Family storytellers often overlook the importance of describing family dynamics.
When that happens, readers are left to make their own assumptions. If they come from a June-and-Ward-Clever-style family, they’ll interpret the story we tell in that context. If their own family has more similarities to The Simpsons, that’s the lens through which readers will (mis)understand events.
Golly gee, as the Beav would say.
Readers need a grasp of your family’s dynamics to fully digest the emotional impact of your memories and family stories. Those interactions provide accompaniment to your stories: primary melody, harmony, key changes, discord, resolution, and descant.
Describing Family Dynamics as a Backdrop
We think of “context” in terms of social historical events. However, family context can be just as important to conveying the truth of a story.
But, how do you encapsulate family relationships, birth order, personalities, and age gaps?
Showing versus Telling: It’s in the Details
Professional writers take this adage to heart, but we can all make use of the concept. Rather than describing relationships, give readers short glimpses of personality.
For instance, compare the following:
My sister and I were close.
It used to drive my brother crazy when my sister and I would communicate by simply giving each other looks. He’d throw his arms up yelling, “What?! Say something so us mortals can catch on.”
Things like daily phone calls, a jealous whine, an eye-roll, the laugh-fests, or a shared sense of humor paints a picture of family dynamics.
We see that concept in action in T.V. sitcoms. Short interactions between characters depict relationships. Likewise, when we include every day details in our stories, readers “get” the family personality and rhythms.
Note: There’s a lot more this in Using Small Details to Describe Family Members and Relationships.
Describing Family Dynamics to Paint an Accurate Portrait
My post Which Photos Reveal Your Family Story? discussed how to find photographs that show the “real” family.
Just as posed family portraits may not reveal personalities, stories that omit family dynamics don’t live up to their potential.
Writing, Not Offending
Writing about family members can be a quagmire. We don’t want to offend. But neither do we want to leave out important chapters. In fact, I could make a could case that we shouldn’t withhold big chunks of our family’s history.
That said, writing about sensitive family issues (or sensitive family members) requires a little care.
Some of your best tools include tact, humor, editing and more editing. (I go into more detail about this in Memories of Me: A Complete Guide to Telling and Sharing the Stories of Your Life.)
Tactfulness doesn’t just mean word choice. It helps to put family members’ behavior in context.
For example, rather than reminisce that your older sister was condescending and superior, try something like this:
At 16 to my 12, my sister made no secret that she saw me as a brat—which I probably was. I followed her everywhere and even read her diary.
Granted, that’s not always easy. In a guest post for MarionRoach.com, Sheila K. Collins, PhD suggests trying to write the passage from the other person’s viewpoint. When you look back at the event wearing their shoes, you have a fuller perspective on what happened.
Connecting via Imperfection
Remember, a realistic depiction of your family is more likely to connect with others than a saccharine sweet version. (See also Roses Aren’t Perfect—Family Stories Shouldn’t be Either.)
In fact, some of our family sitcoms were inspired by what happened in the creator’s (or writers’) living room and kitchen.
Likewise, the sitcom Everyone Loves Raymond drew from Italian American family situations to bring laughter to millions of households.
During RootsTech 2019, Patricia Heaton, who starred Debra in that show, had advice for family storytellers. According to her, it wasn’t only the show’s great writers and actors with impeccable comic timing that made it such a hit. Everyone Loves Raymond’s ridiculous moments struck a chord because we all have imperfect families.
Major Trauma versus a Family Setting
Sometimes the difficulties or dysfunction of the family warrants story in itself. In those cases, it’s worth the word count to delve into the causes and fallout.
Sadly, events or loss can divide a family timeline into “before” and “after.” Family members bare scars which mark grief and fissures in relationships.
Jealousy and rivalry between siblings probably dates back before Cain and Abel. When that rises to a level of dysfunction, those dynamics may warrant a theme behind many of your stories.