Writing Memorably

This is a guest post by Daniel and Mary-Helen Foxx.Mary-Helen grew up during the space race at Cape Canaveral, Florida. She met and married Dan while attending college in his hometown in South Carolina. After her graduation with a degree in History and Education they moved to Utah where Dan earned his BA and MA in History from BYU. He taught at East Carolina University until 1973 when they moved to Arizona, where he has taught at Glendale Community College and Ottawa University in Phoenix, as well as in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.

Charlie’s Girlis their first book together.Dan’s other books include I Only Laugh When It Hurts and Nathan Bedford Forrest: In Search of the Enigma which won the Arizona Book Award for biography in 2007 and was a finalist in the Benjamin Franklin National Book Awards, 2007. Mary-Helen has published six genealogies on Southern families and was an editor of the Georgia Genealogical Magazine.Now retired, Mary-Helen and Dan enjoy time with their four sons and their families, including twelve grandchildren. Visit their website.

One of the most famous beginnings in literature is from A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” Ever since Dickens wrote those two lines literature teachers have nagged their students to define what he meant. But you don’t just read those words. You feel them deep in your bones.

I remember writing a three-page essay on Dickens’ meaning way back in the dark ages of my college days. It must have met the professor’s expectations because I got an “A” on the assignment, but I couldn’t find a way to express the feeling I got, and still do, when I read those words. If I could capture that power in my own writing I’d frame it and hang it in a prominent place in my home.

Now, think of this opening line from a long forgotten novel, Paul Clifford, written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton: “It was a dark and stormy night . . .” He gave it his best, and to my mind it is really the rest of the opening that goes a little “purple.” But those seven words have been parodied and have gotten laughs from the stage to the drawing room for generations. Even Charles Shultz’ immortal character, Snoopy, has used variations of the line in his many unfinished novels.

I may be wrong, but I don’t think any literature teacher would ask her class to write an essay on Bulwer-Lytton’s meaning. Maybe one of my teachers mentioned Bulwer-Lytton, but even so I don’t remember ever even hearing his name back then.

Of course, a wonderful story doesn’t rest on a good opening line alone. If you write a great opening, you’re saying something important to your reader: “Come on in. I’m going to live up to this beginning.” I’m sure I’m not the only one to be invited into a story by a good opening line only to be disappointed by what came after. Sometimes I don’t even read on to the end.

And speaking of the end, you owe your reader a satisfying conclusion. “It was all a dream,” doesn’t do it. Your reader wants closure. How about this from Dickens again, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Rarely do I read those words without a tear in my eye.

I don’t think Dickens wrote that or any other line saying to himself, “Ha! This is gonna get “˜em. Yeah, they’ll shed a tear here.” The point is you write the best story you can and let the reader understand what you write through his own eyes and experience.

We all write stories that come from the heart and because we have something important to say. None of us finish a story and say to ourselves, “I can’t wait for that to be forgotten.” A good way to have your stories remembered is to write memorably. Reread your work with an eye for the best word, the best phrase.



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