I’ve recently been coaching a memoirist, and these are the key concepts we were musing about.
Show the struggles. Many people are spurred to write a memoir because they overcame a great trouble, survived against the odds or scored a personal success. But that postive focus can steer you wrong if you write a memoir about it. A memoir is not about how well you did or the things you should be congratulated for. It’s not about showing off. A memoir is about how hard everything was – and also how hilarious, heartbreaking and heartwarming. But mostly, it’s about how hard it was. So show us that.
Actually, struggle is the point of most stories, whether fiction or non-fiction. A story isn’t just the ‘what’, it’s the ‘how’. While there might be a limited number of plots and whats, there are infinite ‘hows’. The ‘hows’ contain the vibrant, varied stuff of life, and strife. And difficulty, and challenge, and humanity. They are the story.
Don’t focus exclusively on your strengths. They won’t make the reader root for you. If you show us how you successfully did something, the reader will think you found it easy. Especially if the success seems to come from a talent, or a birth circumstance, or a personality that is more courageous or rebellious than average. Your strengths are part of you, of course, and you’re right to be proud of them, but they don’t help the reader connect with you. But – reprising point 1 – struggle does make the reader connect. When we struggle, we are all in the same place – hopeless, lost, scared, angry, anxious, yearning, or making great sacrifices, or caught between several irreconcilable choices. That’s where we can all really talk to each other.
Some memoir manuscripts are dense screeds of narrative explanation. This can be dull to read. Memoirists often don’t realise they can give us ‘scenes’ as well, just as a novel would, where they describe actions and things people said.
‘I take it,’ they said, ‘that you speak good Spanish?’
‘Not one word,’ we said.
We all do this naturally in conversation anyway. And you can do it in memoir. Dramatising is good. Dialogue is good. Description and action are good too:
‘The judge turned to me and cocked a thick eyebrow…’
4 Structure and shape
Some memoir manuscripts are just a collection of anecdotes. No matter how interesting they are, the reader wants more. They seek a bigger structure and a shape, a beginning, middle and end. They want a reason why the story starts where it does, and why the end is the end (because it could go on through the rest of your life, couldn’t it?). The beginning won’t be your ‘I was born’ moment, either, or not always.
What about the stuff between the beginning and end? Aim for a sense of development, of things changing all the time. You’ll need turning points – which means you need an awareness of story structure. You might have seen screenwriters talk about the three-act structure – which, confusingly is actually four. Essentially, it’s where the reader starts to look for a bigger change, and it usually comes at the quarter marks of the book.
So at some point you should plan how the overall journey will work, the phases the book will go through. Look for distinct turning points, and massage the writing so they fall at the quarter points of the book. By three-quarters of the way through, the amount of struggle should be reaching its most significant point, with the biggest pressures. The final part of the book will be trying to establish a new order, ready for a new status quo. (There’s loads more about story structure here. )
Wait! Your story is real life. Some phases might have taken years. Others happened over a few hectic and traumatic days. How will it fit this pattern? Remember, you are not creating a day-by-day diary, you’re creating a ‘story’, which is an artistic construct. You are also adding – interpretation, emphasis, insight and context. Maybe including flashbacks for back story. All of this allows you to shorten or lengthen, in order to give the reader the best experience.
The reader wants significance. They want to feel your story is interesting and also universal. Whatever it starts with, whatever you do, a memoir isn’t just about you, fighting your plucky battles, finding your way through. It’s also about the reader and the big truth we are all involved in.
You often have to dig for the real heart of an incident, why it matters enough to be in the book. So splurge about everything, as if no one’s there, all the time in the world, no book to fill. Just take a stroll with your thoughts, dwell in them. You’ll write far too much, but it’s how you find the gems. Then open your eyes and start to think of the reader. You might also find that some experiences you thought were formative were not.
You won’t necessarily know the book’s truest shape until you do this.
Write with a sense of learning about yourself. That journey of discovery will also become the reader’s. In the end, your book will bring you – and them – to a new place, perhaps wiser, perhaps comforted, perhaps entertained, perhaps changed, perhaps renewed. Perhaps everything.
That’s why they should read about your life.
There’s loads more about story structure in my plot book.
If you’d like help with your own writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.