Structure is the primary concern of the writer, how to order all the key emotional plot points to keep the reader turning pages.
A memoir is not an autobiography. Unfortunately, unless you are a sportsperson, politician, musician, or movie star, no one cares about where you were born or your ancestral history, how your parents met, and what you did in grade three. Unless, of course, this is of itself interesting enough to be a story. A memoir is a slice of your whole life, focused around a topic, an idea or theme, a specific time, or linked moments that resonate around a search or question of some kind.
Here are 6 STEPS to help you find your structure.
- NARROW THE FOCUS
When shaping your memoir, it helps to narrow the focus as much as possible – not just My Journey to Healing, but My Struggle with Addiction from recognition of the issue to finally getting clean. Not My whole life was leading to this but The Last three years of growth. Not My entire family history but My discovery of my lost grandmother. The narrower the focus the better.
- START WITH ACTION THAT ESTABLISHES YOU AS NARRATOR AND THE CENTRAL QUEST OR QUESTION
This may be the inciting incident, or it may be another emotional turning point in your story that hooks the reader in and establishes what the story will be about. For example, the first scene in a medical recovery memoir may be in a doctor’s office receiving a diagnosis. Or finding a hidden photograph of a woman who looks strangely familiar, but that no one has ever mentioned. Make sure you are front and centre in the scene, making decisions and acting.
- GROUND THE READER
At the beginning of any story, it’s very important that we are grounded in time and place. Establish where your story is set. Is it set in the gritty backstreets of Logan or the leafy riverside suburbs? In India or Australia? Where are we, and most importantly WHO ARE WE WITH? In memoir you are the central character. The “you” from the past is not who you are now. Describe yourself with a few specific details, illustrate your character by showing interactions with others. And most importantly, give us something to connect with, a moment of vulnerability or relationship so we care about you as a character. If we see you as a person who is loved, if only by your cat, we’re more likely to want to share your story.
- INCITING INCIDENT –What moment in time propelled you on this story journey – a diagnosis, finding yourself asleep in a gutter, an accident, a betrayal? This plot point come quite early in the story.
- CLIMAX What was the most dramatic emotional moment during this period of your life? This is the point you are writing towards. Structure all other emotional turning points so that they lead up to this point. Put your Heart Clutching Moments on index cards and order them so they peak at the climax. Often with memoir, chronological order can work best, but weaving background story through moments of high drama works well too.
- ENDING – Where to end? We don’t need to come right up to the present day. After all the present day is shifting quickly. Is there a moment of revelation, a moment of hope, or a time where the issue seemed to resolve? This is real life so no resolution or moment will ever be the complete end of the story, but you can’t continue writing your memoir until you die. Not if you want it published anyway. So, find a place where the story feels at least in some way to have found a natural ending and be content with leaving it there.
And remember, as with all narratives, in order to keep your readers turning the page we need to keep them moving between HOPE and FEAR. See my post HERE.
Were these points useful for you? Have you got any questions or comments? I’d love to hear from you.
GOOD LUCK! Memoirists are the most courageous of writers. Go forth and roar!
Lots of love