Have you undertaken the heroic task of writing a biography, the true tale of a pivotal person? If so, my hat is off to you! Those who have had an impact on our world deserve to be written about, and readers hunger for such stories. So it stands to reason that by writing a biography, you’ll entice readers by the subject matter itself.
True. Folks flock to understand how a person—from the heroic to the criminally insane—ticked.
So just the subject matter will cause publishers’ ears to perk up, and once it’s in print, readers to purchase copies.
But if the story and characters fall flat, the prose is pedantic or clanks along, no publisher will buy the rights to it, and if self-published, readers won’t like it.
As a book editor, writers come to me with all sorts of nonfiction projects, biographies and memoirs leading the pack. And the one thing that most often shocks them, is they can’t just tell the story.
I mean, this is a bio, right? The point is getting the facts down? What made the person heroic or villainous?
Of course those things have to be there. If you don’t get it factually right, you’ve blown yourself out of the water to begin with.
But the thing is, that’s just where you start from. The devil flourishes in the details, and if you’re not careful, will toss your entire premise to the wind.
So, what are the 3 most important tips for writing a biography people will want to read? Let’s go:
Make It Read like a Novel
“What? I’m not writing a novel,” is a common refrain. “I don’t need to know the elements of great fiction. I just want my book about Uncle Fred the carpenter who became a multi-millionaire to be published.”
Now, Fred may have a bang-up story. Perhaps a true rags-to-riches one, chock full of how he did it (and you can too). An ‘underdog makes good,’ which readers love. With any litany of things that happened to him on the way.
All good and fine.
But it still has to give the reader a satisfying experience. You still want to create the story, rather than tell it, and that means writing like a novelist.
֍ That means the Structure is the same as in full-length fiction. Not just a beginning, middle, and end, but plot points along the way, the full arc of the storyline, where the plot (what happens to him) changes the character, and the character drives the plot.
Did the hero’s journey as we know it come from the real life of an historical or mythological character? The ancient myths that came down from millennia say so, even if you don’t believe the gods once roamed the earth. But in order to ‘make up’ stories, the earliest scribes used what they experienced and saw.
But the point is, we focus on this structure because it works. It engages the reader from the get-go. It keeps the story moving. Structure gives meaning to the acts of the character. It causes everything to come together in end. All of which makes for a satisfying read.
Have Your Characters Come to Life
Just as when reading a novel, readers don’t want to be told about people. They want to see under the skin, they want to understand, and most importantly, they want to come to know the person as if he lived next door.
Just like the hero in a novel.
And that means not just the successful and wonderful aspects, not just the hopes and dreams (realized or not), but the fears and foibles and falling-down places as well.
Creating wonderful characters is an art form in itself. But the elements that go into it can absolutely be learned. The art of blowing life into people on the page, making them 3-sided, flesh and bone, believable yet unique, all of these can be mastered.
As a book editor, it’s one of the most important aspects of writing I teach.
And it comes into play even more so in a biography, because the character is the subject.
Make Your Prose Sing and Be Authentic
You can have the most fascinating subject in the world, an Elon Musk (now that would make an interesting bio!), or an El Chapo; you may know the person inside and out, or have researched until even the dead man himself comes to full life in your writing room. Also, you may have crafted an outline and story arc with all the trimmings so that the book is sure to be a page turner.
And still not have a readable tale if the prose doesn’t sing on the page.
Honing one’s own voice takes time. Getting into the head and voice of someone else is a difficult task indeed. But that’s part of what gives authenticity to your book.
Not that you’ll be in the subject’s head all the time. This is a bio, not a memoir. But unless you can get the gist of the person’s expressions and thoughts, the way he strings together words, you’ll be missing a truly authentic part of all of this.
And in nonfiction, authenticity is the name of the game.
It’s funny, I have more folks come to me who’ve written memoirs than biographies. But both tend to have similar issues with these 3 fundamentals of great books.
The thing is, we can work with all of that. The elements of writing truly can be taught, studied and learned. And anything that people will want to read contain these same essentials.
Just look at how Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham begins this biography:
“Even in the dark, he tried to look ahead. It was late, and he knew he should sleep but he just couldn’t—not yet, anyway. Too much had happened; too much was on his mind.
“In the Houstonian Hotel’s suite 271 on the evening he lost his bid for a second term as president of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush climbed out of bed . . .”—Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush
Story, character, and prose. That’s what goes into writing a biography people will want to read.