The popular TV show Who Do You Think You Are? provides some valuable storytelling insight that we can apply to the narratives of our ancestors. Despite the professional genealogists, unlimited travel budget and celebrities, the show also has some practical storytelling wisdom for memory and family history writers.
Hooking the Audience
For the production crew, Who Do You Think You Are? is probably all about the celebrities. Admittedly, celebrities are the draw for the average non-genealogist viewer. However, writers and genealogists can use other hooks. For instance, foreshadowing the resolution of a mystery, using a strong narrator’s voice, or any number of literary tools that tantalize readers’ imagination and curiosity do the same thing. They cause readers to want to tune into your story.
Family historians also have an edge over Who Do You Think You Are? We don’t have to reel in readers that have never wondered about their family tree for ratings and advertising dollars. Many times, our audience comes pre-hooked. We have family members, people who love us and share our DNA. We have younger generations that might not be interested now, but who will turn to our stories in the decades that follow.
Ordinary Story Arcs
Not every celebrity finds a relation to royalty. But they all find compelling stories somewhere along the family tree. Stories of ordinary lives lived under hard-to imagine circumstances. Television critic Mary McNamara sums it up nicely: “The power of “Who Do You Think You Are?” does not lie in the celebrity but in the much more dramatic nature of “ordinary” life.”
That’s a power writers and emulate. Rather than simply regurgitate the facts we’ve uncovered and cited, we can illuminate the circumstances and provide depth and texture to their stories.
Think of the Who Do You Think You Are? celebrity as the searcher. That searcher is integral to the story. There’s a void, a mystery, or some nagging doubt about their family tree. Each episode starts with what they know and why they want to know more.
Now change searcher to researcher.
That’s our takeaway. You, the researcher or genealogist, should be in the picture. It’s not just about the ancestors, it’s about your route to discovery. Your quest, your backstory, and your emotions.
Yes, emotions. How many of us watch Who Do You Think You Are? with a tissue at hand? (I’m raising my hand here.) There’s heart in the discoveries celebrities make. Take, for example Danny Dyer’s standing at the tomb of Edward III in Westminster Abbey, newly aware that he’s a direct descendant of the monarch: “My blood is his blood, I can’t compute it in my brain.” Family history writers need to reveal that type of emotion—put their heart on the page. (Concisely, of course.)
Oh, the Places They’ll Go:
You see it again and again in the show. There’s something about going to the place your ancestors lived. Looking around. Breathing in the same molecules (or the descendants of the same molecules) they breathed. It’s hard to articulate that tingling feeling of connectedness and awe you feel, being in the place. (See also The Power of Going Back and In Search of a Bond with my 20th Great Grandmother.)
Sadly, most of us can’t endow our family members with a travel budget to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors. However, those of us without deep pockets can learn from the celebrities’ experiences. When we provide well-crafted descriptions of the places and historical context in which our ancestors lived, our readers come a little closer to that feeling. (See coming posts: Choosing the details)
Writing coaches agree that writers who read the genre they write, write better. Watch a few episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? What can you glean from them? What stories does the show make you want to shake out of your family tree?
 Sam Wollaston, “Who Do You Think You Are? review – arise, King Danny Dyer,” TheGuardian.com, November 25, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/nov/25/danny-dyer-who-do-you-think-you-are.