How to Avoid a “This Happened, Then That Happened” Family History Narrative

Today’s post is courtesy of Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, mfa, cg

Young woman holding a caution sign

In 2001, Vivian Gornick wrote in her classic guide, The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative:

 Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer; the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say…. Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.

We can apply this advice to family history writing by altering her wording just a bit, “Truth in a family history is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the ancestor’s experiences at hand. What happened to the ancestor is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”

A chronological account of someone’s life—this happened, then that happened—can read like a “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” essay. So how do you avoid this, engage with an ancestor’s experience, and make sense of that person’s life? By writing a nonfiction “story.”

What Is a Story?

No matter what type of nonfiction you’re writing, the elements of a story are the same. Robert McKee, who wrote Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, defines “story” like this:

 Story begins when an event, either by human decision or accident in the universe, radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life, arousing in that character the need to restore the balance of life. To do so, that character will conceive of what is known as an “Object of Desire,” that which they feel they need to put life back into balance. They will then go off into their world, into themselves, in the various dimensions of their existence, seeking that Object of Desire, trying to restore the balance of life, and they will struggle against forces of antagonism that will come from their own inner natures as human beings, their relationships with other human beings, their personal and/or social life, and the physical environment itself. They may or may not achieve that Object of Desire; they may or may not finally be able to restore their life to a satisfying balance.

That, in the simplest possible way, defines the elements of story — an event that throws life out of balance, the need and desire to restore the balance, and the Object of Desire the character conceives of consciously or unconsciously that they can pursue against the forces of antagonism from all of the levels of their life that they may or may not achieve.

The Object of Desire for your ancestor that McKee is talking about might be something material, such as wealth, a home, land. But these are superficial desires, which the ancestor-character assumes will restore balance to his or her life. Also look for deeper levels, the aspects that are immaterial, such as love, happiness, peace, spirituality, and so forth. While these might be things you can’t ascertain for distant ancestors, you may be able to tap into these areas for those relatives still living or within living memory.

Jack Hart in Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction, puts the definition of story more simply: “Every true tale…has the same underlying structure…Character has a problem. He struggles with a problem. Most of the piece is about the struggle, and then you get a resolution in the end in which the character overcomes the problem or is defeated by it.” (See “Jack Hart on ‘Storycraft’ and narrative nonfiction as an American literary form.”)

In a family history narrative written using third person, your ancestor is the character with a problem who struggles toward a resolution. It might be a problem of emigration, a problem of finding work, a problem of leaving his wife and children while he goes off to war, or a problem of drought for a farmer. These problems, or situations, create an Object of Desire—the desire to restore balance by solving the problems. But, as we all know, problems aren’t usually resolved overnight. It’s the struggle to resolve the problem that is the story. No conflict, no story.

In a family history memoir written using first person, both you as the narrator and your ancestor as the character might be struggling with problems (situations) that need resolutions. Yours might be finding records, understanding the decisions your ancestors made, uncovering the truth about family myths, or correcting misinformation. To restore balance, you struggle to overcome these obstacles. This is your part of the story, which is woven with your ancestors’ stories.

Take a look at this family history memoir essay, “Aunt” by Rebecca McClanahan, author of The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change and an essay collection titled, The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings. Analyze “Aunt” for the elements of story. What is the narrator’s object of desire? What does she struggle with? What is the resolution? How does McClanahan tell the story, so it doesn’t have a “this happened, then that happened” feel? Remember, too, that a story can have multiple layers.

Now think about a situation in your family history. Then ask yourself, “What is the story?” Answer this question, then structure the story using a narrative arc. It’s not “this happened, then that happened,” but “this happened, which led to that happening, which caused something else to happen.” For more on narrative arcs, see Robb Grinstaff’s “Narrative arc: What the heck is it?

Finally, take a look at my latest family history essay, “Daughtered Out,” published in the Fall 2013 issue of Portland Review, which uses a braided narrative arc.

Sharon DeBartolo Carmack is a Certified Genealogist with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing. She is the author of eighteen books and hundreds of articles, essays, columns, and reviews that have appeared in nearly every major genealogical journal and publication. Some of her books include You Can Write Your Family History, Carmack’s Guide to Copyright & Contracts: A Primer for Genealogists, Writers & Researchers, and Your Guide to Cemetery Research.

Sharon’s work has also appeared in numerous literary publications: Creative NonfictionBrevity, Steinbeck Review, Portland Review, Hippocampus Magazine (where her essay, “Switched at Midlife” won “Most Memorable” and was one of ten essays selected for the Best of Hippocampus, May 2013), and Phoebe: A Journal of Literature and Art (where her essay received Honorable Mention in the annual Creative Nonfiction Contest). Sharon’s essays have also been finalists in contests for the Bellingham Review’s Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction and in Creative Nonfiction’s True Crime contest, and for publication in River Teeth and Calyx.

Sharon CROPPEDb (2)Sharon teaches graduate courses in Creative Nonfiction Writing for Southern New Hampshire University’s MA in English and Creative Writing Program. She is also part of the adjunct English faculty for Ashford University, and she teaches personal essay and memoir writing online for Writer’s Digest University. Additionally, for Family Tree University, she teaches Irish genealogical research, and for Salt Lake Community College’s online Certificate in Genealogy program, she teaches the Immigrant Origins course and a new course that will debut this summer, Genealogy and Family History Writing.

She can be reached through her website,

One thought on “How to Avoid a “This Happened, Then That Happened” Family History Narrative”

Comments are closed.