A well-written memoir utilizes the same elements of a novel, including scenes, dialogue, characters, and a beginning-middle-end structure, also called a story arc. A story arc moves the main character/protagonist (you) from one situation to another, one state of being to another. Without this structure and focus, the memoir will quickly become a disconnected, chaotic jumble.
Take the time you need to structure your story before you write. Drawing your arc is not something you can knock out in the half-hour before dinner. It challenges you to survey the tangle of emotions, motives, repetitions and complexities of events you lived through with the cold, dispassionate eye of an editor. It asks you to know not what is important or meaningful to you, but what is important or meaningful to the story. ~ Adair Lara
The Beginning of the story arc introduces the protagonist and the protagonist’s problems, desires, and conflicts. This is the set up for the rest of the story. In many memoirs, the story begins initially in more or less the present state and then moves into the telling of the protagonist’s journey.
The Middle is full of obstacles, physical and emotional, that the protagonist encounters and strives to overcome or at least move through.
The End includes the biggest hurdle, the climax, and a tying together of loose ends. The ending is tied to the beginning in some way, often through resolution or revelation regarding the initial internal conflicts. Many memoirs return the reader full-circle to the beginning of the story.
Here are a few examples of beginning-middle-end structure:
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is called “a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant.” In the beginning, Ms. Walls is riding through New York City in a taxi where she sees her mother rooting through a Dumpster – but she’s too embarrassed to stop. We’re then taken into Ms. Walls’ childhood and learn the things that shaped her life and her relationship with her parents. The end takes us to a time past the beginning of the memoir to a point of healing.
My Dog Skip by Willie Morris begins with the protagonist finding a photograph of Skip, “his eyes flashing in some momentary excitement. Looking at a faded photograph taken more than forty years before, even as a grown man, I would admit I still missed him.” We’re then swept into the life of a boy and his dog growing up together in Missouri – a dear story of love and friendship that eventually brings us full-circle (I dare you not to cry).
For This New Mountain, I start with one of AJ Jackson’s “adventures” that shows a typical day in the life of a private investigator, and present her internal conflicts regarding her age, financial situation, and being “stuck” in a dangerous job she knows she can’t do forever. In the middle, we journey with her as she learns the ups and downs, and ins and outs, of her profession. In the end, AJ has worked through many of her initial conflicts, but she also faces the facts and makes life-changing decisions.
Adair Lara writes extensively about building a story arc in the Key Elements of Writing a Memoir. Here is a brief summary, taken from her article, of what defining your story arc looks like:
- [Beginning] Decide what you, the narrator/protagonist, want in the story you’re telling. The struggle to achieve this desire drives the book.
- [Middle] Detail what you did to get what you wanted and what got in your way.
- [End] When the narrator/protagonist gets what he wants, or doesn’t, or stops wanting it, the story has reached the end of its arc. We see him changed by all that has come before.
Knowing and understanding your story arc will keep you focused on what the memoir is about and guide you in what to include and what to leave out, as well as what needs detailing and what can be touched on through summary.
What memoirs would make good study material for your own?