Day 26 – Scenes and Your Contract with the Reader


This post was written based on some of the questions and concerns some of you have put forward in our Facebook Group. 


Family history narratives are comprised of scene and summary. We are familiar with summary; it includes description and narrative. But one of the reasons our families find our family histories so dull is because they tell. They never show.  We (family historians) have a tendency to overuse summary, sometimes almost exclusively resulting in some pretty boring stories.

For a family history story to land, you must learn to show through the use of scenes. Scenes are a valuable tool in learning to show rather than tell. For many family historian scenes, this is a struggle. They struggle to turn their hard facts into engaging scenes. Those struggles are generally rooted in one of three causes.


  1. How do I create a scene and show my ancestors in action when I was not present. If writing a memoir or if you’re an eyewitness reporter than you are the exception to the rule. They can answer, I was there, and I witnessed the event. But for most of the family history writers, this is not the case. Often we are recreating events of 50, 100, 200 years ago. In this case, we learn to recreate the scene by drawing on exhaustive research which enables the family history writer to recreate key moments in an ancestor’s history. If you were not present at the event, then you must use exhaustive research to recreate the event with specific details.


  1. I am struggling to create dialogue, to put words in my ancestor’s mouth. This is a typical comment I hear and yet scenes to be truly effective they need dialogue. Some critics will accuse you of making up dialogue, and this can hold many family historians back from writing dialogue and recreating scenes. But, I believe our readers are pretty smart. They understand that we are working within common-sense conventions. Anyone who describes a scene or reports a dialogue is offering only a guesstimate of the conversation that occurred and we can include memoirists and eyewitnesses in this group. No one recalls a conversation verbatim, 2 hours ago let alone 200 years ago. Our readers understand that, but cueing the reader can help you to be clear and transparent with them. Once again our dialogue is built on exhaustive research, direct quotations might support it, found through interviews or diaries and letters. But once again it is grounded in a clear contract with the reader.


  1. I have no records or documents to create a scene or show a time that is relevant to my story. Your exhaustive research has failed to turn up any specifics about a time in your ancestor’s life, no particulars about an individual event. But your story needs it to be complete. What to do then? Our solution is to apply our imagination. Yes, I said it, imagination (it’s not a dirty word). However, with one caveat, we must signal our reader of what we imagine might of happened. Using cues, like I imagine, perhaps, … It is our contract with the reader.


Now that we have overcome your objections to using scenes, it’s time to learn to create scenes for your family history stories.

Join us for our next class, Writing a Family History Scene. Learn to turn an event in your ancestor’s life into a page-turning scene. Find out how to build a scene with description, detail and dialogue. Apply the fundamentals of description writing that you have learned in this year’s Challenge and learn to create and add scenes to your family history stories.