How to Structure Your Memoir

First of all, the winner of the Publish This Book giveaway is Dawn! Thank you to everyone who commented on my interview with Stephen Markley. I hope to make author interviews a regular feature of this blog. If you’re an author interested in doing an interview, please let me know. I welcome both indie and traditionally published writers. Now, onto today’s overdue blog post:

Structure can be one of the most challenging aspects of writing a memoir. Contrary to popular belief, writing a memoir isn’t simply spilling your life’s story onto the page with no regard to plot or narrative.

While many writers will intuitively be drawn to chronological order, that’s not always the best structure for a memoir. Remember that memoirs are not the same as autobiographies. You don’t have to start the day you were born or even with your childhood. A memoir could cover a single year in your life, or it could follow a common thread or theme in experiences you’ve had throughout your life. It could even jump around in time, starting with when you were 18, flashing back to when you were 7, and going forward to the year you turned 30. You aren’t limited to a linear narrative.

One of my mentors, the fantastic Jennie Nash, told me that your memoir should start with the event in your life that knocked you off course. This is known as the “inciting incident” in fiction writing terms. You could also structure your memoir similarly to a novel in that you have a glimpse of your every day, normal life before it gets thrown off track by a life-altering event.

Just keep in mind, though, that trying to fit the structure of a memoir into the same structure you would use for a novel will likely be difficult and somewhat limiting. Life doesn’t always unfold the way a novel does. However, I do recommend looking at traditional novel structure because it will give you ideas about how you could look at your life as if it were a structured narrative. Most likely you will have an inciting incident, a series of conflicts that comprise the middle section of the memoir, a climax, and some sort of resolution at the end.

I recommend reading up on novel structure and looking at published memoirs to get new ideas about how you could use structure to shape your memoir’s narrative. Don’t be afraid to experiment, and remember that structure can always be added or changed later. The most important thing is to write the events you feel drawn to without getting too caught up in the technical stuff. Structure often reveals itself through the writing.

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3 replies to “How to Structure Your Memoir”

  1. Julie Farrar says:

    Your advice is so on-target. I struggled with even beginning my memoir until I stumbled upon some that really played with structure. When I realized I didn’t have to do a chronological narrative I felt free to write finally. Now I’m going to play with the concept of “inciting incident” and see where it takes me.

    1. Alana says:Author

      Thanks for the comment, Julie! It’s always best to write where the energy takes you instead of worrying about keeping things in order. Glad you found the post helpful.

  2. […] The Memoir Structure I have been experimenting with can be found on a site by Alana Saltz, How to Structure Your Memoir. Thing 2 (MaDaDoDa) holds up well when I use this […]

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