There is nothing more important or significant to us than our lived experiences. Our own memories and the life stories of those we love are priceless. Not everyone is going to have a story that makes for an entertaining memoir that appeals to a wide, general audience. But having a best-selling memoir is not everyone’s goal, and far from the only reason to write one.
The first essential step when setting out to pen a stunning memoir is to identify your who and your what.
Who is your audience? Who will read this? Who are you writing to?
What theme, genre or event does your story center around? What universal principles and larger truths come out in your story? What do you want your readers to learn? The memoir may be about you, but it’s not for you. The reader takeaway is the main point! Your experiences should give them the model and tools they need to overcome a particular challenge. Your insight should inspire them or offer hope.
The answers to these questions will be the key to establishing your why. Knowing why you are compelled to write this memoir will make it easier to define, outline and refine.
Here are 5 tips to keep in mind as you weave together your memoir. Follow these and you are sure to craft a compelling story!
Vulnerability and a deep understanding of, or connection to, one’s inner world is key to success. It doesn’t matter how good your narrative is. If readers don’t find you genuine and personal, it’s going to fall flat. Dig deep. Ask yourself the hard questions. Seek out a therapist, or speak to yourself like one. Look back at your journals. It is often the smaller scenes within the bigger story that hold the most emotion and sticking power. Therefore, it’s important to take inventory of all the ups and downs over the years. What stories have slipped beneath the surface? What memory is sitting dormant in your subconscious? Often it just takes someone asking us the right questions to trigger the re-surfacing of these events.
Establish your message or theme
Where will the audience relate to you and see themselves in your story? A memoir can contain several themes or topic areas, but what will your overarching point be? What is the message that binds it all together? It’s okay to not have 100% clarity around this when you’re starting off. You may find that through research, interviews, time, etc. that specific lessons or ideas continually reveal themselves.
Play with structure and scenes
You are writing a memoir but it is important to write your story in scenes like you would for a novel. There will be many, many scenes. You won’t have room for them all. There will be a lot of content left on the cutting room floor. Think about the moments of highest emotion, where true character emerges. Collect as many of these moments as possible. Once you have these, you can figure out how to use them in such a way that builds on your overarching story and reinforces key messages of the book.
Memoirs don’t need to follow a linear, purely chronological storyline. There are some instances where those accounts are valid and preferred. For example, if you are writing a memoir as a life story legacy for your family. Or, if you are the survivor of a terminal illness and other people with terminal illnesses reading your health journey may appreciate reading about the events in the order in which they occurred.
Most memoirs, however, will include flashbacks and/or flash-forwards. This makes for a compelling way to break up the chronological line. You could also write a collection of stand-alone essays that all relate to your overarching theme, like Glennon Doyle’s Untamed or about a very specific period of time like Mitch Ablom’s Tuesdays with Morrie.
Show, don’t tell
This is classic writing advice, but essential to telling a great story. Focus intently on detail and dialogue. You don’t want descriptions to do the heavy-lifting. Too much fluff can be a turn-off. That said, you want to be sure and describe how you were feeling about things as they happened. Using scene structure, show your audience who you were before x, y, z happened. Use imagery and detail to bring us into the room when that defining moment happens. Your story should have elements of the hero’s journey. We must grow to love you as a protagonist. You have to win your audience over. Keep in mind that no one does this by portraying themselves entirely as a hero or as a victim. What makes a protagonist interesting is the dynamic of their strengths and weaknesses, which are often two sides of the same coin.
It’s always a good idea to pitch your ideas and drafts to trusted friends, especially if you have ones who read or write for a living. But if you’re looking to go a more professional route, it’s time to find an editor. Even if you’re writing a life story for your family, a professional editor can help bring clarity and focus to your writing. If your desire is to publish for a wider audience, an editor can make all the difference when it comes to selling. Some writers will enlist the help of ghostwriters for putting together their book proposals. Ghostwriters know a lot about the industry. Their understanding of the submission process and guidance around structuring a compelling story is hugely beneficial, especially to new authors.