5 Tips for Using Personal Stories in Your Novel

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“I finished reading Tailor Your Fiction Manuscript in 30 Days. I have AND will highly recommend it to anyone who dabbles in fiction. It’s one of the best “how to” books I’ve ever read.” Marsha Hubler, Director Montrose Christian Writers Conference

See more information at the end of the post.

I’m referring to short personal anecdotes that you incorporate into a character’s experiences. 

I consider personal stories are my own, my child’s, or my spouse’s experience in which I play a part. For example, my child needs to tell me what happened to him that day at school. I play a supporting role and experience the anecdote through my empathy and intimate feelings for my child.

Example: (A family personal experience I gave to Jace in Across the Lake releasing September 2020.)

Jace: “But it’s an accurate analogy.” He downed a fry. “When I was learning to drive, I thought I was a fast learner and an excellent driver. Then, in the Drivers Ed car with gorgeous Lisa Schroder sitting in the backseat, it was my turn to drive. Had to impress Lisa. I pulled barely to a halt at a stop sign, then pulled out to cross the highway. The instructor stomped on his brake, throwing us against the seatbelts. A motorcycle rumbled past. Man, my entire body burned with embarrassment. Feared Lisa would always judge me an idiot—the guy who tried to kill her.” Jace looked at Em. “Let me tell you, ever since that day of wanting to bury myself six feet under, I always come to a full standstill at stop signs and look both ways before I proceed.”

Tips to Successfully Enhance Your Novel with Personal Stories

Tip 1: The anecdote must have a purpose: 

  • develop a character’s strengths or flaws
  • support a story theme
  • show a lesson (In the example, Jace and Em discuss learning from experiences after Em’s eighteen-year-old daughter has had a bad experience she could have avoided.)
  • enhance the plot 

If the anecdote doesn’t have one of these purposes, then it’s probably a darling you need to edit or cut.

Tip 2: Be sure your vignette has a beginning, middle, and an end as all good stories possess. Jace’s story gives an intro (when I was learning to drive), a middle (what happened), and an ending (what he learned).

image by StockSnap

Tip 3: You have license to and should change details to make the personal story powerful but retain the emotions you experienced. (I changed the student in the back seat to a female and built on the embarrassment my family member suffered.)

Tip 4: Write it so that it is relatable to the reader. Your experience’s commonness may be more important than its weirdness. Readers will appreciate if they can take away something from the anecdote. (Most readers remember Drivers Ed and how they feared and loathed making a mistake.)

Tip 5: Avoid a broad brushstroke story. Zero in on the details in your anecdote to bring the story alive and produce an impact. Remember senses. (Too broad would have been: “I slipped up in Drivers Ed. The instructor had to intervene. I was so embarrassed. I learned a lesson.”) 

What personal anecdote have you used in a manuscript?

Which Person Point of View Is Best for Your Story?

image by geralt
image by geralt

 

Person refers to how the point-of-view (POV) character tells the story—in first, second, or third person. I’ll explore the three options in deep POV (DPOV).

First Person – Using “I”

 

A character invites us into his thoughts. This character could be:

  • The protagonist
  • A supporting character who tells the story of another character.
  • Multiple characters telling parts of the story.
    • Characters share sequentially, staying within the story’s timeline.
    • Or each character tells his/her version of the same story events.

Example:

image by JasonPinaster
image by JasonPinaster

I turned the corner on Main. Alana stood at a cruiser, talking to the police. I followed the busybody to Melissa’s house and listened through the open window as Alana told her I had stolen Melissa’s passport. I ran my hand over my face. Would she believe Alana and send her buff boyfriend to kill me?

 

Analysis:

The open window seems convenient, but first person creates intimacy between the character and us, and we tend to accept what he tells us.

To learn what happened privately between Melissa and Alana, “I” had to eavesdrop.

We only know what “I” sees, hears, and believes. “I” wouldn’t naturally reveal his name or information about his looks or personality.

Melissa’s boyfriend won’t kill “I” because “I” tells the story.

Sometimes using first person, the author slips into sounding like herself. “I” is a male, and wouldn’t say buff. 

Second Person – Using “you”

 

image by PublicDomainPictures
image by PublicDomainPictures

A character tells the story addressing us directly. The author seeks to involve us as if we’re the protagonist.

Substitute “you” for “I” in the example above. First-person disadvantages apply to second person. We may also feel as if the character is demanding our attention. We’re usually ready to be emotionally involved with characters without the “you” viewpoint.

 

Second person is rarely used and seldom works for children. It’s difficult for the author to maintain throughout an entire novel.

Third Person– Using “he/she”

 

A character tells the story from a slight distance. But third person DPOV can easily provide multiple characters and their perspectives.

Example (for brevity, I’ve used some “telling”)

Scene 1 excerpt:

Karl turned the corner on Main. Alana stood at a cruiser, talking to the police. Who was the busybody getting into trouble now?

Scene 2 excerpts:

passport-881305_1280A. Melissa paced her living room. Who’d stolen her passport? Right when she needed to disappear.

B. Melissa opened the door to Alana. Lines wrinkled her forehead, and her eyes misted. Oh no. Here came bad news.

Alana blurted that Karl had stolen the passport.

Melissa’s heart sank.

Scene 3 excerpt:

Karl ordered a soda.

Melissa entered and strode to his table. “You stole my passport. I want it back.”

Karl’s heart flipped. So that’s what Alana had told the police—and Melissa. He ran his hand over his face. If he told her the truth, would she believe him or send her boyfriend to kill him?

Analysis:

We have two characters to supply information, mystery, and feelings from their perspectives. We have Karl’s name. And his death is a possibility.

How to Know Which Person to Use

 

  • Write a scene in each person option.
  • Have someone read the samples to you. Which version sounds right?
  • Send the samples to your critique partners for their feedback.
  • Experts suggest novice writers employ third person until they’re more seasoned.

First, second, and third person viewpoints—advantages and disadvantages. Click to tweet.

What person POVs do you write in and why?

Use These Moviemaker Wisdoms to Bring Your Novel’s Scenes to Life

“The style, technique and methods used in film and TV are so familiar to us, we process them comfortably. To some degree, we now expect these elements to appear in the novels we read – if not consciously, then subconsciously.” —C. S. Lakin

image by pashminu
image by pashminu

I read, “Writing a Novel? 6 Visual Storytelling Techniques to Borrow From Film and TV” by C. S. Lakin on The Write Life blog.

Among other things, Lakin’s suggestions showed me how to stop inserting senses into a scene, and making them part of the experience.

I invite you to read Lakin’s blog. Here’s what I did from Lakin’s suggestions.

1. I broke my ho-hum scene into segments like a movie director does. Each segment represented a key moment:

  • opening “shot,”
  • moments when something important happened,
  • and the high moment before the end.

2. Then for each segment, I imagined where my camera needed to be:

  • where my character physically is as she sees and reacts to what’s happening,
  • zooming in close for details and zooming out for a wider perspective.

image by And_Graf
image by And_Graf

Example: My hero and heroine sit in a Christmas Eve midnight service.

In my heroine’s point of view, I zoomed out and saw two pastors bring flames from the altar to the congregation. They start the chain in which people in the pews pass the flame to their neighbors’ candles.

Then I zoomed my lens in on the hero beside her. He whispers in her ear something she doesn’t expect. I zoomed in closer as she studies his profile and has an epiphany about him.

3. Next I considered background noise, instead of trying to think of sounds I could insert.

In my example scene, the only sounds in the draft version were the hero’s whispering in the heroine’s ear and the congregation singing “Silent Night.” I sat in the pew with her in the opening segment and listened. Ah. Soft organ music played.

In another segment, I heard a man’s cough farther back in the sanctuary. And when the candles glow in the dark before “Silent Night” is sung, I noticed the silence.

In a segment when the hero and heroine walk home, I heard the hum of a car passing.

image by tpsdave
image by tpsdave

4. Next, I colored my scene. Not inserting colors so much as seeing them in my segments.

In one segment, considering what some colors imply, I sat in the pew and saw the red carpet on the stairs the pastors climb to the altar to light candles. In a zoom, I saw the white candle in the heroine’s hand.

 

 

5. Finally, I looked for textures of weather or atmosphere.

While inside the church, I remembered from past Christmas Eve services how I loved when the lights were dimmed and only the glowing candles emitted a warm and meaningful light.

image by Antranias
image by Antranias

On their walk home, it’s snowing. I saw the snow gathering on the hero’s hair and eyelashes. I felt snowflakes cold on the heroine’s face, making her lower her head against them.

The items I added to the scene were those I visualized through my camera. They weren’t the plot or action, but they brought what surrounds the action alive.

 

Get out your camera and see what needs to be added to your scene. Click to tweet.

What might your camera see in the scene you’re working on as you zoom in and out?