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What Are the Qualities of an Effective & Interesting Autobiography?


Maybe you know the feeling: You finally meet someone you’ve admired for ages -- a pioneer in your field, an activist, a spiritual leader or a sports icon -- and you ask him how he became the inspiring figure he is today. But if he’s a bad storyteller, his response might color your whole perspective of his achievements. That’s why when people compose autobiographies, they have a twofold goal: to relate their experiences not only accurately, but also engagingly and memorably. Certain narrative techniques consistently appear in successful autobiographies to help their authors meet readers’ expectations.

Point of View

Detached narration is the most commonly used narrative point of view for autobiographies, and perhaps the most effective. The narrator recalls stories from his past and can reflect on what elements were crucial to his growth process. Subjective narration, another possibility for autobiographers, tells the story from the perspective of the person experiencing it, and frequently reads as more biased, less able to sort through relevant details, and less able to interpret events for the reader. Frank O’Connor’s autobiographical short story “First Confession” uses detached narration to describe a memorable episode in his life: the events leading up to his first confession. The story begins, “All the trouble began when my grandfather died and my grand-mother -- my father's mother -- came to live with us.” The use of past tense -- “began” and “came” -- and the narrator’s knowledge that this was indeed the time when “the trouble began” tell us that the narrator is looking back on a memory, rather than experiencing it as it happens.

Chronology

The way that autobiographies are ordered can help invite the reader into the story. A chronologically organized story may be easiest to write, but an autobiography can also be organized thematically, it can flash back to earlier events, it can use a frame story or it can combine several types of organization. For example, an activist might begin her autobiography from a mature point of view, narrating her recent acceptance of a Nobel Peace Prize. She could then recall a pivotal experience that involved her in activism and use that as a platform to narrate her travels abroad. Another section might explore challenges she faced while trying to balance motherhood with her draw to help people outside the home, and the book could conclude by returning to her mature perspective to discuss her future goals.

Specificity and Theme

The real meat of autobiography lies in specific episodes and details that no one but the author could relate, and in the author’s ability to connect those episodes into an overarching narrative. For example, “Diary of an Anorexic Girl,” by Morgan Menzie, makes public the frequently very private and solitary world of a person with disordered eating. The book is composed of journal entries that treat individual occasions -- subjective narration -- and the overall message is one of a struggle redeemed by God’s grace. The requirement for specificity goes hand in hand with the chosen organizational scheme, since an autobiography can’t relate every detail of a life, but must select the ones that will have the most impact based on the overarching narrative.

Context

While an autobiography’s unique authorial perspective makes it interesting, the story is most effective when contextualized within broader events. Bill Clinton’s autobiography “My Life,” for example, includes numerous anecdotes about his encounters with people on the campaign trail and in office. These anecdotes could be interesting if told without context, but because he situates them within political events and pressures, they add to the unity of his overall narrative rather than feeling like digressions.

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About the Author

Elissa Hansen has more than nine years of editorial experience, and she specializes in academic editing across disciplines. She teaches university English and professional writing courses, holding a Bachelor of Arts in English and a certificate in technical communication from Cal Poly, a Master of Arts in English from the University of Wyoming, and a doctorate in English from the University of Minnesota.

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