Memoir writers struggle with plot and structure for a very good reason: they think they know the plot. They assume that writing “what happened” is enough to create a memoir, and think that putting journal entries into the computer can be their memoir. A memoir is a story, created and constructed with skill and focus. It can be chronological or it might not be. Writing a memoir asks for you to dig deep into your biography and come up with scenes that bring a reader into your world fully and inspire them to keep reading–something about you and your story is relevant to their lives.

Some tips for thinking about story and plot:

  •        A story has a reason for being told—this is your theme.
  •        Unlike journaling, a story has a form—a beginning, middle, and an end.  Another way to think about this is that your story, your book, needs to have a dramatic structure: Act One, Act Two, and Act Three.
  •      Something significant happens in each scene of the story, the point of the scene.
  •      The main character, the protagonist—in a memoir it’s you!—is changed significantly by events, actions, decisions, and epiphanies. The growth and change of the main character is imperative in any story, and is the primary reason a memoir is written—to show the arc of character change from beginning to end.
  •      All stories have conflict, rising action, a crisis, a climax, and a resolution.
  •      By the end, the story world, the world where the protagonist began, is transformed.

Focusing your Theme in the Arc

As you plan your story, clarify your themes. Being clear about them will help you to build your book toward the final resolution of the theme’s questions and conflicts by the end of the narrative arc, the end of the book.

Many memoirists explore how certain events changed their lives irrevocably, such as Lucky by Alice Sebold, the story of a rape, or surviving a bizarre and chaotic childhood in Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. Another theme is recovering from the death of a loved one—The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, or Paula by Isabel Allende.

Patricia Hampl’s The Florist’s Daughter or Mary Gordon’s Circling My Mother shows the heartbreak and challenging difficulties of aging and dying parents. Sexual abuse is explored in Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, and mental illness is the topic of Girl, Interrupted by Susan Kaysen, and An Unquiet Mind by Kay Jamison. There are countless varieties of themes, but though books may have the same theme, the stories, language, and structure make each book unique. It’s imperative that you develop your skills to allow your story to shine.

To clarify your choice of theme for your narrative arc, ask the following questions:

  • What is the main, overarching meaning of my story?
  • What is my book about? (One sentence.)
  • How does my book end? What do I want the reader to understand and learn?

Three Acts of Dramatic Structure

Not all books follow this plan for the story, but many do, as do many movies. Most memoirists don’t think about the arc of the story at all, getting lost sometimes in a forest/trees dilemma of too much detail. If you learn more about this, you have more choices in how you think about and develop your story. 

Act One (Beginning): the set up of the story, introduction of characters and situations which show conflicting desires and complications through different scenes. During this act you present the who, what, when, where, and why of the story.

Act Two (Middle): Drawing upon scenes and summaries, the story action rises through conflicts, complications, and challenges the protagonist keeps attempting to solve, but as the story progresses, even more complications develop that thwart an easy or quick resolution.

Act Three (End): In the last act, the protagonist wrestles with the forces that have been working again her, which is shown through what is called the crisis and the climax of the story. After that, is the denouement or the falling action that resolves the loose ends of the story. The crisis may be thought of as a spiritual challenge or a dark night of the soul where the deepest beliefs and core truths of the character are tested. The climax is the highest level of tension and conflict the protagonist must resolve as the story comes to a close.

Read fiction and memoir with these ideas in mind. How soon do you understand the themes in books that you read? Do you see a beginning, middle, and end structure in fiction and memoir that you’re reading?

What are your three favorite memoirs, and why? Do you have favorite fiction books from childhood–what were they and why?