There are bios and there are kick-arse accounts of someone’s life. So, what makes a bum-kicking bio good to read? Is it the story—what happened to the subject—born in a concentration camp, survived three global conflicts, and married a prince? Or is it because we need to know about the private life of some celebrity—their struggle with alcohol, depression, self-esteem—and their rise to fame? What drives us to read on?
Maybe it’s the way the account is written. The mundane becomes dramatic, the sad becomes funny. Perhaps we empathise with the subject. But a book has got to grab us from the very start, so we’re hanging on to every word and turning those pages. No matter what happens later in your book, if the first pages haven’t got it, well, you know! So what’s the secret to writing a page turning start?
Here are two examples of bios—the opening chapters. Tell me which one grabs you.
I was really, really tired. It had been a long day, and I’d been up since before dawn. The last thing I needed was to be standing in a semi-deserted outdoor ice rink watching my son struggle to stay on his feet as the pervading cold crept through my bones. I wanted to be home, in front of a roaring log fire, a glass of mulled wine at the ready, anticipating a delicious meal cooked by my eldest daughter.
Breath buffeted viciously from my lungs, I tumbled through the air. One moment I’d been bemoaning my tiredness and half-frozen extremities, and in the next I was airborne, all thoughts of my eldest daughter’s delicious home cooked meal and that glass of mulled wine bashed from my mind when my head hit the unyielding surface of a semi-deserted outdoor ice rink. I’d been up since dawn and the last thing I needed was blood on my tux.
Yes, it’s the same book, but you know that. Agreed, the first example sets the scene rather well and the author will eventually get round to the accident. But when did you start yawning? In the second example questions are posed. What happened? Where? Why is he wearing a tux? We need to turn those pages and read on to find out what’s going down.
Sounds like fiction? Well, yes, when writing non-fiction there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t employ the same writing tactics as a good fiction author to make your story more compelling—still true, but more compelling. Mixing the timeline, bridging the chapters, developing interesting characters—just to name a few of the professional tactics available.
I recently talked with an author about sitting in a doctor’s surgery waiting for an appointment. Most of us know the interminable grind of the situation. Is there anything fascinating about the experience? You would think not. However, with a little gentle probing it transpired that my author’s waiting-for-the-doctor-thoughts always fixated on the myriad of germs swarming around the waiting room, scuttling over the chairs, and writhing across the floor towards her shoes. Yuk! I just hope I forget all that before I have to see the doc. And so do you. But what a scene!
Writing your bio doesn’t have to be one linear time scale step after the other and as boring as bat poo. It can be written as an adventure (the way life is) and still be absolutely true—whatever happened.