out?

7) “Trim the Fat” Are there portions that don’t contribute to the overall impact you want? Do nonessential words slow the reading and lessen the impact of sentences? Refine, refine, refine. It will pay off for you and all of your readers.

8) Endings Does your story drop off suddenly and unintentionally? It should not. Does it summarize what you’ve just written about? This would be another form of redundancy. Does it reveal an epiphany or a deepened understanding of something or someone that happened because of the incident described in the story? Sharing what you’ve learned from an experience goes a long way in memoir. But no matter what, give your story a clear and compelling finish. It’s as important to leave a reader feeling interested and satisfied as it is to appeal to their curiosity at the start.

For more on this and a chance to build your skills at shaping a story I offer online writing classes and independent study programs. In just a few weeks you make big improvements in your writing!