At first glance, a biography might seem like nothing but a list of facts. So-and-so was born on this date, died on that date, and here’s what happened in between. But when’s the last time you read a biography that resembled anything like that? As it turns out, every biography has its own voice—a point to make. In Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, the biographer sought out previously unknown details about Jobs’ mysterious childhood. In Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, Hillenbrand covers more than just Zamperini’s time as a prisoner of war, ultimately exploring how he was able to forgive his captors. Biography is part journalism, sure. But it’s also an art form. And if you want to tell a story worth sharing, you’ll have to know both parts when you write a biography. Here’s how to write a biography that does more than report the facts.
Biography Structure: You Don’t Have to Start at the Beginning
Conventional wisdom says your biography structure should start at the beginning and end at the end. But that’s not how every biographer does it. Consider how David McCullough’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of John Adams begins:
“In the cold, nearly colorless night of a New England winter, two men on horseback traveled the coast road below Boston, heading north. A foot or more of snow covered the landscape, the remnants of a Christmas storm that had blanketed Massachusetts from one end of the province to the other. …. The older, stouter of the two did most of the talking.
He was John Adams of Braintree and he liked to talk.”
It’s a fascinating bit of narrative writing. McCullough sets the scene with an adult Adams, already a farmer and a lawyer, already married to Abigail. We skip straight to the Boston Massacre and Adams’ role in defending the British redcoats as their lawyer. Scenes from Adams’ (relatively uneventful) childhood only come in minimal flashbacks.
This all comes back to a core question: How can you structure your biography to tell the story as best you can? The way you go about using your narrative writing skills will be up to you. But depending on the angle you’re taking to write a biography with a specific take in mind, you may want to experiment with different structures:
- Conventional structure: Charlie Chaplin’s My Autobiography begins at the beginning: “I was born on 16 April 1889, at eight o’clock at night, in East Lane, Walworth.” This springs out of the Victorian literary instinct to tell the whole story of a person’s life, from beginning to end. This is probably the most popular way to tell a biography, particularly if you don’t want to highlight any particular quirk of the subject, but rather tell a comprehensive story.
- Cutting straight to the good stuff: McCullough’s John Adams is an example of a biography that cuts to the chase as soon as possible. After McCullough lands us in colonial Boston and lays some contextual groundwork, he then unfolds the rest of the revolutionary narrative in a conventional chronological style.
- Partial biography: Some biographies don’t attempt to tell an entire story, but highlight one series of key events. Bret Baier’s Three Days at the Brink doesn’t start with FDR’s childhood, but isolates FDR’s critical conference with Churchill and Stalin at the Tehran Conference.
- Parallel stories: The Lost City of Z is simultaneously a meditation on the disappearance of archaeologist Percy Fawcett and David Grann’s own Amazonian explorations—eight decades later. McCullough’s John Adams also serves as a sort of simultaneous biography of John Adams’ influential wife, Abigail, who serves as the focus of entire sections.
Think of your biography as a partially finished sculpture. You can’t sculpt anything you want; you’re restricted to the limits of the stone in front of you.
And like a sculptor selecting their stone, you can’t achieve a great biography without taking some time to select your subject. Here’s how to choose a subject for your biography.
Choose a Subject for Your Biography
A biographer’s job is a long one. Research alone could take years. If you don’t choose a subject that provides ample material—a subject that motivates you to work every day—then you may find it difficult to finish.
The great biographers know that any choice they make is ultimately a long-term commitment, so they do it carefully. And when you read their interviews, you’ll find they only take on a new biography when they feel inspired by:
- A new story to tell: Ron Chernow focused nearly a thousand pages on Ulysses S. Grant, a man who already wrote his own memoirs. Why? What else was there to say? A lot, as it turns out: Chernow’s long biography challenged modern-day perceptions of Grant as a bottom-tier president and a general who only won a war that the Union was always going to win. Grant is a familiar name; Chernow’s take is new.
- Someone with a deeper story built right in: Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life takes on a fresh approach, detailing how Jackson’s own troubles mirrored her fiction. There is enough material to make Jackson more than a straightforward biography; it feels imbued with hints from Jackson’s own work.
- A theme: Victor Davis Hanson’s The Savior Generals is not one biography, but five: the story of “savior generals” and the common themes that led to game-changing military campaigns throughout history. The result is a work that spans thousands of years of military history without losing its sense of consistency.
But where do you start? Here are some places you can look for biographical subjects:
This one is easy. History is full of stories: generals, poets, writers, entertainers, political leaders. Here is where you can say the most about the past and its relevance to the future. Look at the most recent winners of the biographical Pulitzer Prize and you’ll see biographies of historical figures: Malcolm X, Susan Sontag, Alain Locke.
People can’t get enough of behind-the-scenes stories from celebrities. From celebrity chefs to reality show stars, one glance at the local supermarket shelves will show you how much interest there is in today’s celebrities. The challenge is to research someone still living, respecting their rights while also digging up the insights that people want to read.
“Re-writes” on Icons
You won’t be the first one to write about Abraham Lincoln. But fresh takes are always appreciated. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals served simultaneously as a Lincoln presidential biography and a fresh take on what made Lincoln such an effective leader.
You don’t have to limit yourself to biographies of lesser-known people. If you can deliver new insights, people want to hear fresh takes on even the most celebrated lives.
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Conducting Biographical Interviews
Want to know how to outline a biography? You first need to know what story you’re going to tell. That means conducting biographical interviews to get insights into your subject.
The subject of your biography may or may not be living at this point. You can still reach out to people who knew them and experienced many of the events you’ll write about. But this isn’t a free-form conversation. Remember that the person you’re interviewing may only give you one chance at this. That means you need to know what to ask long before you ask it.
Consider the famous “Frost/Nixon” interviews in the late 1970s. British TV journalist David Frost interviewed disgraced former President Richard Nixon in dozens of sessions for weeks. How would those interviews have gone if Frost went into them “cold,” only asking broad, vague questions, expecting Nixon to do the work himself?
As an interviewer, you’re taking on the journalist’s role. Your job isn’t to transcribe what an interviewee says. They’re not writing the biography for you. Your job is to know which questions to ask. Your job is to probe. Remember: a biography isn’t just about telling a story, but about finding the fresh story buried somewhere under the surface.
In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, Isaacson received Jobs’ permission to interview people who had been close to him throughout his life. It was the quality of these interviews that created the insights that readers hadn’t heard before.
Said one review: “the nuance brought to the events by the wide array of characters Isaacson spent time with, and Jobs’s candid and original perspective, never fail to bring well-known events into sharp and personal focus.”
The biographical interviews you conduct are going to form the meat of your story. If you were writing an original work of fiction, this part would be like brainstorming: coming up with the story ideas and the twists and turns that will keep people on their toes. But since you have to stick to the facts, your job here isn’t to invent those twists and turns. It’s to find them through well-researched, incisive questioning.
Fact-Checking Your Interviews
For a biographer, the real work is in the research. When David McCullough sat down to write about John Adams, he couldn’t interview eyewitnesses and talk to Adams himself. But he could focus on the written record: the thousands of letters Adams sent and received throughout his life.
After painstaking research, McCullough was able to not only see how Adams felt about the events of his life, but what else was going on at the time. He noted the differences in how Jefferson signed his letters to Adams (formal, professional), and Adams to Jefferson (friendly, warm). He told the reader when Adams was unaware of historical events around him by conducting research as to what everyone else at the time knew.
As a biographer, your job is to do more than provide a single point of view. When Isaacson tackled Steve Jobs, the book was more than the sum of its parts. It wasn’t merely the transcriptions of interviews with Jobs and people he knew. It was Isaacson’s total accounting of the interviews and the facts behind them.
Arriving at a Point of View
At some point, a biography can feel less like a strict re-telling of events. You can start to feel like a prosecutor or defender, making the case for their client.
In Ron Chernow’s Grant, Chernow retold events as factually as he could, but took special note to highlight when the Civil War did not seem like an inevitable victory for the Union. This was in contrast to some of the prevailing historical theories. Chernow made a cogent, well-researched case that the war was still very much undecided as Grant rose to prominence.
As a biographer, you’re going to have a point of view as well. It’s inevitable. What’s important is that you have the facts and research to back up that point of view:
- Provide detailed sourcing: A good biographer won’t go on long tangents of their personal opinions without sourcing some research to back it up. They may quote a letter that the person in question wrote. They may quote someone from an interview. But if you ever feel that your own opinions are coming across too much in the writing, always back it up with detailed, specifically sourced research.
- Don’t start with a point of view in mind: It’s possible to have an inkling and let the research take you where it will. But if you begin with a specific ironclad point of view in mind, it’s going to color the rest of your research. Strive to be as open-minded as possible as you gather facts. Then let the facts begin to tell their own story.
From here, you should have the information you need to settle on your structure. This will give you an idea of which outline best serves the facts. From that outline, you can begin organizing each of the sources and facts you’ve gathered until you’ve assembled a blueprint of how the final biography will look.
Telling the Story of a Lifetime
If a biography were simply a list of events, it would be too dull to read. The art is in finding the balance between the factual story you have to tell and the subjective human experience behind those facts.
To tell the “story of a lifetime”—to learn how to write a biography—don’t consider yourself merely a third-person observer, or merely a writer. You’re a reporter in a nonfiction story, and it’s your job to find the lead.
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