Autobiography: Writing Your Story

What does your character want?  This question must be asked even when you are the main character in the story.  The reader needs to know why he should keep reading, why he should keep turning the pages.


I’ve come across several autobiographies recently that did not address this question.  In one particular story, the result was complete boredom.  I had to force myself to keep reading.  It wasn’t that the main character, the autobiographer, didn’t have some very interesting stories to tell about his life as an ethnic individual growing up in San Salvador and then moving to the United States.  I found many of his life’s lessons and journeys quite intriguing.  But the question I kept asking myself is why?  Why am I being told this story?  What does he want?  What am I supposed to be rooting for?  His survival in San Salvador?  Breaking free from his abusive father?  Living in the U.S.?


Consider the Lance Armstrong book, It’s Not About the Bike.  The reader knows right up front the challenge Armstrong is facing:  cancer.  The reader immediately knows her role:  root for him.  Armstrong wants to survive the cancer and get back on his bike, pure and simple.  Would he overcome?  Dealing with this question causes the reader to keep turning the pages to find out, even if we already know the outcome.  Not only did he survive the cancer but he won seven consecutive Tour de France races.  I hope this point is not getting lost as you think about your own story: even though we know the outcome, even though the media has already spoiled the ending for us, we still read the book because it is a page turner.  Armstrong doesn’t just give us his life story, he gives us a reason to root for him and keep reading.  He answered the question by saying ‘I beat the cancer, I became the record holder for the Tour de France, and this is how it happened.’ He then tells us all the ups and downs on the way to winning.  It’s a great read.


Why are you telling your story?  What do you want?  In order to answer this you have to go back in time.  You may be eight years past your struggle, you’re over it now.  But, your reader doesn’t even know the problem, let alone the struggle and resolution, so you have to go back and take them on that journey.  You could phrase the question differently, “What did I want?”  The reader is coming to your story fresh; most likely they have no knowledge of you until they buy your book so you need to put them in your life at the time when you had no clue if you were going to make it.  Introduce the problem then solve it.  You might say, I wanted to be free from the eating disorder, or, I wanted to be out of my father’s house, or, I wanted to beat the cancer and get back on my bike.


Readers do not have a lot of patience.  They need a reason to spend four or five hours of their day with you.  I wanted to root for the San Salvadorian man but I wasn’t sure what to root for.  His story was chronological, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but to the point that I had no idea what his thesis was.  I wasn’t clear about the point of the story or why he’s telling it.  I stopped reading.  Don’t let this happen to you.  Be respectful of your reader; show her that your story is worth her time by clearly defining the role she must play. 


The popular Twilight series of books is a good example.  Bella wants to become a vampire.  Will she do it?  Will she abandon her human experience forever to be with her true love?  This question will be answered once-and-for-all when book four is released in about three days, thirteen hours, forty-five minutes and thirty-three seconds as of this posting. Not that I’m counting or anything. Clearly define your struggle, tell the reader the outcome you’re hoping for, and then take him on the journey.  If you do this, he’ll love you for it; in sales.