How to Tell the Story of Your Parents’ Lives
Part 1: Table of Contents
In the last series of articles, we covered how to interview your parents about their lives. If you have done that, you probably amassed a lot of information! Perhaps you have access to family photo albums, personal letters, family documents, and bits and pieces your mom and dad have already written about their lives. It is also possible you have audio or video recordings of them telling stories.
As your parents’ biographer, the most challenging task is pulling together all the material from your interviews, your outreach to family and friends, and the material your parents already have, into an engaging presentation.
You are faced with a lot of decisions. What to leave in and what to leave out? Compile into a printed book, or into a video? Present their stories chronologically, or by major milestones and turning points? Have the stories narrated by them, by you, or by a professional narrator?
All the above?!
It seems a daunting task. Relax! There is no one way to tell the story of your parent’s lives. In fact, you are not telling one story. You are telling many short stories. You are helping to chronicle two lives that are still works in progress, if one or both are still with you. You are only one of the biographers. Life stories are still unfolding, and they are often told by multiple people from their particular perspectives.
In this regard, it would be great to recruit other family members to contribute. You provide the structure. You coordinate the pieces provided by others.
Your Parent’s Life Story as an Anthology
You must admit, if you were to write ONE story of your parent’s life, and do it justice, it would need to be a very L – O – N – G story. A life that is 60, 70, or 80 or more years long encompasses a LOT of living. So many experiences. So many memories. So many lessons. One story wouldn’t do it justice.
It’s best to think of your parent’s lives, and your life for that matter, as an anthology. (See our next article, Your Life Story is a Multimedia Anthology.)
An anthology is a collection of works, such as short stories, poems, and essays, that are compiled into a single volume. Your mom’s life is one volume. Your dad’s life is a separate volume. Their respective volumes can include citations and historical documents.
The works in an anthology are all related in some way. In the case of your parent’s lives, the works are about the people, places, events, and experiences that shaped them. It’s about their evolution and the people they became. These two volumes of works can be compiled into one anthology or produced as separate anthologies. It depends upon how much material you have. These anthologies can help future generations in your family understand their history.
If you do it right, you are the author of these anthologies. Your parent’s lives can best be told as a collection of stories. Your job is to help organize them, present them, and preserve them. The most important role you are playing is curator.
Think of yourself as a family historian. You are curating stories and creating a forum for others to build on them and add their own unique perspectives. Some of the people who will read these stories are in the stories. Your parent’s life stories are part of the viewer’s life story. And part of your life story as well!
Do not think of presenting the story of your parent’s life as one story. Your parent’s lives have different beginnings. The endings are yet to be written if one or both are still alive. You are producing an anthology of many pieces. They can be printed pieces. They can be video recordings. They can be audio recordings. They can be historical documents. You are curating a collection of works that may be written by multiple people over many years, and that showcases the lives of two of the most important people in your life. You are building a family archive for future generations.
Your Parent’s Life Story as One Story
If, however, you want to produce just one story with a definitive beginning, middle, and end, see our article on creating a Life Story Arc. It offers a framework for presenting a life story as a chronology. You can use the Leaves Virtual Biographer to help write the story using this format. Also check out the next part in this series on story structures.
Where to from Here?
If you agree you are producing an anthology and not one story, how do you do that in a way that is easily digestible by your parents (if they are still alive), and by the family members and friends who will read this anthology? How do you do it in a way that encourages others to build on it and add more pieces?
Think of your parent’s anthology as two big branches on your family tree. Your Mom is one branch. Your Dad is the other branch. Every story or artifact of each parent is a leaf. Leaves can be organized into smaller branches that grow out of the two big branches. These smaller branches are chapters in their anthology.
First, create a table of contents for your parent’s anthology, or anthologies. Keep in mind that additional works will be added to the table of contents later. These new works might be added by you, by your children, or by other family members and friends. As other people add leaves, your family tree blossoms with stories!
Think of each leaf as a mini story, or a vignette. They hang on the smaller branches, which are the chapters in the anthology.
The Table of Contents
There is no magic number of chapters, no set titles of chapters, or the number and length of the stories in each chapter. Your parents can help decide which chapters and stories are important, and how they should be titled. If your parents have passed, ask your siblings and other family members for suggestions. Below is a list of sample chapter titles and types of stories you might include.
Title: The Life and Legacy of [dad’s first name] and [mom’s first name] [last name].
Volume 1: [dad’s first name] [dad’s last name], [Year of Birth] – present (or date passed).
Volume 2: [mom’s first name] [mom’s last name], [Year of Birth] – present (or date passed).
Volume 1: Robert James Smith, 1933 – present.
Volume 2: Louise Smith, 1935 – 2020.
A good introduction provides an overview of the anthology and the pieces that are included. Some pieces may be authored or produced by different people. A good place to start to create a wonderful introduction is the Leaves Summary Biography application. This app was designed with this purpose in mind.
- Childhood (ages 1-12)
- Teen Years (ages 13-18)
- Early Adulthood (ages 19-40)
- Mid Adulthood (ages 41-64)
- Senior Years (ages 65+)
- Great Grandchildren
- Aunts, Uncles, Cousins, Nieces, and Nephews
- Extended Family
Special Friends and Acquaintances
- Best Friends
- Playmates and Teammates
- Co-workers and Buddies
- Teachers and Mentors
- Meeting a Famous Person
- First Day of School
- First Friend
- First Kiss
- First Love
- First Car
- First Job
- First House
- First Trip on an Airplane
- Other Firsts
Faith and Purpose
- Beliefs and Changing Beliefs
- Guiding Lights
- Spiritual Awakenings
- Sense of Self
Milestones and Turning Points
- High School Graduation
- College Graduation
- Military Service
- Deciding on Profession, Career and Jobs
- Having Children
- Biggest Accomplishment/Contribution
- Set Backs
- Finding Purpose/Faith
- Proudest Moment
- Dealing with Tragedy/Loss/Grief
Recreation, Hobbies and Vacations
- Leisure Time
- Favorite Hangouts
Holidays and Celebrations
- Most Memorable Holiday Experience
- Milestone Birthdays (16th, 21st, 30th, 40th, 50th, 65th, 70th, more)
Travels and Adventures
Causes and Volunteer Works
Events that Partly Shape Me and My Outlook
- National and World Events
- Politicians and Personalities
- Economic Times
- Inventions and Technological Advancements
- Social Issues and Movements
- Cultural Influences (music, fashion, fads)
- Spiritual Influences (religion, gospels, prophets, places of worship)
Where I Was and How I Heard (Flashbulb Memories)
- The Day the Japanese Bombed Pearl Harbor
- The Day the Atom Bomb was Dropped
- The Assassinations of….. (Kennedy, MLK, others)
- Other Episodic Memories
- Values & Principles
- Life Lessons
- Philosophies & Beliefs
- Viewpoints and Musings
Leaves to Loves Ones, Future Generations, and the World-at-Large
- Hopes and Wishes
- Priceless Advice
Mom’s Birth Certificate
Dad’s Birth Certificate
Diplomas and Certifications
Mom’s High School Graduation Diploma
Dad’s High School Graduation Diploma
Trade School and Professional Certifications
Honors and Awards
Religious Rituals and Rites of Passage Records
The Leaves Virtual Biographer can help you write or record all of the stories in the chapters you decide to include. It was designed with this purpose in mind. It’s “smart” and learns from the content and other inputs you provide on these topics.
Note: as of this writing, the Leaves Virtual Biographer is undergoing development. When you sign up for the free Summary Biography, you will be notified when it is released. But this should not deter you from getting started. Read on!
Part 2: Story Structures
There are several engaging ways of presenting your parents’ life as one story, or as an anthology. A good story has several elements presented in succession. An anthology is a collection of short stories or other works, like historical records, which can be authored by different people.
Stories can be written works, audio recordings, video recordings, or a combination of all these mediums.
The Interview Story Structure
The interview format is perhaps the fastest and easiest way of presenting your parents’ story. You have probably read dozens of interviews in your life and watched them on television. It’s a simple format. The interviewer asks a question. The subject replies. The interviewer then asks probing follow-up questions to encourage more information and meaning to the response.
You are the interviewer. You pose the question and then present your parents’ responses. Of course, you will want to edit their responses to eliminate redundancies and filler words.
The interview format does not require a beginning, a middle, and an end, like traditional stories. Interviews are an appropriate method of chronicling lived experiences when there is a need to collect in-depth information on the subject’s opinions, thoughts, experiences, and feelings. Interviews are useful when documenting topics that require complex questioning and considerable probing.
The interview format, like most other formats, can be presented in multimedia. It can be text only (perhaps with related photos), audio only, video only, or a combination of all of these mediums. One of the best ways to present this kind of story is in a digital format, where the audience can read and hear the question, then read, hear, and see the response. You give the audience the option to consume the content in whatever form they wish.
For example, if producing a video of the interview, the camera would show you asking the question, or the audience can just hear you asking the question while the camera stays trained on your parents. Their responses are shown, or just an audio of them is heard while related photos are displayed, and their responses are shown on screen as closed caption.
You have a video record, an audio record, and a text record. The interview can be broken into snippets and repurposed into stories in their anthology that use different story structures.
The downside of the Interview Story Format is that the audience can quickly lose interest. This format is usually presented sequentially, so a viewer might have to sit through many topics that are not of much interest to them, waiting to see and hear the topics that are of interest. The other downside of the interview format is that it can meander and jump around from topic to topic, which can frustrate the audience.
The best way to use the Interview format is as supplemental material in other story structures. At a minimum, it allows you to capture a lot of content that can be used to produce deeper and more poignant stories later.
The Chronological Story Structure
This is the format used by many people to tell the stories of parents and grandparents, and to tell their own stories. It’s easy to follow. It allows the audience to jump ahead. There are a lot of good templates for the chronological life story. See our template, The Leaves Life Story Arc.
The main thing to avoid in the chronological story format is presenting a long list of names, dates, places, people, events, and information — with no context. It should not read like a dossier or resume. It should bring out the emotions your parents were feeling at the time. It should help the audience “feel” a connection to your parents’ lived experiences.
The stories in a chronology should present the insights and outcomes of key milestones and events. At each stage of your parent’s life, how did they change? How are they different now than as children, teens, and early adults? What did life teach them at each of these stages? What are their respective thoughts on the meaning of life…and on the meaning of their lives in particular?
The Three Act Story Structure
Also called the Hero’s Journey, the Three Act Story Format is one of the most well-known ways to structure a story.
Act I. The hero (your mom or dad), or heroes (your mom and dad together), are introduced. They are likeable. They are the protagonists. We can identify with them. The backdrop of the story is also described, which can include the era and times in which the story took place. External forces are always an important part of a story and often overlooked or neglected when telling life stories.
Act II. Your parents face difficulties and challenges. People and life throw challenges at them. These are the antagonists. We don’t like these bad people or forces. We root for you mom and dad to defeat them.
ACT III. Your parents find their way or defeat the negative external forces, usually with the help of special people, or guided by divine intervention. Lessons are learned along the way. The experience makes them better people or draws them closer together.
The Three Act story is a time-tested way to tell a story. It’s a good format to use when telling the story of a specific event, or crisis. Stories such as eloping, a surprise pregnancy, a chaotic wedding, trying to get into college, getting fired from a job, etc.
As the biographer of the story, your role is to get your parents to describe the backstory. What led up to the event or crisis? What was life like for your parents at that time? How did the event or crisis unfold? What decisions did they make? What actions did they take? How was it resolved? What was learned? What was the outcome? How did the event or crisis change them?
The Freytag Pyramid Story Structure
The Freytag Pyramid, also known as the dramatic arc, is a model for storytelling developed by German playwright Gustav Freytag in the 1800s. The pyramid consists of five parts that are commonly used in plays, novels, films, and other forms of storytelling. These five parts are:
Exposition: This is the introduction of the story, where the setting, characters, and other important background information are established. The exposition sets the stage for the rest of the story.
Rising action: This is where the conflict or problem is introduced, and the tension starts to build. The rising action includes a series of events that lead to the climax.
Climax: This is the turning point of the story, where the conflict reaches its peak. It’s the most intense and exciting moment in the story and often determines the outcome.
Falling action: After the climax, the story starts to wind down. Loose ends are tied up, and the consequences of the climax are dealt with. The falling action leads to the resolution.
Resolution: This is the end of the story, where the conflict is resolved. The resolution can be happy, sad, or somewhere in between, but it should bring a sense of closure to the story. Many movies you have watched use the Freytag Pyramid, which is an extension of the three-act story. It has five parts rather than three parts. It’s a bit more complex than the three-act story.
The Freytag Pyramid Story Format is especially good to use when telling a short story with audio and/or video. Stories such as eloping, a surprise pregnancy, a chaotic wedding, stressing to get accepted into college, interviewing for the first job, getting fired from a job, etc.
Hopefully you have some audio or video recordings of your parents telling these types of stories. During your interview sessions you probably got a lot of footage. If played raw, it might be rambling. Your job is to edit the story into the five parts of the Freytag format.
The 7 Plot Point Story Structure
The 7 Plot Point Story Format is a popular narrative structure developed by Dan Wells, a science fiction and fantasy author. The structure consists of seven key plot points that occur throughout a story, helping to drive the narrative forward and create tension and conflict.
Here are the seven plot points:
- Hook: The opening scene or chapter that hooks the reader or viewer and establishes the tone, setting, and main character(s).
- First Plot Point: A major event that happens around the 25% mark of the story that disrupts the status quo and sets the story in motion. This event often involves the protagonist being forced to take action and sets up the main conflict of the story.
- First Pinch Point: A moment of increased tension and conflict around the 37% mark of the story. This is where the antagonist or obstacle becomes more clearly defined and the stakes are raised for the protagonist.
- Midpoint: A pivotal moment in the story that occurs around the 50% mark. The protagonist confronts a major obstacle, undergoes a transformation or realization, or experiences a major setback that changes the course of the story.
- Second Pinch Point: Another moment of increased tension and conflict around the 62% mark of the story. This is where the antagonist or obstacle becomes even more formidable, and the protagonist’s chances of success seem bleak.
- Second Plot Point: A major event that happens around the 75% mark of the story that sets up the final conflict and leads to the climax. This event often involves a significant loss or sacrifice by the protagonist.
- Resolution: The final confrontation and resolution of the story. This is where the protagonist faces the antagonist or obstacle, and the conflict is resolved. The story concludes with a sense of closure and the main character(s) experience growth or change.
The 7 Plot Point Story Format is useful to tell a well-paced and engaging narrative that keeps the audience invested throughout the story.
The InMediasRes Story Structure
InMediasRes, which means “in the midst of things” in Latin, is a story structure that begins the narrative in the middle of the action or conflict, rather than at the beginning of the story. This technique is often used to create a sense of urgency and excitement, as the audience is thrown directly into the story without any introduction or background information.
In the InMediasRes story structure, the narrative begins with a dramatic event or situation that immediately grabs the audience’s attention and draws them into the story. The characters and setting are introduced through action and dialogue, rather than exposition.
The InMediasRes structure is often used in action-packed genres such as thrillers, mysteries, and adventure stories. It can be effective in grabbing the audience’s attention and keeping them engaged, but it can also be challenging to sustain the tension and conflict throughout the entire story.
One potential disadvantage of using the InMediasRes structure is that it can be difficult to provide context and backstory for the audience. Writers must find creative ways to weave in the backstory without slowing down the pace of the narrative or interrupting the flow of action.
Overall, the InMediasRes story structure can be a useful tool for writers to create an exciting and engaging narrative, but it requires careful planning and execution to be successful.
The Free Form Story Structure
The free form story structure is a narrative approach that allows for a flexible and unconventional storytelling style. Unlike other narrative structures that have specific plot points or guidelines to follow, free form storytelling has no predetermined structure, giving the writer complete creative freedom to explore the story and characters in their own way.
In free form storytelling, the writer can experiment with different narrative techniques, such as non-linear storytelling, multiple perspectives, and stream of consciousness. The structure is often shaped by the characters, themes, and ideas explored in the story rather than adhering to a specific formula or framework.
Free form storytelling is often used in literary fiction, where the focus is on character development and exploring complex themes and ideas. It can be a challenging approach for writers, as it requires a strong sense of storytelling and a willingness to take risks and experiment with different techniques.
One potential advantage of the free form story structure is that it allows writers to create unique and innovative narratives that push the boundaries of traditional storytelling. It can also be a powerful way to explore complex or abstract ideas, as it allows for a more fluid and organic approach to storytelling.
However, the free form structure can also be challenging for readers or viewers who may prefer more conventional narratives. Without a clear plot or structure, it can be difficult to follow or engage with the story, and it may not provide the same sense of satisfaction or closure as more traditional narrative structures.
Introduction: This is the opening section of the story, where the writer establishes the setting, characters, and tone of the narrative. This section may not have a clear plot or conflict, but it sets the stage for the story to come.
Character Development: In this section, the writer explores the characters in depth, their motivations, and their relationships with one another. The story may meander through different perspectives or timelines, with the focus on character development rather than a specific plot.
Themes and Ideas: This section of the story may focus on exploring complex or abstract themes and ideas. The writer may use symbolism or metaphors to convey meaning, or explore philosophical or ethical questions through the actions and dialogue of the characters.
Climax: The climax of a free form story may not follow a traditional plot structure, but it is the moment of greatest tension or conflict in the narrative. This may be a pivotal moment for one or more characters, or a significant event that changes the course of the story.
Resolution: In the resolution of a free form story, the writer may tie up loose ends or provide closure to the narrative. However, the resolution may not provide a clear-cut ending or a sense of finality, as the focus of the story is on the exploration of ideas and character development rather than a specific plot.
Overall, the free form story structure is characterized by its fluidity and flexibility, allowing writers to experiment with different techniques and approaches to storytelling.
As you can see, you have a lot of options for ways to tell your parent’s stories. If compiled as an anthology, you can use several of these structures to tell different stories from different parts of your parent’s lives. At a minimum, you can simply publish your interviews with them, and/or, use the Chronological story structure, which is easy for future generations to follow.
Part 3: Publishing, Sharing, and Preserving Your Parents’ Life Stories
Let’s cover how to publish, share, and preserve the stories and other materials you have compiled.
Publishing Your Parent’s Life Stories
You have several options for publishing and sharing your parents’ life stories.
- Printed Book. Traditionally, most people publish one or more printed books. There are many services for printing in soft cover or hard cover. At a minimum, you can use your favorite word processor to print the book and bind it yourself into a notebook. You can bring it to FedEx Office or other print shop. They can print any number of copies double-sided and bind them.
A convenient way to print the story, or collection of stories, is to use Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), a service of Amazon. https://kdp.amazon.com/en_US/. They have several great tools for book sizes, layouts, and covers.
The nice thing about KDP is the ability to update and republish the text and images as often as you desire. The manuscript never gets lost, destroyed, or misplaced. It is stored perpetually on KDP. You can even give other family members access to your KDP account. They can create and print their own versions of the book.
- E-Book. There are a variety of services for creating a PDF Flip Book. Just upload the manuscript and the software will create a clickable version of it. KDP also offers e-book formats for reading on Kindles. Once you create a PDF Flip Book, you can publish it on your own web site, on other web sites, and on your social media pages.
- Audio and Video Recordings. Audio and video recorded stories can be edited and produced with a variety of tools. Most of these tools require a learning curve with sophisticated editing software. However, there are new applications coming on the market that don’t require one to be a movie editor or producer. You can see some of these capabilities in the Leaves Summary Biography, which is a free-to-use tool for creating an MP4 video. In future editions of this series, we will provide reviews and links to other resources for producing your parents’ life story as a movie.
- Story Hosting and Family Heritage Archives. If you produce an anthology, or a collection of stories, these can be stored, indexed, and searched online. You can have your own family website, with your parents’ life stories, your life stories, and the life stories of other family members. You can upload your stories to genealogy web sites. You can store them on https://www.leaves.us.
Sharing Your Parents’ Life Stories
- Facebook and other Social Media Sites. Many families are already on Facebook, so it’s a natural place to post one or more stories of your parents’ lives. At a minimum, you can post their summary biography and point to your password-protected family heritage site for the full stories.
- YouTube. Setting up a YouTube Channel is free and easy. You can password protect it or share a private link with friends and family members. It’s a good place to share family stories, especially those in video form.
- Family Tree Genealogy Sites. Most of the genealogy sites allow you to upload stories or create them. It’s a good way to cut and paste stories you have written into the profile pages of people in your family tree, including your parents.
- Leaves.us. If you are using https://www.Leaves.us to help create a summary biography of your parents’ lives, and/or to write and publish deeper stories, you can share these stories with friends and family on your own personal Leaves pages. It’s the only place to share an interactive life map and timeline of your parents’ lives.
The advantage of e-books and story hosting archive sites like leaves.us is that you can control who sees the stories. If there are highly personal or sensitive stories meant for only certain family members, only they will have access to those stories. You can set different permissions levels. A printed book, on the other hand, is all or nothing.
Some of your parent’s life stories might be wonderful to share with the public. Future generations can learn from their experiences. Other stories could be viewable only by immediate family members. And others, available to view or download only by friends and extended family members to whom you grant access.
The same is true for family records and personal documents, such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, home and car titles, school records, military records, and work records. You can share and preserve these records with only the people who should have access to them.
Preserving Your Parents’ Life Stories
Preserving life stories is more problematic than one would think. Printed materials can be lost or destroyed by fire, water, or rot. At The Leaves Legacy Project, we hear this all the time! Either the written stories were lost or destroyed, or some family member took them and won’t share them. Same is true for old family photo albums and home movies.
Preserving the stories (and other media) in digital format is a good way of preventing their loss, but it is not fool proof. Many people invested a large sum of money to transfer old stories, photos, and film to CD-ROM. Now, few people have CD-ROM players, so the material can’t be viewed.
Today, everything is in the “cloud,” but who knows whether the cloud will be around in 10-20 years. The cloud is essentially a collection of physical computer servers. They reside in buildings. Some reside in mountains. Others reside under the ocean. All are susceptible to failure, meltdown, cyber attack, and human error.
The problem with digital backup solutions, of course, is what happens if something happens to you, and no one is paying for these storage services any longer? Poof. Your life stories and family records could be tossed out. It is hard to predict the “safe and secure” technologies of the future.
Here are some suggestions for preserving your parents’ life stories today while planning for their long-term preservation:
- Store them on file backup sites like Amazon Photos, Google Drive, and Dropbox.
- Download them to one or more flash drives and keep the flash drives in your bank safety deposit box.
- Print multiple hard copies and distribute them to all your family members, trusted friends, and advisors.
- Check out the various “vital record vault” services.
The best preservation strategy is multi-pronged, where backups exist in multiple formats and are stored in multiple secure places. Both free and paid places.
The core mission of The Leaves Legacy Project is to fund and evolve with searchable and accessible archive technologies, to protect and preserve family stories and personal legacies for future generations. We will keep you posted on these preservation services as we bring them online.
In the meantime, make multiple copies, store them in multiple places and in multiple formats, and share the “keys” with trusted family members who will safeguard them and hand them down to the next generation.
What’s a Rich Text element?
The rich text element allows you to create and format headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, images, and video all in one place instead of having to add and format them individually. Just double-click and easily create content.
Static and dynamic content editing
A rich text element can be used with static or dynamic content. For static content, just drop it into any page and begin editing. For dynamic content, add a rich text field to any collection and then connect a rich text element to that field in the settings panel. Voila!
- lsit one
- list two
How to customize formatting for each rich text
Headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, figures, images, and figure captions can all be styled after a class is added to the rich text element using the "When inside of" nested selector system.
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