Do you have a burning desire to share your story? After surviving a terrible trauma and learning to thrive, you believe you can help others do the same. However, you are gripped with fear because putting your story out there for the world to see is fraught with peril, and you worry: What will others think of me? What if it embarrasses my family? What if someone tries to sue me? How can I protect my loved ones and myself? There is a solution: write it as a novel, like I did. In fact, countless novels contain some autobiographical components.
Turning your trauma into a novel allows you to make your story more interesting and readable while maintaining the original premise, theme, and message you want to benefit others. Also, writing a novel allows you to use all that creativity flowing through your veins that’s itching to be expressed. Further, presenting your story as fiction affords you, your family, and the people you write about some protection, making it less likely and more difficult for someone to sue you.
One concern I had about presenting my story as a novel was that the message would be less impactful if people saw it as fiction. That concern can be resolved by explicitly stating that your novel is based on a true story.
Here are some tips that will help you turn your trauma story into an engrossing novel:
1. Focus on the main events.
Since you are writing a novel and not an autobiography, your story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. You will include only a portion of your life—the one that most clearly conveys your theme and is most important to your story. Determine what that portion is and leave out any events that are unrelated, no matter how interesting they are. Where will your story start and where will it end?
2. Craft a plot.
As with any novel, you need to have a plot you can define. The plot makes the reader want to know what happened, but because your novel is based on a true story, your plot already exists. Nevertheless, you can write your story in a more interesting way by creating memorable characters who face conflict. Since you will now be writing fiction, you are free to deviate from reality. Stay true to the essential facts of your story but weave them into a more captivating tale versus sticking to what happened in your real life.
3. Define your theme.
The theme is the deeper meaning or moral of your story—what you want people to take away and carry with them—the overarching message. People are not only interested in what happened to you or how you suffered. They want to know what is in it for them, so you must include principles that are relevant to them (e.g. They can overcome their own trauma).
4. Discover the structure.
You can choose from several plot structures, but your plot must have structure. I prefer the classic story structure, which is straightforward, simple, easy to adhere to, and grabs your readers from the get-go. The best-selling author, Dean Koontz, describes it as putting your main characters into deep trouble as soon as possible and having everything s/he does to resolve the problem only make it worse. Then, when the situation seems hopeless, have your hero succeed (or fail) by using everything they learned in facing all those obstacles along the way. This also creates a powerful character arc. The more the protagonist evolves over time, the more memorable s/he will be.
5. Engage your readers.
Fiction requires you to create tension, conflict, and anticipation to keep your readers interested. “I had an accident today” is a narrative. “You won’t believe what happened to me today on my way to the grocery store” is a story. It peaks your listeners’ curiosity. You do not want to reveal everything right away. Build anticipation and keep them wanting to discover more. You can do this by creating cliffhangers along the way. Be sure to have a payoff for each cliffhanger so your readers will not feel cheated. You are weaving a story, not simply reporting facts, so blend reality and fictional events together. As you do, be sure to engage all your readers’ senses (smell, taste, sound, sight, and touch) if you want them to live the story as they read.
6. Choose your point of view.
Point of view matters. I suggest you use a third person narrative for a novel about your trauma; it will help the novel seem less personal and less like a memoir or autobiography.
7. Tell your own story.
You can only tell your story, not someone else’s. Be careful not to veer from your point of view by narrating what someone else is thinking or feeling —only disclose that through their dialogue or actions. To decrease liability, have the main character (the person who suffered the trauma) use “I” statements. For example, she might say, “I never noticed any signs of his discontent and was devastated when I realized.” versus “He blindsided and devastated me.” Let the character own her feelings.
8. Get emotions involved.
To hook your readers and keep them interested, you must get them involved emotionally. Make them feel as if the events were happening to them, and allow them to get lost in the story by making them laugh, cry, get angry, and feel anxious. Did you ever get so caught up emotionally in a movie that you yelled at the screen? That is what you want your readers to do while reading your story.
9. Don’t write “on the nose.”
Make your writing, including dialogue, clean, clear, and crisp. Eliminate “on the nose writing,” telling your reader every little detail of things that can easily be assumed. For example, don’t say, “She heard her phone ring, so she took her handbag off the arm of the chair, unzipped it, removed her phone from her bag, put it to her ear, and said hello.” Instead, say, “She answered her phone.” “On the nose” writing annoys the reader.
10. Be authentic.
Be vulnerable and intimate with your readers—let them in on secrets you would not even tell a friend. In my novel, I revealed things I had never told a living soul. The more vulnerable and authentic you are, the more you will resonate with your readers and the more hooked they will be on your story. It makes them care about you, the author, and creates a sort of bond between you and them.
Writing about your trauma can be difficult and emotionally draining, and there will be times when you think you can’t do it. Even more memories will surface as you write, and the pain can seem unbearable. I cried while writing most of my book. But stick with it. Turning your trauma into a novel affords you a little emotional distance, so it seems more bearable. We must face our pain to heal from it; that is the only way we decrease its power over us. The writing process ends up being cathartic, as if you are purging your system of poison. Writing is a safe way to process your trauma and can be a release. Take breaks as you need to and go at your own pace. Be willing to go through the hard stuff, and you will free yourself to be able to move beyond it, ending up with one heck of a novel as a bonus. I’ll be rooting for you.
Next week, we’ll dive even deeper into more story elements that will be helpful to you as you turn your trauma experience into a novel. Sandra will share how to create interesting characters and a powerful ending to your story. Some of the most impactful stories we read are inspired by true events. What is your favorite book that took someone’s traumatic experience and turned it into a fictional narrative? What about that story was so compelling?
Dr. Sandra Duclos is a retired clinical psychologist who spent more than twenty-five years in private practice. She has published professional papers on her original research on the self-control of emotional experience and released her first novel, Waiting for Luigi, in October 2019. Sandra’s purpose and passion are to continue helping others to live their best lives through her writing, coaching, and teaching.