Write a Memoir like a Novel Using Ten Fiction Techniques

Here is an updated summary of my series “Writing a Memoir like a Novel” that includes four new articles.

MemoirLikeNovel5BMy 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.

Women Wearing Colorful Bathing CapsCharacters
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.

Hook1A 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).

bull's eyeDialogue
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.

Sketch Of Woman CryingEvoking Emotions
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.

3D Man on Green Arrow3Pacing
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.

ID-100174671Passive/Active Voice
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.

Looking BackPoint 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.

ID-100201658Scene Structure
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.

PuzzleButton2Story Arc
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


Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Passive vs. Active Voice

ID-100174671Whether composing fiction or nonfiction, writers should be concerned about the strength of their sentences reflected in word choice, as well as structure – and that usually means using active voice (or construction) instead of passive.

According to The Elements of Style, “the active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive,” and, “The habitual use of the active voice…makes for forcible writing. This is true not only in narrative principally concerned with action, but in writing of any kind.”

I’m not a grammar geek, so this is not a grammar lesson – go to Ashlyn Macnamara’s post for that – but here is a quick refresher: In active sentence construction, the subject performs an action, making the subject the most important part of the sentence (subject, verb, object). In passive construction the subject is receiving the action, making the object the most important part of the sentence (object, verb, subject).

In the following simple examples, it’s clear that active construction is less wordy, less awkward, and more straightforward than passive.

Active: Frank ate the ice cream cone.
Passive: The ice cream cone was eaten by Frank.
Active: The teacher asked Jenny to stop yelling in class.
Passive: Jenny was asked by the teacher to stop yelling in class.

Writers are often cautioned that the use of “to be” verbs – such as is, am, are, was, were, has, have, had, be, to be, and been – equate to passive voice. But in the strictest sense, “Frank was eating the ice cream cone” is not passive construction because of the subject/verb/object structure.

However, just as the use of “by” (eaten by Frank) in the previous examples points to passive sentences, a “to be” verb such as was often indicates a place where writing can be strengthened. The same is true of using a “to be” verb along with a verb + “ing” ending (was eating).

The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style – in clarity and vigor – is the difference between life and death for a writer. ~ William Zinsser

The following is a paragraph I wrote as an example of passive voice and overuse of “to be” verbs.

Jake was running along his favorite path that led through the forest. Birds were singing overhead and squirrels were climbing the trees. Jake knew this was the best way to be constructive with his time in solving his problems. Today an article needed to be written for his journalism class about the different ways that quotations are being used in dialogue. Using double quotation marks is how Americans write dialogue. Single quotes are used by British writers. And a new way has just come along – not using any quotation marks at all. If there was only one way to format dialogue, Jake’s life would be much easier.

Here is the same paragraph strengthened with more specific verbs (jogged vs. running, chirped vs. singing, etc.), most of the “to be” verbs removed, and taking a more direct approach to convey ideas. This isn’t a perfect rewrite, but the result is more concise and uncluttered.

Jake jogged along his favorite path through the forest. Birds chirped overhead and squirrels skittered through the trees. Jogging in the outdoors always helped Jake solve his problems. Today he needed to write an article for his journalism class about using quotation marks in dialogue. Americans use double quotation marks. The British use single quotes. And the newest way does not include quotation marks at all. Jake’s life would be easier if the world decided on one standard way to format dialogue.

In the following example from one of my fantasy works-in-progress, “had” signals a place where a sentence can be strengthened. (Thanks to a critique by Kirt Hickman who suggested ways to fix passive construction in my early writing.)

The shadows, bloated and heavy, held fast to stone and vine, but Digger had the Sight and nothing moved yet in those depths.


The shadows, bloated and heavy, held fast to stone and vine, but Digger’s sight penetrated even those. Nothing moved yet in their depths.

It’s not possible, or suggested, to rid our manuscripts of all “to be” verbs or to be rigid in using only active construction. But the suggestion I take seriously is to be aware of how I construct my sentences and to make conscious choices accordingly. Sometimes I’m able to catch passive voice as I write, but the editing phase is when I find most of my problems. I do a search of those words I know I overuse (like was or had) and then decide if I can strengthen a sentence by substituting a stronger, more active verb or noun.

[T]here are going to be times when the passive voice is exactly the right thing for the sentence. It might be more appropriate for the situation. Like so many things in writing, it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as what you’re doing is exactly right for what you’re trying to say. ~ Janice Hardy

Good writing is made up of many elements layered or woven together into the whole. If you’re like me, you’re still learning and weeding through all that advice thrown around the Internet. Here is one of the best worth considering:

I write as straight as I can, just as I walk as straight as I can, because that is the best way to get there. ~ H.G. Wells

Is passive voice a problem you deal with in your writing?

You might want to check out the following regarding passive voice:
Janice Hardy, “Passive Aggression: Avoiding Passive Voice
Liz Bureman, “When You SHOULD Use Passive Voice
Bartleby.com, from the Elements of Style, 11. Use the active voice.

Image “Digital Equalizer” courtesy of panupong1982 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net