Here is an updated summary of my series “Writing a Memoir like a Novel” that includes four new articles.
My ongoing blogpost series “Writing a Memoir like a Novel” covers what I know about writing fiction as it applies to memoir. Before taking on the project that became This New Mountain, I hadn’t tried memoir, but I had completed dozens of short stories and several novels and novellas. It’s no surprise my approach to AJ Jackson’s true story (of a feisty private investigator and grandmother) includes the same elements that make up my works of fiction.
If you’d like your memoir to have the depth and flow of a novel, try the techniques fiction writers pull out of their bag of tricks. The following are summaries of the ten articles in the series so far—clicking on the headings will take you to the original full-length posts.
The people who inhabit memoirs are real, with flaws and quirks already built in, but applying fiction techniques can add fullness to these “built-in” characters. Physical description doesn’t tell us who a person is. We understand others by their actions and the choices they make. Weave in details a little at a time to reveal the characters as the story unfolds. By sharing the story behind the story, the reader gains an understanding of the why of things. To get the reader emotionally involved, reveal the familiar—those common things we all relate to. Other details, such as relationships, ambition, and personal flaws, add layers and reveal character.
A Compelling Opening
Memoir readers don’t expect action-packed openings, but the first few pages should still compel them to continue on and immerse themselves in the story. A good opening will include: a character we “know” and understand; a situation that presents tension; an indication of the larger story problem or conflict; and, the general tone of the story (such as light-hearted or serious).
Dialogue can reveal motives, character, conflict, setting, and important information, and can create tension, suspense, and movement through scenes. While staying true to your memory, produce realistic dialogue by following certain conventions: use contractions; don’t overuse names; avoid niceties and information dumps; use dialect and vernacular sparingly; beware exclamation points (!!!); structure paragraphs and use tags/beats to make it clear who is speaking.
Expressing emotions effectively in your memoir will touch the hearts of readers and help ensure they engage in the journey you’ve promised them. But evoking the emotion is not the same as telling it (“Jimmy slammed the door” vs. “Jimmy was angry”). Evoke emotions without telling by using physical actions/reactions, perception reflected in setting, through dialogue, writing the hard stuff, and including truth in the writing. Why are your stories worth remembering and retelling? Grab hold of their importance and write from that place of truth. Evoke time and place and relationships with honest emotion.
Pacing is essentially the speed at which prose flows, evidenced by the reader’s engagement. A well-told story carries a reader through a character’s life using varied pacing. Move quicker through those parts that don’t directly impact the main storyline or conflict, and where summary is sufficient. Slow down the pace during portions of a story that are more intense physically and/or emotionally. To help control pacing, vary sentence/paragraph structure and rhythm, and the way a scene or chapter begins and ends. Writing with an awareness of what you’re trying to accomplish in a particular scene or chapter will keep the story flowing unhindered in the right direction.
The presence of “to be” verbs in your writing—such as is, am, are, was, were, has, have, had, be, to be, and been—doesn’t always indicate passive construction, but might signal places where writing can be strengthened. It’s not possible, or suggested, to rid your manuscripts of all “to be” verbs or to be rigid in using only active construction. Be aware of your own personal inclinations in the use of “to be” verbs, and make conscious choices to create stronger, more active writing.
Point of View
Take readers to a place where they feel what you felt without telling them how to feel. Write an “eye memoir” versus an “I memoir.”1 Step back from who you are now as the writer and return to the perspective of who you were during the period of your memoir. In the end, your story is less about what happened and more about the importance of your journey, what you brought into it, and how the journey changed you.
The larger story arc of a novel or memoir is made up of dozens of smaller beginning-middle-end story arcs strung together in scenes. A scene presents a character or characters doing something within a particular setting, and uses dialogue, action, and narrative to advance the plot, reveal personalities and motives, impart necessary information, or tie into the theme in some way. A scene should have a purpose for being, and not just for window dressing. Evaluate your scenes using Jami Gold’s checklist Elements of a Good Scene.
Creating memorable settings—without unnecessary detail—strengthens the writing and draws the reader into the story. Present the setting through the eyes of your character (you or the subject of the memoir). Determine why a particular place is important to the character and how she feels about it. Use historical research to take you beyond the limits of your own memory. Make your story immediate and real to the reader by using just enough sensory detail.
A story arc moves a character from one situation to another, one state of being to another. Without this structure and focus, the memoir becomes a disconnected, chaotic jumble. Knowing and understanding your story arc—the beginning-middle-end structure—keeps the writer focused on what the memoir is about and acts as a guide to know what to include and what to leave out, as well as what needs detailing and what can be touched on through summary.
1Alane Salierno Mason, Writers Digest Magazine, July 2002, “In Memoir, It’s the Eye that Counts”
Image “Sketch Of Woman Crying” courtesy of luigi diamanti at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image “3d Man On Green Arrow” courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image “Digital Equalizer” courtesy of panupong1982 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image “Hands With Cubes A B C” courtesy of luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Such an excellent summary of writing a memoir. Thank you so much. I am writing one in the third person. It is impossible to be 100% truthful, when you don’t remember exactly at 2 or 3 or even 12 for instance.
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Writing a memoir can be a tricky thing. Memories fade or are sketchy to begin with, but we can fill in the gaps with family stories or local history, etc. In the end you’re telling your story to the best of your ability. Thanks for stopping by!
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This is one of my favorites of all your blog posts. Every time I read it, I learn something new, and it’s such a great reminder of what a memoir entails. Thank you for re-posting it.
Thank you! This post is actually an update to the last summary with four new articles added.