How Much Detail Should a Life Story Contain?

That’s the question some of my colleagues at the Association of Personal Historians  have recently been examining.

Some feel that details count because they can enrich a life story by providing a social history context for it. They suggest that what might be tedious to the interviewer could in fact be fascinating to family members now and in the future.

Other personal historians  see a  need to be selective with details, choosing only those that enhance a story – sifting out the chaff and creating a more readable and entertaining narrative.

But the debate about how much detail to include is better settled after thinking through the following questions:

Is this a book or video life story?

In the previous article Book or Video? Which Makes a Better Personal History? I extolled the strengths and weaknesses of both print and video.

Books are more suited to detail than video. Video’s strength is in storytelling, broad strokes, and emotional content.

What’s the budget?

If you want detail,  it’s going to take time and time costs money. Ten or more hours of interview isn’t uncommon for a full life story.

While your client might want their very own version of Gone with the Wind, their budget restrictions point to a more modest affair like Swayed by the Breeze. ;-)

How open and revealing is your storyteller?

Some people  need little prompting to unleash a wealth of detailed stories. Then there are those who are more reticent. No matter how sensitive and clever your questions, you’re lucky to get the bare bones of the person’s life.

What kind of questions are you asking?

The interview is at the core of a comprehensive and entertaining personal history. I’ve written extensively about the art of interviewing in 11 Articles on Interviewing .

If you want to get the stories behind a life,  avoid questions that focus exclusively on names, dates, and places. Instead, use open-ended questions that begin with How, Where, When, What, and Why. And don’t read from a series of scripted questions. Make sure to go deeper with prompts like “And then what happened?”


I believe that details can enrich a life story. Ultimately though, we’re  hired as professionals to edit and weave those details into a coherent and engaging story.

Photo by Chris Beckett

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6 Responses to How Much Detail Should a Life Story Contain?

  1. Dan, thanks for distilling down the considerations between “details” and “budgets.” Your blog is so helpful…I look forward to receiving it every Monday. Thanks for your generosity in sharing so much of what it has taken you many years to learn. You’re the best!

  2. Pingback: How Much Detail Should a Life Story Contain? | personal storytelling |

  3. Dan,
    I developed my own unique ‘person specific’ interview aid, Memory Cards, to ensure that the interview questions I asked were about topics, events or people that my interviewee wants to talk about. By leaving the pack of 50 titled cards with the interviewee for 3/4 weeks before the interview, the interviewee has time to think about each title and decide whether it is relevent to the life story they want to tell, eg. I have a Vehicles card, and rarely has a woman written anything on it!
    In 2008 in SLC at the APH conference, someone scorned my Memory Cards, telling me that she asks each and every clients 5,500 questions to get a ‘complete story’. I asked how many questions were relevent to all interviews and how long the interview process lasted? At $100 p/h, I reasoned that the interviwee was wasting both time and money!

  4. Pingback: What is a personal historian? « Timeless Legacies

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