Did you see the movie Mr. Destiny? It’s a 1990 film starring Jim Belushi as Larry Burrows, a man who believes his life would have been so much better if only he’d hit that homerun when he was fifteen. Instead he struck out in the bottom of the ninth inning, costing his high school the state championship. He allowed that moment to define him. But then Mr. Destiny (played by Michael Caine) gives him the chance to see his life as it would be had he batted in the winning run (kind of a It’s a Wonderful Life story).
When I teach novel writing workshops, I talk about when to start writing your story. Some call it the inciting event. Whatever it’s called, it means the moment everything changes for the story character. For instance, in Gone With The Wind, Scarlett learns in the opening scene that Ashley is about to announce his betrothal to Melanie. This is the moment everything changes for Scarlett and sets the story in motion by asking the story question: Will Scarlett win Ashley for herself?
I go on to warn new writers about starting the story too early, providing too much background in a dump of information, and slowing the pace by delaying the action of the story. Those are guidelines for fiction writing, but what about biography? The same applies.
An example I’m fond of using in my class is Harland Sanders. He was retirement age before circumstances propelled him into creating a successful and famous fried chicken franchise. So do you start writing the story when he’s born in 1890? Of course not! The story of his life should begin in 1955 when he convinces a restaurant owner out of state to buy his franchise for fried chicken.
Consider the award-winning movie Walk the Line. Does the movie begin with Johnny Cash’s birth? No. It begins at a prison concert, at a time when he’s finally on track with his life and about to marry June Carter. But even in flashback, we don’t see his birth. We see the moment everything changed, the accident that took his brother’s life. That one event sets in motion all that would contribute to Johnny Cash’s lifelong struggle for his father’s approval, a struggle that leads to self-destructive behavior and bad choices before he finally takes responsibility and recognizes his self-worth.
When I think autobiographically, though, I can’t decide where I would begin telling the story of my life. What moment in my life did everything change? Was it when, as a teenager, I chose marriage over college? Was it later when I chose college and a career over my marriage? Or perhaps later still, the day I quit my corporate job to become a writer?
The moment everything changed is a pivotal emotional event. So maybe it’s when I met my second (and last!) husband or when my father died. Or when I got my first dog (right after my mother died). Or when I sold my first book. Or when the radiologist told me I had breast cancer.
The reality is life is full of moments that change the direction of our lives. One choice at a fork in the road can lead us down a different path. I look back and realize there was no one moment that defined the woman I’ve become. I am the sum of many parts, of many decisions I made in my life. My autobiography would not play well as a movie or sell as a book.
So if you want a great story, stick to fiction or celebrity bios. That’s fine with me.