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: Scene Structure

A scene is like a single member of a family – it is loved for its own individuality – but its greatest power is its contribution to the larger group. ~ Raymond Obstfeld, Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes

ID-100201658If you read fiction, you’re already aware of scene structure (even if only at a subconscious level), because that’s how stories are put together. A short story might be comprised of only one scene, a novel of one or more scenes per chapter. 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. If you want your memoir to read more like a favorite novel and less like a dry textbook, an understanding of the fictional elements of a scene is essential.

In “How to Write Vivid Scenes,” Chris Eboch describes a scene and its elements:

[A] scene is a single incident or event. However, a summary of the event is not a scene. Scenes are written out in detail, shown, not told, so we see, hear, and feel the action. They often have dialog, thoughts, feelings, and sensory description, as well as action. A scene ends when that sequence of events is over.


It’s not enough for a scene to be emotional or funny or colorful or scary. It must have a reason to be in your novel…. I have read scenes that seemed more like window dressing than an integral part of the story. ~ Diane O’Connell, “The Five Biggest Mistakes in Writing Scenes

Basically, a scene presents a character or characters doing something within a particular setting, and uses dialogue, action, and narrative to do such things as: advance the plot, reveal personalities and motives, impart necessary information, or tie into the theme in some way. Characters are a given. Action and purpose are essential.

As an example, two sisters discussing which pair of socks go best with their father’s Army uniform does not comprise a scene. Place the sisters (and their conversation) beside a stainless steel table in a funeral home and the promise of a story begins to surface. But it doesn’t become a scene unless some kind of action takes place, whether physical or emotional – the sisters take on the task of dressing their dead father, a last chance to show their love for a man who had never allowed them entrance into his life.

In fiction, a writer builds his characters and scenes. He creates his world and decides what story to tell. But a memoirist must work with what has already played out. Either way, the writers job is to find the meaning in these stories, discover the history and the why of things – the truth as he sees it and/or the truth as it really is – and then decide how it should unfold. My essay Dressing the Dead went through many revisions before I found the truth in my own story and how this unconventional farewell fit into the larger picture of the man my sister and I never really knew.

When writing a scene, first you must concentrate only on the elements that make that scene work on its own as an isolated mini-story. But eventually you must judge each individual scene’s effectiveness according to how much it contributes to the work as a whole. ~ Raymond Obstfeld, Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes

Whether you’re a plotter and plan your story scene by scene ahead of time or write your stories as they come to you, it will be important at some point to evaluate your writing to make sure the scenes are complete and relevant.

Jami Gold makes this evaluation process easier with her checklist Elements of a Good Scene available as a free download from the Worksheets for Writers page of her website. The checklist is divided into three sections: Essential Elements (scenes should reveal at least one of these), Important Elements (scenes should reveal at least two of these), and Bonus Elements.

Elements of a Good SceneContinue down the Worksheet page to download an Excel spreadsheet that covers the same scene elements but in a format to keep track of multiple scenes. In fact, check out all of her story planning worksheets, including Save the Cat and Story Engineering beat sheets and a Scrivener template.

How do you keep track of your scenes and how they fit into the larger story?

Image “Hands With Cubes A B C” courtesy of luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net