Does Your Past Hold a Key to a Great Story? Five Elements of Experience Essential for Building a Story

by Pamela Jane Bell on May 19, 2013

catnav-interviews-active-3Post #101 – Memoir Writing – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Looking to Your Past

By Pamela Jane Bell
Regular guest blogger, children’s book author and coach. Pamela is currently writing her memoir. Pamela’s first book for adults, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp through Jane Austen’s Classic is now available. At the bottom of her blog post, we’ve put her new book trailer. Like cats? Love Jane Austen? Then this is a must-read book.

Mohonk Mountain House

Mohonk Mountain House

Every year, usually in spring or fall, I spend a few days at Mohonk Mountain House, a hotel in the Shawangunk Mountains in upstate New York.  With flags fluttering from its turrets and towers, Mohonk stands like a triumph of Victorian architecture, a hymn to nineteenth century beauty and civility.  But I don’t go there for the luxurious setting, or even the amenities.  I go to remember.

In the spring and early summer of 1972, when I was twenty-five, my first husband and I had summer jobs at Mohonk.  I worked as a “flower girl” gathering lilacs and lavender from the cutting gardens, which I arranged into bouquets for the guests.  It sounds idyllic, but that summer was more of a nightmare than an idyll.  The truth is, I was having a nervous breakdown (to use an old-fashioned but aptly descriptive term).  And though I would have loved to stay on at Mohonk that summer, to see the roses bloom and watch the cloud shadows flit across the mountains, I was tormented by an inner voice that prophesied all kinds of terrible evils, threw me in a panic, and rendered even existence malignant in the midst of unimaginable beauty and serenity.

Rose Gardens at Mohonk

Rose Gardens at Mohonk

My favorite thing to do when I return to Mohonk these days is to walk ­– and think.  (The hotel is surrounded by 10,000 acres of wilderness and nearly 100 miles of trails and carriage roads so it’s almost impossible to exhaust the possibilities for exploring.)  When I was walking there on a recent visit, I got to thinking about why I am so fond of returning, both in actuality and in my memoir, to a scene of such terrible anguish.  As I reflected on this, I remembered a quote from Jane Austen’s novel Persuasion: “One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it”

Amanda Root in Jane Austen's "Persuasion"

Amanda Root in Jane Austen's "Persuasion"

One of the reasons I have such affection for Mohonk, other than its beauty, I realized, is because I did have such a hard time there, and survived.  That got me thinking about why some chapters of our lives seem to arrange themselves (with a little editing) into a compelling narrative, while others do not, even though the events themselves may have been dramatic.  Following is what I came up with – five elements of experience essential for building a story.

Walking the carriage roads through the mountains

Walking the carriage roads through the mountains

1. Conflict

A story requires conflict, and my summer at Mohonk was characterized by a titanic inner struggle between two opposing selves.  These two conflicting selves tore me apart.  I – or I should say, they – couldn’t even come to a consensus about whether I was really crazy, or just pretending to be.



conflictAsk yourself, what is the central conflict of your story?  Is it an inner conflict or a conflict with another person, or both?  How did you resolve it, or mediate between opposing forces?  In my case, the strands of good and bad, dark and light, were so deeply intertwined in my inner antagonists that I couldn’t separate them without destroying myself.  The only way forward to health and sanity was integration.  That process of integration is unique to each of us, and it makes a riveting story in memoirs such as Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, and Welcome to My Country by Lauren Slater.

night sky2. Contrast

One of the things that draws me back to my memoir and keeps my interest in writing it fresh, is the sharp contrast between the lush beauty of Mohonk that long-ago summer, and the gray prison-like starkness of my inner world.  Contrast heightens interest and creates stunning story scenery.  In A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean illustrates the poignant contrast between the grace and gifts of his younger brother, Paul, and the ugly underworld Paul becomes entangled in.  Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind highlights the contrast between the destructiveness of the author’s manic depression and its seductive allure and dark beauty.  First identify, then heighten and intensify contrasting elements in your story.

3. Color

There are many different forms or expressions of color.  Even the absence of color paints a vivid picture.  In my Mohonk story, the language of my interior dialogue was colored by the highly charged political rhetoric of the times; my two selves were ideological as well as psychological enemies.  Infuse your writing with vivid images and colors that draw you and the reader deeply into your narrative.

4. ReCollection

Recollection truly is just that – re-collecting.  You salvage the pieces of the past and arrange them into a pattern.  As the pattern emerges, you begin to sense how to build the pieces into a narrative.  Recollecting and rearranging is one of the most satisfying aspects of writing a memoir.

The Shawangunk Mountains in New Paltz, NY

The Shawangunk Mountains in New Paltz, NY


5. Completion

Here is where  it all comes together – the events of the past shaped by your present perspective, enriched by your vision and completed with the finishing touch – the wisdom you’ve gained from living and recreating the past.

It doesn’t get better than that.


Below is the trailer for Pamela Jane’s new book: Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp through Jane Austen’s Classic

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Elvira Woodruff May 21, 2013 at

Pamela, you have really captured in a nutshell the essential elements of constructing a good story! I’m printing this up and keeping it on my desk to remind me when struggling with a chapter, what to add and what to edit out. Loved your bit about color. Priceless information. Gotta get me to Mohonk Mountain now!..Elvira

Pamela Jane May 21, 2013 at

Elvira, thank you for your comment, and I know you would love Mohonk Mountain House!

Sherrey Meyer June 2, 2013 at

Pamela, thanks for such an informative post on the essentials of good story construction. I especially appreciate that you are writing a memoir and tie these elements to that project. A big help to me, and one I’m filing away in my Evernote files.

Pamela Jane June 2, 2013 at

Hi, Sherrey, thanks so much for your comment, and I’m glad the post was helpful. Good luck with your memoir!

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