BEWLEYBOOKS: 8 Fiction Techniques for Your Memoir
Updated: May 27
Recently, I learned that writing a memoir is so much more than just depicting a certain part of your life story.
People love to read about people. But not just any person. They want to read about the adventures you have had and what you've gotten up to while you're on them. If you can elaborate around any particular point of interest, then you'll get your reader hooked by encouraging them to empathise with you.
As a reader, I love stories about people. I love to learn and I love to learn about history. What was that saying someone famous said once? "Forget history at your peril!" Well, writing a memoir is rather like bringing history to life by focusing on one aspect of a person's life.
As a publisher, I love to receive tales of hope and glory and I also love to encourage other writers to reveal their own particular tips on writing. One, in particular Dennis Ledoux, told me in a recent podcast, about his educational business that teaches people how to write memoirs.
Dennis Ledoux gives me the idea that memoirs must be written like a novel. A novel must have a plot, a character ARC, tension, and scene.
It is always better to show than to tell in a novel.
And that's a mistake that many memoir writers make - they tell the story of their life, rather than elaborate by showing what they got up to. In a great novel there's always a strong setting, and a climatic moment that brings about a resolution for the reader - a satisfactory ending. Or one that raises interest for the next book in the series!
1. The 5 Ws
Many writer's are familiar with the 5 W's.
When writing a memoir, a writer must consider including all of these. When answering these questions, the reader must feel like they are experiencing the scene themselves.
2. Setting the scene
Summaries of scenes can be rather on the boring side. When writing a memoir, you need to show what happened - as it is happening. Rather than reflect back on an event. Write in the 'now' rather than remembering the past.
Actions speak louder than words. Or, a picture can tell more than a thousands words.
Using action, readers get to experience it for themselves. They can understand the moral decisions that are needed in the story.
Here are two examples, you say which is best:
Example 1: "I was upset about what she said. I wanted to cry."
Example 2: "I threw myself onto the floor and screamed as loud as my lungs would allow me to before bursting. I felt my heart pound and I blinked my eyes so hard I couldn't see through the tears..."
The first example just tells you what was felt. It doesn't get you involved. The second one helps the reader to 'feel' the emotions and the tension.
3. The Story ARC
When you embark upon a memoir about your life, you are writing about the past. But a memoir is not a telling of the story of your whole life - that's for the autobiography. No. A memoir focuses on a certain section of your life. It highlights one particular event, or aspect, that you experienced. A segment of your life, if you like.
In a novel, the story ARC is always focused on the change that the character goes through. When writing your memoir, you must focus on the changes that are brought about or experienced. Most importantly, the story ARC is about the transformation of character.
Something must be learned before the end.
4. Challenges that you face
In a novel, the characters face a number of problems throughout the story so that by the end of the tale they have learned something about themselves or about life. It's the same for a memoir.
Challenges are to be presented in a memoir for the reader to experience the struggle that the author went through. There are questions that must be asked like, what motivated you to push on through the challenge? What would have happened to you if you didn't face that challenge and, instead, ignored it? What did you want - and what stopped you from getting that? How did you deal with that challenge in order to succeed? What were you trying to achieve? What was the motivation for getting to your goal?
5. An author's voice
Let's take a look at what an author's voice actually is. Obviously, you can't 'teach' a writer their voice. A writer comes up with it all on their own. The author's voice is the style that they write in. There are many ways an author's voice comes across to the reader, these can be either an easy and fluid writing style, or stiff and educational, friendly or officious, angry or loving, knowledgeable or ignorant. The way you write influences the way people read about you.
Though it cannot be taught, as such, there are methods you can practice as a writer in order to cultivate a 'voice' in your writing. You can do this by writing as often as you can, every day would be best! Practice by reading other authors. Another way is to get as much life experience as you possibly can while you are gracing this good earth.
6. Hatching the plot
When you write a novel, there's always an idea as to where the story is going. You need to plot it out like a plan of action, or a to-do list, in order to achieve the end goal - publishing it. Writing a plot about your memoir seems like an oxymoron and doesn't seem to fit the requirements. However, without a plot in your memoir, the reader will be taken on a journey with no goal and no educational value.
Plotting a memoir is all about focusing on the important points and highlighting those learning experiences. The reader needs to travel with you from start to finish, and you need to encourage your reader along that journey. Show them the experiences you go through and what forces you to make the decisions you make.
7. How Your Character develops
Let's face it, you know you. You know what you like, who you like, where you like, and why you like these things or people or places. You also know what you don't like. In fact, you know what rocks your world and what makes your boat sink. However, the reader doesn't. When you write a memoir, your reader will need to know all the little secrets of your mind and be able to root for you throughout your tale.
Your reader will want to know why you need something, why you are finding it difficult to get that something, what is going on in your mind - for instance, why are you thinking contradictory thoughts or acting in certain ways? Your reader will also want to know what secret's you hold and, if you are prepared to tell them, why are you holding that secret?
What will crush your world if that secret is revealed?
All people have flaws, have things about themselves that they don't like. Every single one of us makes mistakes and the wrong decisions that lead to chance encounters we don't necessarily want to face. These are the facts that make up an interesting memoir.
8. The tales you tell
Your story is important to you. But, it may not be as important to someone reading it. So, to help a reader understand the importance of the section of your life you are revealing, you need to ask for help from those other people who you want to include in the story.
As a novelist, you can make characters up that are similar to the people who surround you, but in a memoir you will be focusing on people who are in your life. A good way to get their permission or acknowledgement to use their part in your tale.
From this aspect, a writer who decides to write about a small section of their life can be put under enormous pressure. You want to get it right, but you don't want someone to be 'demonised' while you are doing it. In this sense, a writer or memoirs is more restricted in their story line. It's not a lie, it's the truth. But sometimes, the truth hurts.
Acknowledge the boundaries that you shouldn't step over. Don't say something horrid about someone, or decimate someone's character simply because you fell out with them. Be truthful, but kind in that truth. Give a reason, and what you learned from that person's actions or personality traits. Write about them as though they taught you a lesson, not the other way around.
Always self-edit and revise. Give your manuscript to those who are included in your memoir and let them give you feedback. If you can't do that, then perhaps you shouldn't be writing about that person's part in your life.
In Summary, if you want to write a memoir, you could do no better than to follow Dennis Ledoux's training on the subject - you could make a start by listening to his podcast. Also, if you want to know how to plot a story, devise a story ARC or figure out characterisation, take a look at Kaye Bewley's book on the subject here.
Kaye is a freelance publisher, author and certified psychotherapist with over three decades of experience. She is also a writer for various blogs about writing, publishing, travelling and health care.
Feel free to visit her BewleyBooks.com site, where you can sign-up to follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn and YouTube.