Saturday, January 28, 2012

“Like a sneak attack”

Every once in a while, I run across a blog post that sticks with me. Does that happen to you, too?

October 10, 2010—that was 15 months ago—I read a Johnny B. Truant post* that reveals a brilliant technique memoir-writers can use.

He says that one afternoon in high school, all 1200 students gathered for an assembly—but no one knew why.

Two men took the stage and instead of explaining why they were there, they just started talking.

They told jokes and funny stories. They commiserated with the students about how awful high school is. They poked fun at teachers and administrators.

“We liked these guys,” he said. “They thought like we did. Their stories were interesting and fun. We settled in and relaxed.

“We stopped caring why we’d been called to the assembly. Someone had made a mistake and had booked pure entertainment, but we weren’t about to complain.”

But halfway through, things changed. “It was like a sneak attack: it was on us before we knew it was coming.”

The guest speakers started talking about AIDS, abstinence, teenage drinking, and drug use.  

“It was all the stuff that adults usually try to talk to teenagers about—the stuff teenagers usually roll their eyes at.

“But we weren’t rolling our eyes. We were listening. We’d been transfixed.

“Instead of saying AIDS was bad, they’d tell us about the girl who we’d met in one of those funny stories … and how she got sick after contracting HIV and died.

“Instead of telling us not to drink and drive, they told us about the kid we’d heard about earlier, but now the tale turned to him being in a wheelchair for the rest of his life after being hit by a drunk driver.”

Afterward, when those 1200 kids filed out of the auditorium, Johnny says, “Most of the kids who streamed past me were silent or crying.”

“Those presenters came to our school to sell us on the idea of being careful, and making smart choices, and staying safe—all the ideas that teenagers usually aren’t even a little bit interested in buying from well-meaning adults and parents.

“But because they did their selling through stories, we’d bought it all.”

Now, wasn’t that a winning technique?

And it’s a technique you can use in writing your memoir.

Why might you need to use it?

Well, you don’t know who your readers might be—you’re writing this for people who come after you, perhaps generations not yet born. You can’t know their ages or their situations.

But you do know every life has challenges and heartaches and important decisions, and you have messages for your readers, important messages that could help them find their way through those challenges and heartaches and important decisions.

Think about it:  God has used other people’s stories to:

show you courage
show you how to live an honorable life
keep your faith strong
help you not give up hope
inspire you
pass on wisdom to you
point you to God
show you God’s love
extend God’s grace to you

Now it’s your turn. In the same way other people’s stories helped you, you can now pass on your stories to help others.

Your stories are important. If you don’t want readers to roll their eyes and let your memoir sit on a shelf gathering dust, try the techniques those guest speakers used.

When you introduce your main characters, help readers relate to them and feel they know them like you did.

Write accounts that are interesting and entertaining. Draw your readers in.

Develop your characters so readers bond with them the way you did and care about them the way you did.

Create your main characters so readers engage emotionally, like the kids in that school assembly.

And then, carry out your sneak attack: Bring out the deeper lessons of your stories.

In Johnny’s case, the lessons were about AIDS, abstinence, teenage drinking, and drug use. What did key people in your past teach you?

Who impressed upon you the importance of safe driving, or resisting peer pressure, or consequences of cheating?

Who taught you the merits of keeping a promise, or arriving at work on time, or being loyal?

Looking back, what life lessons mean the most to you? Who played a role in them? Write your stories!

If you want to keep your readers reading, if you want to pass important lessons on to future generations, you’ll need to write engaging stories with winsome characters.

*Resources and links:
Johnny B. Truant’s guest post at ProBlogger,


  1. wow...what insights in this blog post I just happen to find!!! this apllies to much more than just writing blogs!! thanks.
    I am your newest follower..pls follow back if you can.

  2. Well, HI, Momto8! Glad you've joined us. Yes, this applies to all kinds of things--memoirs, articles, talks, blog posts. I'll enjoy looking over your blog.


  3. Great post! It reminds me also of what I learned many years ago while attending Writers' Conferences..."Show, don't tell." Through developing winsome characters and illustrating their behavior with dialogue and interesting keeps their readers' attention.

    1. Hi, Jess, thanks for leaving your encouraging comment. :) Yes, "show don't tell" is a very important tool for writing stories that will appeal to readers. I think I've covered that here someplace in the past (I cover it in our in-person classes) and no doubt I will blog about it more in the future.

      Thanks for stopping by, Jess.