From the Editor: Three Ingredients Your Story Needs


A message from our essay contest editor, David Chrisinger:

Here at Veterans Coming Home, we’re looking to publish personal stories written by military veterans regarding the strategies or programs they use to effectively navigate their reintegration into civilian life.

We encourage veterans interested in writing and sharing their stories to consider a range of transition experiences, from health, friendships, and relationships to finding a job, going back to school, and making sense of life after the military.

Over the course of the many years I’ve helped veterans tell their stories, I’ve come to realize that every good story has three main ingredients—what we can call the “3 Ss”:

  • Setting: First, your story needs to happen somewhere at some time: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” Your setting can be somewhere small, like in a bedroom just before bedtime, or on the sidewalk in front of a courthouse after finding gum stuck to your shoe on a hot, summer day.

Or your setting can be somewhere bigger, like during the Battle for Marjah or at Fort Benning. Sometimes it’s best to start big and work your way to the specific. The smaller and more specific you can be, the more engaging your story will likely be as well.

  • Situation: Second, to have a good story, something needs to happen—what I call an “inciting event”—that kicks the whole thing off. Whatever happens needs to propel you to act. In most good stories, there is something the main character wants, and at some point, they’re efforts to get what they wanted are thwarted: I wanted to feel like I belonged, so I did this. Then that happened, and because that happened, I did this. But then this other thing happened and threw me for a loop, so I did this, and here’s what happened next.

Whatever it is that happened, make it short and sweet and don’t make the reader wait. Get to it right away so that your audience will know why you’re telling the story. Once they know that, and are invested in you, they will stick around to see what you did and how things have resolved themselves. In other words, they’ll stick around until the end without losing interest.

  • Shift: Third, your story needs to show change over time. If you’re not different, or if you haven’t updated how you see the world or what you believe, you have an anecdote, not a story. Anecdotes can be entertaining and interesting and worthwhile, but they don’t usually impact your readers the same way a good story that shows conflict and change can.

There should be a moment in your story where you are confronted with at least two options—two paths you could take—and you must do something. This is what I call the “crisis point,” the point in your story where your reader will wonder, “What would I do if this had happened to me?” They’ll keep paying attention, hanging on your every word, because they’ll need to know what you chose—they’ll need to see how things turned out.

Once you’ve got these three ingredients mixed together, you’ll be well on your way to a story that can lead to understanding and connection—a story I’d love you to send me. My email address is david.chrisinger@thewarhorse.org

And for all you advanced storytellers out there, those of you who probably do most of this instinctually, I’ll challenge you to focus on two more Ss:

  • Sensory Details: A good detail goes a long way to helping your audience feel fully immersed in your story. Think about all five senses and mix up which details you focus on. Smells and tastes can be especially impactful and can stir up memories in your audience that will help them feel more connected to you.
  • Similes (and Metaphors, too): “Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get.” Comparing something you’ve experienced that may be hard to understand to something your audience can relate to can help bridge the gap between your experiences and your audience’s way of relating to you.

Now that you’ve got a better handle on the most important ingredients all good stories share, it’s time to start writing. Good luck!

– Dave

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