Your Family History Story Structure

There are several options available to the family history writer when determining how best to lay out their ancestor’s story.  Keeping the story moving, keeping the reader engaged and not confusing the reader are all the result of good structure.  Because family history deals a great deal in time, getting back and forth in time and learning where to pull two family lines together can be one of the most confusing things a family history writer can face.

A few options we are going to look at today include

1.       Chronological time –  adjusted chronological time and reverse

2.       Flashbacks –

3.       Parallel Stories


 Chronological order is the most basic and seems the most obvious choice in a family history, we are born, we live, and we die.  Boring… right!  Try starting with the most interesting aspect of the ancestor’s life and use that as a jumping off point, this is what I call an adjusted chronological order.  When your story is boring, give it an attitude adjustment. You really only want to start at the beginning if in fact the beginning is an attention grabber, a great event that will hook your reader in and set them up to read further.

 For beginning writer’s chronological is sometimes the best for the first draft, it helps them to really source out the story.   If you already have a good handle on your timeline, than start with the most interesting story and leave the chronological order to the pedigree charts.

 You can also try shifting into reverse and writing from the present day backwards. This is very difficult to do and as many times as I have tried, I have never had any luck with it. It just never lines up very nicely kind of like me reversing into a parking spot, not at all pretty. I would not recommend it.

 One of my favourite methods is to write parallel stories. You can write your ancestor’s stories in a parallel fashion until they meet and marry. Once there stories cross they will move forward as one storyline.  You can alternate chapters between one ancestor and the next until they cross.  Alternatively, create sections in your book for each surname until they cross. Each section can be divided into chapters based on individual ancestors or based around timelines and stories.


 Essentially, in a flashback, you are interrupting the current story to move back in time and bring a scene in a previous time, which relates to what is happening in the present.  Are you confused? Because that can easily happen with flashbacks, so tread cautiously. Here are three simple ways of flashing back.

 1.       Reflecting – the ancestor can express his thoughts, for example he reflects on how cold the previous winter had been the scarcity of food….a simple reflection.

2.       Remembering – the ancestors focus in on a previous experience.  The ancestor is still in present but recalling a memory of a previous experience.

3.       Actual experience- The ancestors recalls a memory and then the actual scene plays out, the flashback is occurring.

 Flashbacks are meant to capture a remembered experience. You can transition into flashbacks with phrases such as

“She thought back”

“He remembered”

 After you have presented the scene, you can then transition back into present with

 “She could not believe 30 years had passed…”

“Now, 20 years later, here he sat….”

 Keep your transitions, simple and swift.

 A couple other ways of flashing back would be to insert exerts of diaries or letters or this is a opportune place to use narrative to retell and what happened using lots of vivid detail.

 A Time Shift

Time Shift can be a little more sophisticated, it starts as the ancestor recollects a memory,  “she recalled the time …the writer gradually leads you into the ancestor’s thoughts then link to a scene or scenes in the past.

 Parallel Stories

Parallel stories are exactly as they indicate; you can write two or more ancestor’s stories in a parallel fashion until their lines cross. Once their stories cross they will move forward as one storyline, alternating between chapters or sections or a book until their lines cross. I would not recommend alternating any more frequently than chapters so as not to confuse the reader. If your writing more of coffee table style book, then consider dividing your book into sections, each section deals with a surname, within the sections are chapters that deal with individual ancestors, events or timelines. Once their stories cross they move forward on one storyline.

Don’t feel restricted to one structure.  In my own family history, I used parallel stories. Within those stories, I used an adjusted chronological structure with some flashbacks. With some planning and forethought, you can combine several structures to write an interesting and compelling family history narrative.