When you want to turn your life into fiction, one of the most important steps is to decide on the plot. “But I know my own life story,” you say. That’s true, but don’t forget that you are writing a novel. Telling a story in a novel form requires you to follow some of the rules of storytelling. The first step is to find where to start your story.
Where to start?
Once you’ve decided on what kind of a novel you are writing (see my previous post on finding the genre of your story), you need to decide where to start your tale.
Any fiction book needs a beginning and an end, plus an engaging plot. Your life may well have been exciting and unique, but you still need to follow (some of) the general rules of storytelling.
The most significant event
The best way to find what kind of story you are writing, as well as how the narrative is going unravel, i.e. what the plot is going to be, is to find the most significant event in your life. Or the most important point in the period of your life you wish to explore. (I turned my life story into a series of books, so if you have a longer story to tell, divide it into several novels.)
Think of the most important and exciting event in your life, and start thinking about how this event shaped your life.
In Doris Lessing’s semi-autobiographical novel, A Proper Marriage, the significant moment is Martha’s realisation that her marriage is a terrible mistake. In the 1950s when Lessing wrote the novel, having these kinds of thoughts was quite revolutionary, especially when a small child was involved. A Proper Marriage is a tale of self-discovery, which includes coming of age, and political awakening.
Knowing the most significant event in your story will help you towards determining the plot and the genre of the book.
The Five Commandments of Storytelling
As well as finding the start of your story, you need to consider how the storyline is going to take shape. The Five Commandments of Storytelling is one useful way to chart your story. It’ll also help you determine the plot of your novel.
1. Inciting Incident
The start of the book, the significant event I spoke about above is often called The Inciting Incident. Something has to happen to the protagonist to change his world. For example, a woman who’s never been in love meets the man of her dreams when she bumps into him in a park. Perhaps she accidentally pours hot coffee over his pristine, white shirt.
2. Progressive Complications
Complications are crucial in a story, and it’s also important that the problems mount up—ie become progressive. In my example, the man of her dreams (whose shirt she ruined) is a single dad with three kids. Then she finds out his wife died and he cannot love anyone else as much. And his kids hate him dating anyone else.
This is the point where our heroine is forced to act. Will she forget about this man she loves and who loves her back? There has to be something, like a job offer on the other side of the world, a discovery that the wife is alive after all, or something to force our loved-up protagonists to act.
This is where the character makes the final decision and acts on it. She moves away and tries to forget about our man or the wife turns out to be a cheating tramp, who, all of this time, has lived a second life with another man on a desert island in the middle of the South Seas.
As well as an engaging start, it is crucial that your story has a good ending. The Resolution is where all the threads of the main plot and the side plots are brought together and the book ends. Our couple get together and marry, and the born-again wife ends up alone.
There Are No Rules
A word of warning, however. It’s very useful to look at the various aspects of the story to find the plot. But the above example is a very simplistic way of looking at the elements of a novel. I agree with Doris Lessing, who said,
There are no laws for the novel. There have never been, nor can there ever be.
Having Said That…
Even if you don’t follow the five commandments above, when writing your life story, it’s useful to know why you are putting it down to paper (or typing onto your computer). Are you righting a wrong? Or perhaps you are celebrating the life of a close family member? Do you want to send a political or ethical message to the world?
My novel based on my life, The English Heart, is simply a long love-letter to my husband. Even though it isn’t all “true”, I wanted to show him how meeting him changed my life. And how I couldn’t live without him. In The Nordic Heart series, I wanted to show how life-changing falling in love, and moving to another country to follow your heart, can be.
A Proper Marriage by Doris Lessing is a book about disillusionment, discrimination, and female empowerment. Lessing wanted to show that women are independent, intelligent and able to make a life for themselves without being tied to a man. These are big themes, and Lessing is a Nobel-winning author. There is, however, no reason why any writer shouldn’t aspire to explore important issues in their life stories.
To know why you are writing your life story will enable you to give the story a theme, “a red thread”, with a message to the reader. This will also help you to determine the plot of your story.
Over to You
I hope I’ve helped you get to grips with how to write your life story. Turning your life into fiction is easier if you can follow a few important steps. Try my recommendations here and in the previous two posts and see what kind of book you want to write. Let me know how you are getting on in the comments below!