Five tips for great family stories

Five features of a great family story

You know what it’s like – to be gripped by a story. You are quickly drawn in, you absorb each sentence, and react to every twist and turn. Scene by scene, the narrative plays out in your mind.

Think about a specific story you’ve been told by your mother or father or a grandparent, one which you loved hearing the first time, would love to hear again – and would love to share with other family members who may not get a chance to listen to it in person.

Sometimes, someone will tell me, “My loved one has so many memories, and I love them all! Where do we begin if we want to record some of them?”

It can be a daunting task. Whether you are recording someone with your phone or you ask me to bring out my recording equipment and create a professional CD from the storytelling event, time will be limited. How can you be sure to make the most of those precious memories your loved one can share?

When I prepare for a recording session, I have the family complete a brief questionnaire. Much of the information I seek provides some general background to help me facilitate memories and stories. However, I also ask the family to list between three and five stories their loved one has told before which they would like to have recorded.

Quick note: No one has ever listed only three!

It is difficult to limit those memories. How can you decide which stories are the best, the ones you can’t afford not to record?

There are many aspects of narrative which could be considered, but we can boil it down to five characteristics which make a story memorable and gripping and something you want to be sure to share.

1. Vivid descriptions

Were they in the country – or on a road surrounded by 10-foot-tall corn? Was she riding in a car – or a light blue Ford Fairlane? Did the child smile – or was he grinning from ear to ear?

The strongest memories run thick with details. In fact, the details often sharpen the memory and propel it down the path of the story. Remembering the color of a dress or the tone of a voice recreates the emotions of memory, allowing the storyteller to re-enter the moment and bring fullness to the narrative. The storyteller also displays his or her personality more fully when those emotions are tapped (we’ll expand on that later). And you, the listener, are also drawn in by that emotion. A great story is soaked with details.

Now, we all recognize that each of us is different; where one may offer lavish detail on each point, another may be more subdued in their descriptions until they reach something they wish to focus on. That’s not a problem, that’s personality – and it’s exactly what we want to see. As someone close to the storyteller, you know this person’s communication style. The real question is, which stories had details so brilliant you were drawn into the narrative? What details did the storyteller relate which you can remember even now?

Stories that possess those vivid descriptions may be good candidates for recording.

2. Compelling characters

If you have decided to record your loved one, you can be sure there will be at least one character whom you care about in every story: your loved one!

In some cases, that may be all that is necessary for the story to be captivating. Even so, there are some other common “characters” from life who may make a story particularly important to record and share.

Your loved one’s parents and grandparents: The emotional connection between parent and child remains strong long after death has separated us. Grandparents are often central characters in some of our fondest childhood memories. What’s more, the stories we hear about these older generations pass along some of the emotion, some of the unity, some of the bond. These are often the stories which help us better understand who we are and from where we come. They have a value which transcends mere curiosity or nostalgia. In some important way, these stories are also about us.

Your loved one’s siblings: The emotion of close relationships is also on display in stories about brothers and sisters. We are drawn in to imagine family life in a different time. We see our own joys and challenges in those which played out in kitchens and cars and backyards many years ago. With these stories, we often get an insight into the storyteller’s own personality.

Your loved one’s spouse: Understanding the relationship between spouses opens a window on how your loved one views himself or herself. This includes current partners as well as those from the past if your loved one has been married more than once. Stories about the first time meeting, first dates, introductions to family, the births of children – these are times of vulnerability, times when your loved one was pulled by personal emotions. Learning about those events through stories can open windows on the relationships which set the stage for our own formative years.

3. An opponent

If you study almost any story which attracts your attention, you will find there is an opponent which blocks some goal or destination of the main character or characters. This opponent does not need to be another person, although it can be. An opponent may also be the weather, a mechanical problem, an animal, the landscape – anything standing between the main character and the goal.

Even when the opponent is a human, there doesn’t need to be ill intent. An opponent may be a father who once told your loved one when he was a boy that he was too small to ride the draft horse. An opponent may be a best friend who interrupted your loved one’s first date when she happened to come into the restaurant and sit down at the table to talk.

The opponent may, surprisingly, be your loved one, playing a dual role. Your loved one may have wished to call his future spouse many times, but couldn’t get up the courage for over a year. Your loved one may have promised to bring a cake to her aunt’s birthday party, only to discover she had forgotten it at home when she arrived. As the saying goes, we are often our own worst enemy.

Furthermore, the obstacle is not always overcome. For the ancient Greeks, the difference between a comedy and a tragedy was basically whether or not the hurdle blocking the goal was successfully surmounted.

Think about the stories you have heard your loved one tell in the past. What were some of the most notable obstacles? What or who stands out as something or someone which challenged the plans of your loved one in a favorite story? Seek to record stories with those intriguing opponents.

4. Surprises

The unexpected often goes hand in hand with the opponent. Sometimes the appearance of opposition itself is the surprise. Sometimes the obstacle creates embarrassing situations, sudden changes in outlook or momentary opportunities. Often, the method of overcoming the opponent is the surprise.

We have all heard stories about problems arising with a loud bang under the car, a wind gust while out boating or a displeased mother standing behind us. When you have a bad cold and are unexpectedly asked to speak at an awards dinner or you run out of gas and on your walk to the station you see a doe and fawn, the surprises change the tenor of the story. Hooking a big bass on the last cast of the day or finding a bouquet and gift on your dresser when you thought he forgot your anniversary are examples of surprising resolutions to the obstacles in the stories.

Have you ever said, “Wow!” while listening to your loved one’s recollections? Have you ever laughed in shock and relief at how a story ended? Those are the kinds of stories you want to record and share.

5. Honest emotion

The people mentioned in stories are crucial. The details of events are enlightening. The unique perspective of the storyteller provides a window into the past.

Emotion is the mortar that holds those bricks together. Personality requires emotion.

And, as I mentioned earlier, the goal is to capture a little of the personality of the storyteller. Just as much as the stories, that personality – the opportunity to get to know someone important in our history – is what we want to secure and pass along to others.

For this reason, it is important to explore topics and people of interest to the storyteller, first and foremost. That’s not to say you shouldn’t ask about the people and events that pique your interest. You should. But don’t be surprised, and certainly don’t be frustrated, if those are not the exact same interests as the storyteller.

Occasionally, the emotion of one subject will build interest in another. In one session I recorded, a particular story requested by the family was told in brief at first, as the subject of the session was reminded of a different story and went off to tell that one instead. However, by allowing the excitement and drama of this unsolicited story to run its course, we were able to gently circle around to the requested story once again – and this time, it was full of details, flair, and emotion. This is the version we placed on the family’s CD, along with the great story that led into it.

Sometimes, though, the emotion just doesn’t come through in a story the way you thought it would. It happens. Maybe the next time you ask about it, it will. In the meantime, move on to other memory triggers, other people, other events which may draw out an energy-filled story. Eliciting emotive stories encourages that same emotion in the next story. As any storyteller becomes more comfortable, expressing emotions becomes more natural. Those honest emotions shine through, spotlighting the personality of the storyteller – something others will hear in your recording.

Ask, listen, share

In a world where we can text, tweet, post, email, and phone anytime from anywhere, it is a sad irony that we have never been more disconnected as a society. Perhaps the ease of contact has devalued our individual communications, and the relationships they nurture. Sharing time with the people we care about, in good times, conversation and storytelling, strengthens the bonds of appreciation and understanding. Yes, we learn facts, but far more importantly, we relate to one another at the level of friendship. Truth is deeper than fact. In sharing stories, we understand who others are, and so better understand who we are. When we record stories, we share these truths to a wider audience today and in the future.

So ask your loved ones about their past, their friends, their lives. Listen to what they say, how they say it and what it says about them. And share those stories by recording them for people far away and for those who will hear them in the future.

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