Becoming the Family Storycatcher, part 5a: Getting It Ready – Finding the Storyline

Photo courtesy of Jon Madison via Flickr.

So far in our series of how-to posts related to family history, we’ve discussed getting permission from your narrator, selecting a format for the project, conducting the interview, and how to gather stories at a distance, when your narrator doesn’t live close to you.

If you’ve followed these steps, you’re now at a crucial point in the storycatching process. While it can be a challenge to set up and conduct the interview for some people, for others the big sticking point comes when they review the big pile of raw material they have generated and must now figure out how to work with it.

Remember scope

Earlier in the storycatching process, we mentioned establishing the scope of this project – meaning, what parts of your narrator’s life are you going to cover? The scope should have helped you do pre-interview research, frame your questions, even know when it was OK to encourage your narrator to go “off script” and discuss a favorite memory that was outside of your original plan.

Scope will come in handy again now, during the organizing and editing phase of the project. You can use it as your “blade” to carve away interesting, but out-of-scope, material. (If these tidbits are truly compelling, they could form a separate group of “outtakes” that you could include along with your main deliverable.)

Know what you have

The first step in organizing your project is to find out what raw tape/footage you have, if you recorded the interview electronically. If you do it yourself, I recommend creating a log of high points in your footage or tape. (Here is a blog post with some good technical and physical considerations on how to do it.) You can also have a word-for-word transcription made, but I would recommend hiring someone else to do that.

Finding Storylines

After you have a record of your raw tape/footage, grab a highlighter and review the content to look for recurring themes in your narrator’s stories and how they frame them. Do they frame their stories in terms of being “Mr. or Ms. Fix-It,” who always rushes in to make a situation better? Do they focus on the positives (who helped, what was great) or the negatives (how scared everyone was, how tough an era was) of the situation? Do they focus mostly on their own perceptions of events, or do they like to include what their friends or family members did or said?

The basic building block of storytelling is the scene, also known as a vingnette or an anecdote. It’s a sequence of continuous action, so if your narrator is relating a long sequence of events, there will probably be a number of scenes involved in advancing their overall story.

One of the most basic ingredients for shaping a compelling story including true stories from raw materials gleaned in an interview is the narrative arc. Boiled down to its essence, it has three parts:

  • A challenge or conflict – this can include inner conflicts or struggles.
  • Action toward a goal or to resolve the conflict/challenge
  • A change – your narrator could shift perspective, acheive his or her goal (or not), master the challenge (or not), but he or she has become a different person because of their experiences.

But real life is so messy!

You may be thinking at this point, “Wow, my interview with Mom wasn’t nearly this neat! We talked about so many different topics, and in such a random order.” If that’s the case, don’t worry. We typically do NOT experience our lives as one continuous (or series of interlocking) stories, so it’s unlikely that your narrator related his or her experiences in that fashion (although if you asked him or her to recount favorite family stories, things may go a little easier in putting your material together).

If you framed your questions during the interview well, you’ve probably got what you need to tell your narrator’s story. You will just have to employ a skill that not all of us practice on a regular basis – that of a story editor.

In our next installment of this series, we’ll talk about how to edit your narrator’s story so that your raw footage/tape or your interview notes are transformed into a coherent, compelling set of stories from his or her life!!


  1. caneditor · · Reply

    Great editing tips here, Liz. Thanks for posting. I especially liked your link to details about the narrative arc.
    Naomi Pauls
    Editor / Independent Publishing Consultant

    1. Glad you liked it!

  2. […] our last post, we looked at some ways to organize the raw materials from your interviews with your family […]

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