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It's your story

It's your story

Advice for Queen’s Young Leaders on inspiration and crafting a narrative

Everyone has a story, but how do you make yours so compelling other people want to hear it? This article will take you through the process of shaping your experience, thoughts and ideas into a story.

Getting started – inspiration

Some people prefer to start with structure. (If that’s you scroll down to the next section headed  "first draft".) Others like to collect their thoughts and ideas. The most important thing is to start.

Get your thoughts down. Carry a notebook so you can make notes anytime, or use a memo app on your phone. Jot down ideas as and when they come. And they will come at inconvenient times – as you’re trying to get to sleep, when you’re busy, when you’re driving.

Anything goes – quotes, memories, jokes, anecdotes, smells, the things people say in conversation. Random ideas and memories may not seem relevant, but could turn out to be useful.

“I have stacks of notebooks that contain this terribly clumsy writing, which is just getting anything down.”

Alice Munro

First draft – shaping your story

Great! You have your raw material. The thought of turning it all into a story may be daunting but at least you’ve started. Now, all you have to do is pick what you want from your notes and arrange the information.

The easiest way is to start your story chronologically. The prompt questions in the sidebar should help.

As you write, don’t worry about the words or the length. Nobody will read it until you want them to, and you can always change it whenever you like.

Leave it for two or three days – longer if you can. Come back and read it with fresh eyes. But keep carrying your notebook. Your subconscious will be thinking about the story, even in your sleep, and is bound to come up with new ideas at inconvenient moments.

Editing and rewriting

Now the fun begins! But be warned – when you come back to your first draft you will very likely find:

  • the bits you thought were brilliant are disappointing
  • the bits that were hard to write, are better than you expected
  • overall you’re not as pleased with it as you thought you would be.

Don’t worry! First drafts are usually disappointing. But you’ve got the basis of your story and you can play with it. Redraft your story as many times as you like, but try to leave it aside between drafts. Problems are more obvious if you have space between writing and re-reading.

“How do you make people see that everyone’s story is now a part of everyone else’s story?”

Salman Rushdie

Structure

Every story has a beginning, middle and an end but they don’t have to go in that order. Look at your story and ask yourself, where is the strongest place to start?

In her Tedx Talk, Whitney Iles starts her story by surprising and confusing her audience. She describes how she was asked what she thought could change the world and she answered “violence”. This grabs the audience’s attention, so she explains, and this takes her back to when she became aware of an enormous problem.

People or characters

Your story will include other people. Have you made them real? You can do this by including short descriptions not just of their physical features but their gestures, mannerisms and posture. Also include what they have said, to bring them to life.

PJ Cole tells the story of his project by describing what had happened to some of the individuals it helped and his father’s vision and commitment. He draws on his childhood memories, what his father said and the thoughts and feelings he had. He doesn't shy away from the emotions.

Voice

This is your story, so tell it in your voice. Use your own language and dialect. You do not have to sound “professional”. Voice makes a story personal and real. It makes it human.

“People should write in whatever dialect they feel they want to write.”

Chinua Achebe

Getting feedback

Get feedback from others, but think carefully about who you can ask. Feedback needs to be constructive and honest. Some friends, and most parents, will tell you your story’s brilliant. That won’t help. If possible, find someone you trust who writes.

Think about what you need help with. You might ask your critical friend how the story flows, where they felt it was strong and what didn’t work.

Obviously you can take or leave their advice, but it will help you see your story from another point of view. Be prepared to hear stuff you don’t like. The feedback is only useful if the person giving it feels free to speak openly.

Happy with your story?

You will find that over time you tweak and improve the way you tell your story. But once you have it down, you can draw on it to write promotional materials, use it in talks and interviews, and to persuade and influence those around you.

“Come then, and let us pass a leisure hour in storytelling, and our story shall be the education of our heroes.”

Plato