Tips for How to Begin your Memoir



As readers, we all have the experience of trying to find our bearings as we begin a story. To get “inside” the story that’s beginning, we readers are curious about who the main characters are, and we’re eager to learn about them—to learn why we are being told this story about these people.

Early in a story, we’re getting grounded in where we are—literally—on the planet, in the world, and in the geography of place.  We need to know the time frame for the story, too. That’s the who, where, and when of the story. These details need to be on the first page, ideally in the first few lines.

From the first sentence, readers are scanning for why the story is being told. If you’re writing memoir, the reader needs to understand not only the why, but where the narrator is in relation to the story—is the narrator telling from the point of view as a child or are we hearing from the “now” narrator who will weave us through time? Or both?

The best way to orient your reader is to start with a scene: a scene is located at a particular time and place—let’s say 1972 in New York City. As soon as we know this information, we begin to orient ourselves as readers into that time and place by bringing in our own frame of reference for that time. Our minds swiftly scan to create order and logic as we read. Images of NYC during the seventies from the news or TV might come to mind: piles of garbage, Mayor Lindsey, the twin towers arising into the landscape, hippies, long hair, big cars, and rebellion. Marches to end the war in Viet Nam, protests about women’s rights and gay rights. A few images or references quickly create context for the story.

More about scene: characters are engaged with each other, and are motivated in some way. You might or might not have dialogue, but one line of dialogue can go a long way to create character and context.

You could say, “the woman was flirtatious and brassy,” or you can have her talk and act. “’Hey buddy, how about it,’” she said as she swiveled her hips in an impossibly red satin dress.”  We call this “showing” rather than “telling.”

In memoir we DO need to have telling—which includes reflection, thinking, and reacting—but some writers do way too much telling and stay in the head of the narrator too much. This is a challenge, of course, for memoirists, because we already know where the scene is—it’s alive in our head! We were there, we are not making up the stories we’re writing, but all the same we need to translate that inner movie into words so the rest of the world can join us in that world.

Don’t Manipulate the Reader

Beginning writers often tease the reader, saying things like “The man came to the door”—not telling us who the man was when it was the narrator’s father. Or the writer withholds what the person looks like, the name, or details that identify because they think if we don’t know, we’ll be curious and keep reading. Teasing and vague references have the opposite effect: they make us stop reading. If you are the narrator, you SEE the person at the door, you know what he looks like, and you know it’s your father, for instance. Withholding this information from the reader only makes us mad! Since you see him and know him, deliver that information so we stay engaged with you in the story. Don’t try to trick the reader.

Check your References

Because your story is living in your head, you know who everyone is—you know that “he” refers to your father, not your uncle or your brother; when you use pronouns as referents, it refers to the person mentioned immediately before. Check to see that your pronouns are correct, and don’t sprinkle too many together. The reader gets lost  when there are several pronouns in a string.

Vague references like “We went there like we always did” needs to refer to a place you mentioned in the previous sentence or two. Where is “there?” Be specific. And what do you mean by “like we always did.” If this is at the beginning of your story, the reader won’t know what it means. Who does “we” refer to? Tell us what you mean by “always”—every day, every month, every year?

Moving through time

Memoir writers are time travelers. We zoom around freely in our memories, but on the page, we have to manage the shifting images of memory and time. Most beginning writers need to highly structure their shifts in time. Experienced writers can flow from one time frame to the next, so you may think you’re modeling your writing after them, but writers who have not worked with juggling different time frames get lost or confuse the reader.

Decide the time frame and the tense of your piece. You might be writing from the now narrator, for instance, in the present, and moving into the past in the past tense? That’s one way to structure your time movements and keep them straight. You can use tenses in a variety of ways, but be sure to keep track of when you are in the past and when you have returned to the present. Note when you are in 1973, for example, and when you speaking from now.

Create what we call a “line break”—a double double spaces which can be peppered with asterisks for clarity, to show that we have shifted from one time frame to another.

 Do this when you shift from the present into the past, and do it again when you return to the present. Notice in this article, each time I shift to another major topic, I use two double spaces to indicate a new section.


Keeping these tips in mind will help you get oriented in your book from the beginning, and when you have built a strong foundation, it’s easier to keep going.




Memoir Writing Tips for Creating Story Structure and the Narrative Arc

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?