Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: A Compelling Opening

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. ~ Linda Joy Myers

Hook1One of the most consistent pieces of advice for fiction writers is to hook a reader immediately – if possible, with the first sentence, or at least in the next few paragraphs. If readers don’t feel pulled into the story within the first two or three pages, they may not continue reading. This is certainly true of an agent or publisher reading through their slush pile.

Memoir is a different genre and its readers don’t expect action-packed openings (which aren’t necessarily recommended for fiction either), but the first few pages should still compel us to continue on and immerse ourselves in the story.

One argument against an action opening is that the story hasn’t had time to reveal the characters and who they are. There is no such thing as a story without a character, even if the character is a thunderstorm or a beating heart. And conflict is necessary, because character + opposition = story, but if conflict is introduced too early, it could leave the reader wondering, “Why should I care about what’s happening to the characters?”

Jane Friedman (in “The Biggest Bad Advice About Story Openings”) reveals the importance of including character in the beginning of a story with her list of three things she finds most compelling in a good opening:

  • A character we immediately know and understand
  • A situation that presents tension, e.g., a character who’s not getting what he wants or who meets opposition
  • An indication of the larger story problem or conflict between characters

According to James Scott Bell (Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure), there are two more things that the beginning of a novel must do besides (1) hook the reader and compel him to continue farther into the story; (2) establish a bond between the reader and the main character; and (3) introduce the opposition:        

  • Present the story world.
  • Establish the general tone of the story.

Your story world, or setting, will change as the story progresses from scene to scene or moves around in time and place. In the beginning, you should concern yourself with hooking the reader and drawing him in, and not bog down the story with paragraphs of exposition. Your setting could also be its own character or part of the conflict in your story – a parched desert that sucks the life out of you, constant rain that brings heaviness into your life, a bedroom whose tight space feels more like a dungeon than the child’s haven it should be.

It’s also important that your reader trusts you in the journey you’re taking together. You, as the narrator of your memoir, should establish the tone of your story so the reader knows what to expect. Through internal dialogue, word choice, imagery, etc. you will set the mood of your story. The mood will shift, of course, depending on the circumstances the character moves through, but the general tone should be consistent in the way you deal with the story. Will it be a more light-hearted telling, as in My Dog Skip by Willie Morris or the heavier-handed one of The End of the World as We Know It by Robert Goolrick?

You are the main character in your memoir. As important as revealing a character is to a novel, it is even more so to a memoir. Bring the reader into your story. Create curiosity and they will follow where you lead them.

Research the opening sentences, paragraphs, and pages of great novels or memoirs. What are your favorite, most compelling story beginnings?

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One thought on “Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: A Compelling Opening

  1. Pingback: Write a Memoir like a Novel Using Ten Fiction Techniques | Cate Macabe

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