Blog, Memories and Memoirs, Writing Skills

Storytelling in Memoir

We all have a story to tell, but ah–how to tell it, that’s what keeps us at our desk, scribbling in our notebooks, looking for the scenes and moments that we carry in our hearts. Our job as memoirists is to translate what we know and remember to the page, to put images and wispy memories into language and story. Memoirists sometimes feel they have a story that ought to be easy to tell. After all, we know what happened in our lives and why we want to write about it. But this is where memoir writers struggle. A well-written story is more than “what happened.” And a reader of memoir looks for much more than “what happened to you.” The reader wants to be transported into your world, and needs to see how your story helps them, or inspires them in some way. There needs to be a universal connection.

Elements of a Story

There is a plot in memoir—the “what happened when” part; there’s character development, which means understanding the arc of the ways that each major character—including yourself as a protagonist—changes and grows during the story. The craft of writing a story means stepping back from our subjective relationship with ourselves and our memories and offering images and feelings that bring the reader into the world we portray through story. To do this we need to write in scenes.

In a scene you have: action, characters, place, time, a significant moment, vivid descriptions and sensual details. These sensual details are the key to bringing your reader into your world. Taste, vivid colors and description, smell, sound—all these are specifics that tune the reader’s brain into your own brain’s wavelength and make it hard to stop reading. They fall into the world of the story—which is what you want. There are some very interesting studies that show how the brain of the reader merges with the story being told because of these sensual details.

The other thing important in your scene is that you, the protagonist, have a desire, a need, something that’s important to you that drives through the story. The reader identifies with you and your quest, your journey through the memoir and through your eyes, they learn something new. This is why we read—out of curiosity, out of the need to have a new experience and learn something about the world we didn’t know before. I think this is why memoir is so popular now—our need to connect with the experience and life wisdom of others. Our need to feel connected to a larger community.

This week at the NAMW Telesummit on November 11, we’re excited to have a session with our story guru, Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story and her new book Story Genius. Lisa makes learning story essentials so easy that we wonder why we haven’t been using these tools all along. She’s going to talk about story making in terms of the brain and how we process information. Understanding this will help make you a better writer, and give you new skills that can help your book to become a success. A good story is what agents and editors are looking for. I hope you join us for this informative and inspiring Telesummit. Read more about all the presenters here.