Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Capture your readers’ interest so they’ll keep reading your memoir

Your memoir’s potential readers have countless distractions luring them away from reading your stories.

Lots of us are aflutter with baseball—Which teams will go to the World Series?—and football: local schools, colleges, and pros. Then there are athletics in which our kids and grandkids play.

And there’s the walk for cancer, food drives, Bible studies, doctor appointments, and rummage sales.

We have lawns and gardens to groom, toilets to scrub, carpets to vacuum, meals to make, dishes to scrub, empty cupboards to restock.

There’s Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, texting, MP3 players, movies, magazines, and hobbies.

Your story is important* but because people are busy, they’ll spend time on only what promises to be worth their effort.

That means your stories must be more intriguing than all those distractions and choices before them.

How do you earn the right to be read? As a memoir writer, you must :

  • capture the reader’s interest so he’ll keep reading all the way to the end, and
  • invite the reader to experience your story with you.

How can you accomplish that?

One way, of several, is to follow the old “Show, Don’t Tell” rule.

Avoid telling your reader, “She was beautiful.” Instead, show your reader: Describe details, one at a time, as you see them—features you want your readers to see—which will make your readers conclude for themselves, “She was beautiful!”

Don't say it was ‘delightful’; make us say ‘delightful’ when we've read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers ‘Please will you do the job for me.’” (C.S. Lewis)

“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” (Anton Chekov)

Avoid telling readers "He was angry." Instead, show readers his clenched jaw, flared nostrils, red face, and cold flashing eyes. Let readers hear the yelling and the slammed door.

Instead of writing “old truck,” invite readers to ride with you. Describe the rusty-black ’52 Ford pick-up with its cracked leather seats. Tell your readers what it smelled like inside: hay? barn-stuff on the farmer’s boots? the old Collie that went everywhere with the driver? Let your readers hear the gravel crunch in the driveway and the low throb of the old Ford’s engine. Did the truck’s doors squeak when they opened? Did it have a radio? If so, what songs might you have heard on it?

From “Tell” to “Show”— an example

Original: A hippo stampede thundered through our camp the first night.

Revision: In the middle of our first night, the ground rumbled like an earthquake and your grandpa and I jolted awake. Within seconds I recognized hippo noises, and I knew what I heard—a stampede, right through our camp. Immediately I wondered if we had pitched our tent in their usual path because, if so, those spooked hippos would trample us to death. I asked myself, Should we get up and run? If so, where? Which direction? I couldn’t think straight, but it didn’t matter—I was so frightened I couldn’t move. The hippos thundered through our camp in about twenty seconds—which seems like a long time when you’re scared out of your wits—and then we heard colossal splashes in the lake as, one after another, they plunged in, their ghastly bellows and snorts echoing through the night. (from Grandma’s Letters from Africa, Linda K. Thomas,

Look over your rough drafts and ask yourself, “Where can I spice up my writing by showing instead of telling?” You’ll find that “showing” can be a lot of fun!

*Related posts:

Are your stories important?

The Power of Your Story



  1. Wonderful advice. This is really something I need to work on....when I have time ;-) Baby steps :-)

  2. Right, Joyful -- as you have time. Baby steps! Slowly and steadily. You can do it!


  3. The use of "show" definitely gave the example you shared a new depth and texture compared to simply the "tell." Great reminders to put to practice. Thanks, Linda.


  4. Great reminder about showing vs telling,Linda. And thanks for showing us how to do it with the hippo stampede!

  5. This made me smile. The advice is fantastic. But the best part was reading about your adventure in the hippo stampede. I didn't even know hippos COULD stampede. But now, not only do I know it - I feel as if I know exactly what it's like to be caught right in the middle of one!

  6. De, Kathleen, and Deidra, thanks for stopping by. Comments are a blogger's paycheck, right? :)

    "Depth and texture," like De said, is an important ingredient in writing our stories so that our readers will enjoy reading and keep reading all the way to the end!

    Glad you enjoyed the hippo stampede story. Some other time I'll tell you about getting charged by a hippo. I was so foolish -- I paused to take a picture of him, and escaped with only about 3 seconds! I would NOT do that again!