Plot Like a Pro: Three Simple Steps to Creating a Compelling Family History Narrative

by Lisa Alzo | Jun 13, 2013

Lisa Alzo

"But, I'm not a professional writer." This is a common excuse I often hear from fellow genealogists as to why they have not started a family history writing project. Well, I have some good news for you: You don't have to be!

Sure, the idea of writing a family history narrative can seem particularly daunting. The most challenging part of any writing project is getting started. If you're not sure about where or how to begin, here are three simple steps to help you plot like a pro and craft a compelling story to capture the attention of your intended audience.

Plot Basics

Before we tackle the steps, let's start with some basics. Plot is the mechanism for telling your story. The five elements of plot structure are: 1. Exposition (The Beginning); 2. Rising Action: Introduction of the Problem or Conflict; 3. Climax (The High Point); 4. Falling Action (Winding Down); and 5. Resolution (The End). But, in the simplest terms, think of it this way: Plot = good story. Most of us can find at least one good story in our family research (more than likely you will find several).

One essential part of a plot is a theme. A theme is what the story is really about; what the writer is trying to say in writing it. Some examples in your story could be: Love, Heroism, Survival, Escape, Murder, etc.--you'll likely identify others. State your theme in a telling, but concise sentence. For example, the theme of my book Three Slovak Women can be summarized as: "Three Slovak Women is a nonfiction account of three generations of Slovak women in the steel-producing town of Duquesne, Pennsylvania and the love and sense of family binding them together."

Let's take a look at three plot starters to get you planning your narrative.

1. Think like a writer, not like a genealogist.

During the research phase of family history, most genealogists deal primarily with facts (names, dates, places, and other pertinent details), and use their analytical skills to "put the puzzle pieces together" and interpret the information. But, when it comes to plotting a story, you should be thinking like a writer--tapping into your inner creativity to put those facts together in an accurate, yet compelling way.

2. Generate ideas.

Once you have a theme, you will want to jot down any and all ideas that come to mind when you think of this theme. For example, if "Love" is a theme in my book, then I might sketch out ideas associated with the theme, such as arranged marriage, maternal love, brotherly love, fidelity/infidelity, etc.

One of my favorite ways to sketch out my ideas is with a mind map--basically a visual illustration of brainstormed ideas. There are plenty of great applications out there for mind mapping, including MindMeister (iPhone, iPad, Android), MindJet, and iThoughts (iPhone) and iThoughtsHD (iPad). A new application I've started using is Scapple--by Literature and Latte, the makers of one of my other favorite writing software applications, Scrivener (see below). Scapple is an easy-to-use tool that lets you get ideas down quickly and make connections between them. It's not really mind mapping software, but more like a freeform text editor. Right now Scapple is available for Mac OS X only and there is a free trial. Scapple is more of a "writer's mind map." So, if like me, you tend to follow a non-linear path during your creative thinking process (i.e. you like to throw down ideas first and establish the connections or relationships later), then you will like this tool.

3. Write cinematically.

All good stories have three basic parts: Beginning, Middle, and End (Think: three acts). Although you may not think of your family's story as a movie, it often helps if you do. Try writing cinematically--breaking the story you want to tell into scenes. Scenes move your plot forward, set the tone, and highlight your voice.

A good way to do this is to follow a technique typically taught in novel writing workshops: Get a stack (about 60) of 3 x 5 index cards and write down one scene per card (aiming for 15 scenes for Act 1, 30 for Act 2, and 15 for Act 3). This keeps the story moving. The index card method is useful because once you have your scenes written out you can shuffle the cards around to get the order you desire--the one that makes the most sense for your story.

Next, transcribe or develop what you've written on each card into an outline, with your main plot (and then subplot a, b, c). This process will help you to see what does or doesn't work. For example, in my book the overall main plot is the story of three different generations of Slovak women. For Act I, my main plot is my grandmother's immigration story, and my subplots would be her family life in Slovakia, her arranged marriage to my grandfather, and her assimilation in America.

Virtual Storyboards

If you prefer to work virtually, I recommend Scrivener (available for PC and Mac), which has many useful features, including the ability to set up your projects in storyboard format using a virtual corkboard. There is a 30-day free trial available (and it runs for 30 days of actual use rather than by calendar days).

Once you see the story layout you may change your mind. For example, perhaps Grandma's diary entry revealing a family secret works better at the beginning of the book instead of the middle. It is easy to transition into text mode with a tool like Scrivener. For first drafts, I also like Write.App for the times when I'm on the go because it allows me to write "in the cloud" and save my work when I'm using my iPhone, iPad, or working on a computer at the library.

One Last Step

You will eventually add another step: Revise! In fact, in order to produce a quality family history you should plan on going through the revision process multiple times. Your written family history is the sum product of all of your research. The more time you spend crafting your plot at the beginning stages, the easier the text will flow when you actually start writing, and the amount of care and effort you put into your project will ultimately be reflected in your final product.


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