The Art of Memoir: Structuring Your Story

Memoir is the art of telling a story that focuses on a sliver of a life. My previous blog on memoir focussed on how to find your story. Now let’s look at the options for structuring your story.

Perhaps the most straightforward approach is the three-act structure using The Hero’s Journey method. This template follows the hero confronted with a problem who goes on a quest to solve it, and returns home with lessons learned and stories to tell. In your memoir, you are the hero, and your journey has a beginning, a middle, and an end, referred to as “the setup” (Act 1), “the confrontation” (Act 2), and “the resolution” (Act 3). 

In terms of your story, the first act set-up would be scenes of your life before the inciting incident, the second act confrontation deals with your quest to solve the problem, and the third act resolution shows your conclusion to the conflict and how it changed you. This would generally follow a linear structure with events in a chronological order.

Alternatively, you could choose to open with the inciting incident and then backtrack to the set up, and then continue on a linear route with the rest of the story.

Another approach to consider is the dual timeline. Again, this could be a three-act structure, but which alternates between the present and the past. Eventually, the timelines converge, providing perspective on the resolution.

A slightly different approach would be to focus on the themes of your life and write personal essays that reflect on each of these and/or specific experiences. Actor Mathew McConaughey’s memoir, Green Lights, makes use of this structure, where the story of his life is told in a linear format, but each chapter has bullet points of philosophical impressions.

To help determine what structure might work best for you, go back to some of your favourite memoirs. Deconstruct and analyse them and consider how to apply each of these formats to your own memoir. Consider the main “plot points” of your story and build an outline from there. Write a few scenes and move them around. Keep in mind that you want to have a very strong opening, designed to hook the reader, and then hold onto their interest.

However you decide to structure your memoir, one of the best words to keep in mind when writing is perspective. A definition of perspective is the “ability to think about problems in a reasonable way without making them seem worse or more important than they really are.” Writing your memoir involves looking at your personal story with distance, recovery, and perhaps forgiveness.

Keep in mind that you are both the narrator and the protagonist. As the narrator, you have the ability to use your sense of perspective when writing a scene. For example, if you are writing about something in your childhood, while the scene might have the voice of a four-year-old protagonist, it will also have the perspective of the adult narrator who is telling the story. One of my favourite memoirs in this vein is The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, which tells the story of her dysfunctional childhood. The narrative starts with an adult Walls meeting her homeless mother after years of estrangement, then backtracks and has a relatively linear plot progression of her childhood through adulthood.

Get started telling your story! For a more detailed look at the best structure for your memoir, consider our manuscript accelerator workshop.

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