Your Story Needs a Clothesline

Published about 2 months ago • 3 min read

Hi Bookfoxers,

Today we're answering this reader question:

I am writing a fictionalized version of my maternal grandmother's life in her voice, based on dramatic stories my grandmother told me over the years. I am embellishing some of the stories, and keeping them intact in others. But at this point, they seem like vignettes that I'm not sure how to tie them together. I keep thinking I need, "a clothesline to hang them on". I've thought of interjecting myself, using my memories to tie them together, but not sure if that's the way to go.

A clothesline! I love that metaphor.

And you're absolutely right -- you do need a clothesline. Otherwise it's a scattered collection of anecdotes, and it doesn't hold together as a book.

Sometimes it's a called a "Through Line" in writing -- a unifying theme, character, place, or plot that connects all the pieces.

And you need one of these for nonfiction and for novels.

You're right that you could be the through line. Then the book becomes about the relationship between you and your grandmother, rather than just about your grandmother alone.

So I would recommend that you read a lot of linked story collections.

That's because these are the books that will have most in common with what you're trying to do -- they have a bunch of different stories, and they're trying to tie them all together by some narrative twine.

A good example would be "A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan. This novel in short stories has reoccurring characters, but it really holds together because of a "theme." It's all about music and the music industry.

But let's dial it down and look at some possible through-lines. One important technique of ordering the stories is creating a structure or a pattern.

  • You could structure it like a mystery: raise some question about your grandmother's life or character, and use these stories as ways to reveal how you were mistaken about her, or offer stories that confirm the answer to the mystery. It's a journey of character discovery, both for you and for the reader.
  • You could orient it around a place. For instance, if most of your grandmother's stories took place in her home, or in her hometown, then you could could start each chapter with the name of the place and the year. The place will become another character in the story.
  • You could use the bookend technique: start with half of a story humdinger, then dial it back to ho-hum stories and escalate up to crazier and crazier stories, until you finish the book with the second half of the original story. That bookend story becomes the through-line, especially if you reference it throughout. Do this if you have one big winning story which is always a huge hit.
  • You could orient it around romance. Any failed romances? Any divorces? Any lovers? Love is a very strong clothesline, and you can hang most of your other stories around it. For example, my opera singer grandmother divorced my grandfather, married and divorced someone else, and then remarried my grandfather. She was wild!

There's one other important problem to wrestle with -- the "biographical tightrope", but before we get to that, let's have a word from this week's sponsor.

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So let's talk about the "biographical tightrope."

Whenever you write about a real person, there can be ... issues.

I don't know if there are still family members alive who know your grandmother, but you have to be okay with the fact that they might be angry with how you told a story, or angry that you revealed it at all.

The job of the storyteller is complete and utter honesty -- to stand with hands flung out and say: I've hid nothing.

But most people don't want the absolute truth told. They want to be able to keep secrets, and think people deserve their privacy.

You want to be true to your grandmother's memory, and also honest with your readers, while simultaneously causing the least amount of harm to her memory and to surviving relatives.

It's not an easy path, but I salute you for trying!

Write on!

John Matthew Fox

PS. If any of you have questions about the writing life or issues of craft, please send them my way.


John Matthew Fox helps authors write better fiction. He is the founder of Bookfox, where he creates online courses for writers, provides editing and offers publishing assistance. He is the author of "The Linchpin Writer: Crafting Your Novel's Key Moments" and “I Will Shout Your Name,” a collection of short stories.

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