John Gardner once said, “Structure is the primary concern of the writer.” The more I write and edit other people’s writing, the more I agree with him. It’s not the story itself but how the writer chooses to arrange story elements that keeps the reader turning pages.32533._SY475_

This is easier when writing fiction than when dealing with the real-life constraints of memoir, but here are a few ideas to help you keep your memoir readers up at night in a page turning frenzy.

Before we start there are a couple of issues you need to consider. First of all

  1. What are you writing?

If you’re intention is to record your entire life history then you’re writing an autobiography, not a memoir. What’s the difference? A memoir is a focused selection of life events around a particular theme or time in your life.

  1. Who is your audience?

Are you writing just for family and friends, or people who shared these experiences with you? If so, then you can really write whatever you like and they’ll still read it.


However, if you believe your story has a wider appeal, that you have a story of interest to the general reading public then you’re going to have to work a whole lot harder at building narrative drive to hook them in and keep them reading right till the end. If you’re not a famous sports star or a glamorous movie queen, then selling your memoir to a publisher is going to be tricky. You need to make sure you have a compelling narrative that grabs them right from the start. But how?

Reading by Lamplight by James Whistler

Reading by Lamplight by James Whistler


  1. Write down all your key plot points.

An easy way of thinking about this is to call them Heart Clutching Moments as Elizabeth Sims does in her Writers Digest Article

Think of the moments in your memoir that have most emotional impact – the parts where your hand goes to your heart. Key emotional turning points – remember to include some happy moments as well as those of drama or trauma. Write down a list of as many of these as you can think of.  Put big circles around the most important and a star next to the most emotional, most moving, heartbreaking moment. That is your climax.fullsizeoutput_5b2

  1. Find your central quest or question?

Delve deep into what your story is really about. Ask yourself, “What is this story about?” Then again, “What is this story really about?” Ask yourself those two questions seven times. Famous non-fiction writing teacher Robin Hemley developed this method for finding the heart of your story.heart with eye

Once you have your answer then formulate a question or quest. In memoir it might be something like this “Will Mary ever find the daughter she gave up for adoption in 1965?” or “Will innocent Bob survive his time in jail?” Or “Will Sarah find a cure for her mysterious illness and be well again?”

You get the idea. What is your central question?

  1. Find your Hope and Fear around this question.

In order to keep the reader highly engaged in your story, every scene and chapter needs to move them between hoping that YES – your central quest/ion will have a happy ending (that’s your hope) and NO! – the very worst will happen (that’s your fear).


For example

HOPE: Mary will find her adopted daughter who will want to see her and they will lovingly reunite.

FEAR: Mary won’t ever be able to find her daughter no matter how hard she tries or how close she gets. OR Mary will find her daughter who won’t want to have anything to do with her.

HOPE: Bob will study and be freed from his wrongful imprisonment and go on to be a lawyer advocating for those still in jail.

FEAR: Bob will be brutalised in jail. All his appeals will fail, and he will die, sad and alone, in the electric chair.

Oh dear – poor Bob!

electric chair


What is your Hope and Fear?

  1. What is your HOOK?


Your hook is what sets up your question and the connected hope and fear right at the start of your memoir. Look at your list of Heart Clutching Moments and find one which will be best to draw your reader into your story. It doesn’t have to be what chronologically happened first. The power of writing is that you get to play around with the order of events to create most suspense and impact. It doesn’t have to be the whole event, just a snippet of it. Then once you’ve set up your question and what is at stake you can go back and fill in the background.

For example

Mary gives birth to a precious baby girl and gets to hold her, but only for a few minutes. Then she is spirited away and a weeping Mary signs away her rights as mother.

Bob is eating his last meal on death row, the priest beside him giving comfort. He starts down the long hallway in chains.

  1. Arrange your key plot points


Look at that HCM list and arrange them after your hook. You can list them chronologically but make sure there is movement between your hope and fear in each one. Build to your most impactful moment as your climax. And make sure that you have some kind of satisfying conclusion – even if it’s sad.

For example

Mary gives birth etc

Mary at the graveside of her husband who she never told about her secret child – now she is free to look for her.

Mary tells her son about her search. Son says, “She won’t want to see you.”

Mary finds old papers and begins search.

Mary finds orphanage but records were lost.

Mary finds alternate clues – her daughter has been searching for her

Mary gets sick – she may die before she finds her daughter – search intensifies.

Mary finds an address – in the same state!

Mary’s son kicks up stink – why are you doing this? It’s too stressful! You’re sick!

Mary makes a tentative phone call – gets her daughter’s husband

Mary’s illness worsens.

Mary’s daughter arrives on her doorstep and they reunite tearfully and joyfully.

Mary’s son reacts badly.

Mary’s daughter is a doctor and heals Mary and all family is happy and harmonious!


Now real life isn’t usually so orderly, nor does it have neat closed off endings, but for the purpose of your memoir you’re going to have to find a satisfying point to stop where the main quest or question has been resolved.

These exercises can be done after you’ve already completed a draft or even better, before you start the big job of writing it. If you can write to a structure that is already moving between hope and fear, then your job is halfway done.

Of course all of this is applicable to fiction writing as well – just easier to do because you can invent events and keep that movement between hope and fear with a flick of your pen.


writing on retreat!

If you’d like to learn more about memoir writing or just make a start on telling some of your life stories, then my next retreat in Highfields west of Brisbane is now open for enrolments. Come and join a like-minded group of women and get writing! See here for all the details.

What is your memoir’s central question? What is the hope and fear? Need help working it out? Ask away!

Lots of love

Edwina xx



Congratulations on the release of your wonderful new book Mezza Italiana.

Mezza Italiana by Zoe Boccabella

Mezza Italiana by Zoe Boccabella

You’ve been writing a long time. When we met about eight years ago you were writing a novel set in Italy. How is it that your first book is memoir?

Returning to the village in Italy where my family came from and staying in the house that had belonged to my ancestors for centuries had a profound effect on me. I was there working on the novel you mentioned but then I found myself writing down family folklore, village stories and my experiences growing up, how I felt ‘half and half’ as an Italian-Australian, not feeling like I fully belonged to either culture. I never expected to write memoir. It was as though it was almost willing itself to be written, demanding my attention, and it was not until it was finished that I was able to return to writing the novel.

 What were the main differences you encountered between writing fiction and memoir? Do you prefer one over the other? Why/Why not?

I’m not sure I prefer one over the other as they’re each rewarding in their own ways. For me, novel writing affords the freedom that your imagination can take the story and characters anywhere while memoir carries with it a heightened responsibility to be open and honest while being sensitive and respectful to those you are writing about. However, this can blur depending on the type of novel or memoir you are writing, for example if it was a novel based on true happenings.

This book is obviously very close to your heart. To me it read like a love letter to your grandparents and the village of Fossa. Was writing it an emotional experience?

It was particularly emotional in that by the time I finished writing it my grandparents were no longer alive and the village had been devastated by the earthquake. I am blessed to have the legacy of their stories and felt driven to preserve these as they represented not just a time in history for my own family but for many others too. Nothing can fully prepare you for entering an earthquake zone not long after it has happened and I still get emotional when I think back to it.

How long did it take to write? Did you have to do many drafts?

The first (very rough!) draft poured out in longhand in three weeks at the kitchen table in Italy but I then took another three years constantly honing it and adding in research and other stories. During this time the earthquake happened and it became important to include this too. I didn’t keep track of how many drafts I did in the end but I did go over and over it many times from start to finish. It felt like a long process that wouldn’t be hurried.

Was it easy to find a publisher? Can you tell us a little bit about your path to publication?

Katherine Howell, whom I’d become friends with at uni, asked if she could show some of my chapters to her agent, Selwa Anthony. Not long after, I was stunned to get a phone call from Selwa late one Sunday afternoon, and a little further down the track a publishing contract followed. I was very fortunate and remain grateful to both Katherine and Selwa for believing in my writing. By then I was in my late thirties and had been writing since childhood so it took a little while to sink in that the dream I’d had since I was seven was actually coming true. I had a few rejections over the years and looking back I can understand why as I’d gotten impatient and sent my work in before it was ready. When I was young I naively submitted a first draft!

 Once you’d found a publisher the editing process began. How did you find this experience?

My editor, Mary Rennie from HarperCollins, was insightful and sensitive and from the beginning I was very open to her suggestions and to learn from her expertise. During the editing process I discovered it is a delicate balance of following your instincts as to when to change things and not change things. The process was very positive as I knew we were both working towards making the book the best it could be.

 Have you had to do much for marketing and publicity? What sort of things have you had to do? Did you find this part of the job a challenge or something that came naturally?

Writing is such a solitary process and then the book is published and suddenly there’s the launch, publicity and many different people to meet. I felt shy and self-conscious when it came to interviews and public speaking and strove to overcome this as best I could. I especially did not feel at all comfortable in the ‘photo shoot’ situation and am much happier to be at my desk writing! However, the most wonderful part I had not anticipated was meeting many different readers who identify with the book. People continue contacting me saying it is their story too as they also feel ‘half and half’ due to their migrant heritage. And not just people of Italian descent but Chinese, Greek, Ukraine, Scottish, French Dominican… Connecting with readers has been for me the best part of Mezza being published and makes all the sacrifice and hard work worthwhile.

Finally, what advice would you give someone starting out as a writer?

Write for the love of writing, not with getting published in mind. Follow your instincts and write what feels natural to you. Write from your whole self – your sense of humour, observations, vulnerabilities, imagination, life experiences. Write first – worry about publishers, agents, who will read it, and everything else later. And keep going, even when it feels impossible, keep writing.
Zoe Boccabella

Zoe Boccabella

Thanks so much Zoe and best of luck with the continuing success of Mezza Italiana. I’m looking forward to reading your novel too.