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  • Writer's pictureSiân Smith

3 storytelling techniques to add to your memoir or self-help book

Updated: Nov 24, 2023

I’m sure you’re aware of the power of storytelling in your non-fiction book, especially if you’re writing a memoir.

But are you telling stories or simply stating your version of events?

Here’s what I mean to explain the difference.

Version 1

I finally got an appointment with the physio. She identified the cause of my knee pain and gave me some exercises to do, and was hopeful I’d recover in 4 to 6 weeks.

Version 2

After 19 long weeks I finally got an appointment with the physio.

Once I'd provided some medical history and a background of when the pain started, where the pain was, how bad it was when walking versus running, etc., I was asked to pop up on the bed. I lay there, wondering if I should have worn shorts to the appointment, or would that have made me seem too keen? As it was, at least I’d worn leggings, rather than having to worry about either rolling up my dungarees or ending up in just my pants and t-shirt.

After bringing my knee up to my chest – well, as far as it would go at that point – and a few other positions, she stepped back from the bed and asked me, ‘How far do you usually run?’

‘Umm… about 4 miles twice a week and 10 miles once a week,’ I replied.

‘And have you reduced your mileage since the knee pain started?

‘Well … erm … I wasn’t sure what was best to do…’ I mumbled.

‘So that would be a no, then?’ She asked, raising an eyebrow. After typing up her notes on the computer, the physio gave her diagnosis, followed by a stern warning not to run for the next 4 to 6 weeks, along with daily exercises she expected me to follow rigorously.

The three main elements I’ve added to the original example are:

1. Scene setting

2. Thoughts

3. Dialogue

I want to emphasise that you are not expected to enhance every single paragraph with a dose of storytelling. Only do so if this part of the story or chapter is particularly pivotal to your argument or you feel your reader needs a more in-depth understanding of your character and feelings at this stage of the book. Adding storytelling to examples like the above (originally a single, perfunctory sentence) will inevitably increase your word count, so (as with all writing) make sure you are not wasting words or shoe-horning in a certain section just because you can’t bear to take it out! The above would be relevant if this part of the memoir was about your recovery from injury, where your aim is to invite your reader to ask questions such as: ‘Did you do the exercises?’, ‘Did you manage to stop running?’, ‘What did you do instead of running?’, ‘Was it 4 to 6 weeks to recovery, or longer?’

Having considered the above reminder about choosing exactly when you need to add more storytelling, here are some more examples from published works which nicely demonstrate each of the above points. (My thanks for the authors granting permission for me to use these quotes.)

1. Scene setting

‘I remember my stomach churning; I was not sure what to expect. I was dressed as if heading to a business meeting: heels, aubergine coloured pencil skirt, black blazer. This was my power play move: dressing well enabled me to fake the confidence I needed. Parking up my car, I stepped out and felt a little like Elle Woods in Legally Blonde as I walked towards the reception. As the doors slid open, I introduced myself and it wasn’t until I sat down that it suddenly dawned on me.

I was finally here. My dreams were coming true. I was two weeks away from starting my role within a three-time World Championship Formula One team and I was here for an intro tour.’

Describing what clothes you are wearing is not always necessary, but here it played a crucial role in giving us (the reader) insight into how Tulshi felt. We can instantly conjure an image of this woman. We can identify with the reason behind it (thanks to the Elle Woods comparison). Then Tulshi snaps us out of the perceived reality with the actuality of her feelings with the phrase ‘to fake the confidence I needed.’ No doubt we (sadly) empathise with such feelings, but why has Tulshi experienced this? A simple act of telling us what she was wearing instantly creates a vivid scene followed by the vulnerable honesty of the first-person narrative (Tulshi weaves storytelling with vulnerability brilliantly throughout this book).

Think about adding relevant descriptions before you get to the crescendo of the story: the weather, details about people’s attire or appearance (especially if later on these turn out to be telltale signs of something amiss or comedic), the time of day, any sights, sounds, even smells you remember.

2. Thoughts

‘ “Can I hold your hand?” he asks me once I have settled myself in the driver’s seat of my mum’s car. My initial response is NO! You cannot hold my hand you Ali G / Canary crossbreed. NO! NO! NO!!! Instead, Nice Rachel frustratingly emerges, and I find that I am simply unable to reject the boy. ‘Sure,’ I reply, reluctantly taking hold of his clammy hand (no doubt he is perspiring because of the arctic, thermal layers he is wearing mid-summer. FFS.).’

Rachel is a hilarious writer. I remember giggling at this passage even though I’d already read it several times. You can, of course, use thoughts to reveal inner turmoil, but Rachel uses them as a method of injecting humour into her writing. We’ve all been there when we know exactly what we’d really like to say, but common courtesy (or lack of courage) prevents us from doing so.

You can identify thoughts by using italics or speech marks. Just don’t use the phrase ‘I thought to myself’ (the ‘to myself’ is completely unnecessary).

3. Dialogue

‘He set down his fork and clasped a handful of his more-salt-than- pepper hair the way he does when he's thinking. This tilted his head and made his jaw look even more square.

"Do you have a goal?" he asked.

I shrugged. "It just feels good to be moving."

He released the handful of hair, picked up his fork, and continued eating.

"Don't be a runner," he said between bites. "Be an interval trainer."’

Here, Nita could have easily written something like ‘Over breakfast one morning, I told my husband I’d started running again. He asked if I had a goal and I said it just felt good to be moving. He suggested I focus on intervals, rather worry about calling myself a "runner".'

Using dialogue invites us to use our imagination as we wonder what their voices sound like. Nita has also taken care to add seemingly inane details such as the setting down and picking up of the fork, but these tiny details are crucial for successful scene setting. The two aspects combine to allow us to easily picture this couple discussing a matter over dinner – a pivotal moment in Nita’s commitment to running.

As above, I’m not suggesting you rewrite every interaction with another person in your book as dialogue, because you may as well write a script. However, rather than stating something like ‘I went to the physio, who told me which exercises to do for the next 4 to 6 weeks’ you could instead say, ‘At my physio appointment, I was shown which exercises to do. “And make sure you do these every day. For the next 4 to 6 weeks,” she said, looking at me pointedly.’

If you’re writing a memoir or want to use more personal anecdotes in your self-help book, but you’re not sure how to adopt the above examples in your own writing, my two tips here are:

1. Read, read, read

2. Write, write write

I come back to these tips time and time again when it comes to editing, but this time, let’s appropriate them to the notion of storytelling 👇

1. Read, read, read

The next time you get to a part in a memoir or self-help book that you simply cannot put down, allow yourself to be consumed by that wonderful feeling. Then read it again. This time, try to take note of what it is that has compelled you to read. You can use the following suggestions to help you:

· Description of the weather, the room, the time of day (without stating an actual time)

· Dialogue

· Use of thought

· Addressing the reader

· Short vs long sentences

2. Write, write, write

I heard the following tip from Judy Lane, after I attended her ‘storytelling in non-fiction’ webinar. To perfect your storytelling techniques you need to practise your storytelling techniques. You can do this with free writing. This is when you spend some time writing whatever you feel like – it needn’t have anything to do with your book. Focus on scene setting, dialogue and your thoughts. Even if you’re just writing about your morning run, think back to what you wore (and why), how you could describe the time of day, whether anything out of the ordinary happened, if you saw or talked to anyone on the way, how you felt before, during and after the run.

Remember, the most successful memoirs also consider the overall story arc: what the author discovered or achieved over the course of the timescale for the memoir, whether it focuses on life as a woman in your twenties (like Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love), or a specific moment in time that changed everything (such as The Salt Path, by Raynor Winn). But without these individual threads of storytelling, you can’t weave the entire picture for your reader. Start by threading the needle: you can always unpick it and start again if it doesn’t look right.

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