Planning or creating chapter outlines is a great start to writing your memoir but some people have trouble padding out the details and crafting their life events into a narrative. So, there is an art to writing memoir and this blog explains briefly how you can do that.
I’ve had some clients hand me 500 words on a few pieces of paper and say, “This is my story, how do I turn it into a book.” Or, some have sent through 20,000 or 40,000 words, but it’s really a list of memories, not a story.
You don’t want your book to be a list or a series of events (no matter how interesting or intriguing they may be). You want to shape and mould them into a story so that the reader will be hooked and keep turning the page.
A MEMOIR SHOULD BE LIKE ANY OTHER STORY WHICH TAKES THE READER ON A JOURNEY.
Remember that an autobiography is a chronological account of a whole life and a memoir is usually about a topic, theme, or issue in your life. You could write many memoirs based on different themes but only one autobiography.
In a story, you have the main character (the protagonist) which in your memoir is YOU. You have other characters and may even have an antagonist (the baddie or someone or something which challenges you and drives the story.)THE WAY TO EMBELLISH YOUR STORY OR TO PAD OUT THE DETAILS IS TO INCORPORATE NARRATIVE ELEMENTS INTO YOUR STORY.
Narrative elements is a term used in fiction and can also be called fictional devices, but they are simply the components of a story or ways to craft a story:
- Plot – a series of events in your life or the journey of your topic or theme
- Conflict – the main issue, or problem you face and want to overcome
- Characterisation – think about how you can bring yourself or the people in your story to life
- Dialogue – is one way to bring characters to life – and should be stylised for story
- Descriptions of people and places
- Setting – describes where the story is located or describes the scenes
- Writing details
Your book should take the reader on a journey through a series of events which is called the plot. The plot could be a quest story where you go in search of something or it could be how you dealt with a challenging life event and overcame it.
Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. Sounds obvious but there are different ways to describe plots.
The story arc
In a nutshell, your story should have a HOOK or a captivating start to draw the reader in. The topic or theme of your memoir or life story introduces CONFLICT or rising action. This leads to the crisis or the CLIMAX of the story where everything comes to a head. It’s the pinnacle of the story. After the climax, there is a resolution, DENOUEMENT or reflection on the climax and story as a whole. Some memoirs may not have a physical or tangible resolution but the story may highlight growth, transformation, or a better understanding of the topic or theme of the story.
The short story arc
In short stories, the conflict and the climax may be presented at the beginning and the resolution is the remainder of the story. Regardless of what story arc you use, it’s all about engaging the reader.
The conflict is the main issue or topic you want to focus on in memoir (or many topics in a life story/autobiography). It is the problem the character faces built up over a series of events that leads to a climax – the pinnacle of the story or the highest point of the story. This is where the most dramatic action occurs which creates a change in the story.
When you are thinking about your story or planning it – consider what is the climax. What was the event or discussion or realisation you had which transformed you or your life?
The conflict could be how you deal with an external event that has happened, or an internal challenge, for example, how you overcame a belief that has limited you. It is what drives the story. Without conflict, there is no story and conflict doesn’t have to be a negative. It could be a positive situation, but it’s what moves the story.
A good story often has the character growing or transforming in some way. It’s more interesting to read about a person or character who is real, has flaws and isn’t one dimensional. We all have good and bad in us and the ability to write about our humanness is what makes a good story.
Sure, our stories might have people who have behaved badly or treated us badly and we can write about these facts if they are part of the story. However, the power of writing our memoir is that it offers us the opportunity to reflect, to consider our actions or reactions through hindsight which adds depth to our story.
Using dialogue in your story is a great way to pad out the details and break up the story.
When you write descriptive scenes, it slows the story down a little, but when you add dialogue it speeds the story up and quickens the pace. It’s good to have a mix of both.
There is an art to writing dialogue in a story. You don’t write a conversation word for word. You must stylise it and condense it so that it doesn’t become boring.
How not to write dialogue:
“Hi, Leeza, how are you today?” Mandy asked.
“Yeh, good thanks,” Leeza replied. “How are you?”
“OK, what do you want to do today?” Mandy questioned.
“I don’t know, what do you want to do?” said Leeza.
“I’m happy to do what you want to,” Mandy said.
“OK, let’s go to the beach,” decided Leeza.
How to write dialogue:
“Hi Leeza, how are you today?” Mandy asked.
“OK, and you?”
“Did you want to go to the beach?”
“I’d love to,” Leeza grabbed her beach bag.
Can you see how we have only picked out the important bits to keep the story moving quickly? Also, note that we don’t have to say, “she said” after each line.
You always start the dialogue with a new line, so the reader knows when someone else is talking. Also, note that action was used in “grabbed the beach bag” to break it up a bit and SHOW NOT TELL.
Some helpful questions to help you describe your setting in detail:
Where is the story set or located? In which country or town?
Where is each scene set, inside or outside?
Is it hot or cold? (You can use actions such as, “she shuddered” or “he wiped the sweat from his brow.”)
If outside, are you in the city or out in nature? Describe it.
What sounds are in the background? Sirens and street traffic to indicate a city or waves lapping the shore?
Is there relevance to setting inside/
Are there any pieces of furniture in the room or used in the story?
Is the setting significant to the story?
WRITING THE DETAILS
DETAILS ARE THE KEY TO PADDING OUT YOUR STORY.
If you only have an outline, start mind-mapping all the memories. Incorporate descriptions, possible dialogue, symbols, and actions for each scene.
If you have already started writing and have the bones of your manuscript, go back through, and break it up into scenes. Decide what needs to be expanded or contracted. Then see where you can flesh out the scenes by using narrative elements to shape your story.
Memory to Memoir e-course & Mentoring Program
I have a whole section on using narrative elements in my new e-course Memory to Memoir (coming soon) where I give specific lessons on how you can craft your memories into an interesting memoir. Click here for more information…
Good luck with writing your story and you can connect with me via my contact page or social media.