It may seem like a memoir would be one of the easier books to write. After all, a memoir—in today’s parlance—is a book about your own life, focused on a particular time period, event or theme.
Pouring your life story onto the page sounds simple enough, right? It’s not like you have to do research (as in writing a how-to or wellness book) or create an entirely new universe (as in writing a novel).
You’ve already done your research: You lived the darn thing!
But as in all things, when it comes to a memoir, “simple” does not always equal “straightforward.” Turns out memoir is one of the trickier genres to write well. A well-written memoir is gripping, suspenseful and atmospheric. The narrative arc has a clear beginning, middle and end, and in many cases is structured in three acts, like a carefully crafted screenplay. It contains only the most potent scenes from your life, with zero filler. And of course, it’s your reader’s experience that’s at the forefront of your mind as you write, always.
In other words, you need to know what you’re doing. And here, my writer friend, is where I start sounding like a broken record: A strong memoir needs a strong outline.
For even though you lived your life in a chronological manner, a memoir has to be more than just a linear retelling of events.
It needs character development.
It needs compelling scenes.
And it needs a strong and suspenseful narrative arc.
To capture all of these special attributes you need to have a solid plan in place. When it comes to a book, your plan = your outline. If you want to write a page-turning memoir, a carefully crafted memoir outline is the place to start.
The stronger your outline is, the stronger your book will be. It’s that simple.
So what are the secrets of writing a memoir outline? That’s what this article is all about. Let’s dive into the 5 secrets I’ve discovered after 20 years of editing for creating a memoir outline that will get results.
Secret #1: The best memoirs are written in scenes.
A scene, from a literary perspective, is a series of events happening in short succession in a single location. It’s a bunch of action, packed into one specific moment.
So how do you pick the right scenes when you have so many moments in your life?
The key is to look for the turning points—the moments when everything changed.
If your book is about your divorce, look for the moment you decided that staying together was no longer an option, or the day you and your spouse signed the papers. If your book is about an illness, look for the moment of diagnosis, or a pivotal conversation with your doctor.
No, life doesn’t always happen in concise, bite-sized pieces like this. But great stories do. That’s why the best storytellers know how to create compelling scenes.
Creating a page-turning scene may require you to exercise a bit of creative license. For example, readability may require you to combine two (or more!) chronologically separate experiences into a single scene. (Don’t worry, I will explain below how to make such changes with integrity!)
What kind of timeline might get compressed? For example, if you decided to leave your marriage after several big arguments with your spouse, maybe you combine them into one. If you had six life-altering conversations with several different doctors, you may boil that information down to one or two key conversations.
These moments are the ones that make it into your memoir outline. The same principle applies to characters; heartbreaking as it is, not everyone who played a role in your life will make it into your memoir.
Look for the essence of what each character and interaction brought you; how each one represented an idea or an action that moved the story forward. Then combine—and cut—as needed.
Integrity Notice: If you condense timelines or characters, you’ll want to include a disclaimer at the beginning of the book noting as much. It can be as simple as saying, “In certain cases I have altered timelines and combined characters to improve the reading experience. Such alterations do not substantively impact the storyline, which I have endeavored to represent as accurately as I am able.”
Secret #2: Include only what the reader must know.
This secret may be the hardest to implement. Experience is precious; to us, every single one of our moments, interactions and life lessons is relevant and important.
But if we want to write books that readers enjoy reading, we have to remember our reader at all times. This means taking our personal feelings out of the spotlight a bit—yes, even in a memoir!—and cutting any scenes that are not essential for the reader’s understanding. This shift of perception starts right in the memoir outline.
In other words, we need to tell our story. . . for them. A reader should only be presented with essential information. This is how the story stays compelling—and the pages keep turning.
Ask yourself, “Would my reader understand the next thing if they didn’t know this thing?” If not, then leave it out. (Especially because if you don’t, any editor worth her salt is going to chop it anyway.)
And—eek!—the same goes for characters. Ask yourself, “Would this story mean as much to my reader if this character weren’t in it?”
I’m not saying this is easy. Among writers, it’s known to be some of the hardest and most necessary work of all.
The phrase, “Kill your darlings,” is commonly used to describe this part of the writing process. In memoir, it points to the discomfort we often feel about leaving our best-written sentences, our favorite people, and moments we cherish on the cutting room floor.
But if it doesn’t enrich the reader’s experience, it will only serve to inhibit her enjoyment. In other words, it’s gotta go.
Secret #3: Walk us through your life—instead of talking to us about it.
This piece of advice is often boiled down to “show, don’t tell.” And lest that sound cliché, believe me: Editors give this exact feedback quite frequently. We are forever asking our writers to take us along on the mission of discovery; to walk us through their scenes so we experience them as the main “character” (that’s you, the memoirist) experienced them.
Why is this so important? Because if you want your reader to care about what happened to you, you need her to feel what you felt. To make this happen, she needs to be right there with you.
I’ll return to the (entirely hypothetical) example I used earlier about receiving a scary medical diagnosis. You as the author could tell me, as the reader, what happened: I went to the doctor and she told me I had cancer. I was crushed.
Or, you could show me: I could come with you to the waiting room, looking at the outdated magazines and listening to the ticking of the blue clock on the wall. We could both feel the relief of the nurse finally calling your name, followed by the long walk to the exam room. Together, we could change into a paper gown, its scratchy discomfort briefly diverting us from the larger discomfort of what was to come. I’d be with you as you notice that the doctor is wearing a sweater similar to one your mother owned. (You might divert us a moment and together we’d time-travel back to the day your mom spilled soup down the front of that sweater, a first sign of the Parkinson’s that ultimately stole her from you.) Then, together we would feel the tightening in the chest, the swiftly sinking heart, the tears springing uncontrollably the moment the doctor’s lips form the word you were hoping not to hear: malignant.
Get my drift?
Is “telling” ever appropriate? Sure, if what you’re writing is a biography or autobiography—a book that’s written about or by a famous or infamous person we’ve been dying to meet in real life. As readers, we are interested in every small detail we can get our hands on because we want to know the step by step process the subject took to get to where they are today.
But a memoir is most often read by people who don’t yet know the author. As such, your reader’s motivation is not to learn the play-by-play of your life. What gets her turning pages is a compelling story. Same motivation as if she were reading a novel, or watching a movie, or binge-listening to a podcast.
Now, by the time your reader is a few chapters in, she will likely start to feel you as a friend. At that point she does care—immensely—about your backstory. (Then you can start layering it in as flashback; see the “soup-on-mom’s-sweater” example above for reference.)
Getting her turning pages starts with creating a strong narrative arc, which is what the next two secrets are all about.
Secret #4: You don’t have to start at the very beginning.
In fact, starting midway through can really help build the dramatic tension.
When looking at memoir outlines, I often suggest starting in medias res with a snapshot of the most interesting or compelling scene in the book to hook the reader’s attention. Then, entice them to find out more by going back to the “start” of the story.
“How did she end up in this crazy situation?” your reader asks herself. And BOOM: She’s hungry to find out.
Martha Beck’s memoir Expecting Adam is a great example of this. We hear anecdotes about her son Adam’s childhood from the very beginning of the book, even though the main storyline is about her pregnancy. Danette May’s memoir The Rise is another good example; it starts with her crying in her car at age 22 and then switches back to age 12 just a couple pages into the book.
Unlike most things in life, in memoir you don’t have to “go in order.” You can pop back and forth in time throughout the book. This can be a little bit trickier to manage, but when done right, it can be very effective.
Secret #5: Great memoir often switches between present and past tense
One way you can differentiate between “present” action and “past” action is by changing tenses.
Writing in the present tense brings a sense of immediacy. The reader doesn’t know what will happen next or where the characters will end up at the end. In that way, it can make things really exciting.
But the past tense can be exciting, too—often for the very reason that the reader knows where at least some of the characters will end up, but not how they will get there.
Try using the past tense to describe what happened then. Use present tense to describe the understanding you have now, looking back.
Dani Shapiro does an excellent job of this in her memoir, Devotion. Anne Lamott often uses this style, too, for instance in her memoir, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith. Both of these memoirs are also meditations on life; and as such, both authors muse (from the “present tense” seat) about the meaning they’ve drawn from their experiences (described in past tense).
That said, if you feel drawn to writing entirely in the past tense, that’s possible, too. Consider examples like When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi and Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club. Both are written from the perspective of looking back on the past, but the author’s reflections on events are integrated right into the storyline.
From My 5 Secrets to…Your Successful Memoir!
After reading countless memoirs for both business and pleasure, I honestly believe that the above secrets are the most important things for authors to know.
These 5 secrets help create unforgettable scenes, and organize them so that readers won’t be able to put your book down.
I promise that using these secrets when you put your memoir outline together will save time and headache later. You’ll still have to kill your darlings—but not so many of them. And the darlings that are left won’t have to be reorganized quite so much by your editor.
That’s how you can touch hearts and change lives through retelling your own experience, which I believe is the highest goal of good memoir.
It’s how you can turn the story you need to write into the one your reader needs to read.
Now it’s your turn! How have you made use of a memoir outline in your writing? Did you choose to start your story at the very beginning—or somewhere in the middle? Let me know your secrets (and your questions!) in the comments below!