There are three ways to write a successful memoir:
- Be Someone Famous.
- Know Famous People.
- Write a Good Story.
If you’re famous and you have a lot of fans, you can write about what you ate for breakfast and people will still read it. If you’re not famous but have met a lot of famous people, you can still cash in. My uncle was a mid-level inspirational speaker and opened for people like Tony Robbins and Guy Kawasaki, that’s a life story I’d like to read: full of anecdotes that help color our fascination with already famous people.
But for the vast majority of you, who think other people will be lining up to read your life story, you need to understand this simple fact: the story comes first.
Nobody cares about your life unless there are powerful, emotional, funny events which all build up to a crescendo of progress, understanding and wisdom. The problem is that life doesn’t really work like that. You, as the author, need to select the right episodes. You need to have control over the plot, setting and pacing. And perhaps most importantly, you have to figure out where to begin, and where to end. Anybody’s life story could be a good book – but far too many people try and jot down the events in their lives without worrying about how to write a story at all, because they think they’re not writing fiction.
But let’s say you’re already a pretty good writer, and do already have some amazing experiences behind you. Here are some secrets for writing and selling your award-winning memoirs.
1) Forest Gump vs. The Tourist
The tourist is someone who bears witness without being directly involved in the plot consequences. Ishmael in Moby Dick, for example, is just an unskilled laborer, setting sail with a mad captain and stubborn first mate. He lives the shared experiences, but he doesn’t cause or influence them. Even still, it’s a great book (in my opinion) because those side-character drive so much dramatic tension. If the story was focused on Ishmael it wouldn’t be very strong. He doesn’t talk about his childhood, or even give his thoughts and opinions much, we don’t even know if Ishmael is his real name. He’s there to give a first-person narrative view of more complex scenes and characters. So this story might be #2 above: close enough to the action to make it exciting even though he’s a minor player in the events.
Contrast this with Forest Gump. Likewise, the character meets a ton of famous people and is involved in a lot of great scenes, but he’s no mere bystander. Instead, the story gives the fanciful implication that he accidentally caused some of the greatest events in history – not only was he right there in the action – but he also had a direct influence that made waves and caused reactions. It’s purely a memoir about him, but it isn’t interesting by the famous people and events (although, it’s also powerful because it’s told as a narrative journey, where the main protagonist is struggling through what’s basically a love quest, and ends up in a restorative place.
2) Trouble, Trouble, Trouble, Epiphany, Restoration
Some memoir also suffers when you forget that conflict drives dramatic tension. Every scene needs at least the hint of foreboding… bad things happen or will soon happen. Untangling the tension to a satisfying resolution is the glue that holds a good story together. For the majority of the book, you’ll be adding tension and conflict, not removing it. This is a bad analogy, but imagine a piece of Velcro. You want to hook as many tiny hooks as you can together, so that when you finally rip them all apart, it gives that satisfying noise.
Instead of the common, “problem, response, new goal” you can use the formula above: each problem spawns two new problems as the protagonist either ignores the conflict or tries (unsuccessfully) to disarm it, without addressing the root cause, making things worse.
Making things worse is the unwritten theme of all good memoirs. Things must continue to get worse until they are worse than they’ve ever been before, because a successful memoir is one that *matters* – it’s remarkable because it left a mark on its protagonist. This *marking* only happens when characters are pushed further than ever. Their coping mechanisms and deflections all fail, and they are forced to react quickly to insurmountable difficulties, which cascade into more conflict and drama until eventually: BOOM – everything is revealed out in the open. All the secrets and avoided conversations, all their fears and mistakes, laid bare. The thing they’ve always spent energy avoiding happens anyway, and there’s no way to go back except to fight through it.
*This is why, for example, a bad memoir will have shouting and fight scenes and deep childhood trauma on the first few pages; when the deepest wounds actually need to be reserved for towards the ending.*
Trouble trouble trouble, is the swirling down the drain of character defense mechanism, where they slowly lose their tight grip on control and stability; where they are forced to do a reckoning or a literal counting up of assets and recognizing their limitations (I have a great section about that in my book, Book Craft).
This accounting leads to a realization or epiphany, which may be faulty, but it’s a start of beginning to know that they have unhealed wounds or trauma that must be healed. That will be around the midpoint, before the final blow, the dark night of the soul, when they are prepared to try and hopeful, but fail anyway and are broken apart. This final shattering is necessary for the full healing that will take place after the events conclude.
3) Make Every Scene Count, Tie Everything Up
One of my favorite books is The God of Small Things by Indian writer Arundhati Roy: because it introduces a lot of cultural and personal terms, until you’re speaking a new language of referring symbols that compound with each use. Towards the end there are passages that seem like nonsense, but you understand it all because you know what each term or reference means.
But you don’t need to do all that; you just need to make sure each scene is included for a reason, that is has a point. There are two ways to do this – I’m a fan of linear story telling, which is far easier to engage readers with. So something happens, which demands a response, and the response opens new pathways. Life is messy, but you need to map it out and decide which critical event leads to another.
You also need to choose, which events are “onscreen” vs. “offscreen.”
On Screen scenes unfold in real-time: the conflict is not resolved, the characters’ reaction and discovery are shown. These are the scenes with the greatest surprise, twist or reveal, when something unexpected happens that triggers an emotional response. Then there are the “informational” bits that are important in context to show that the story makes sense, but may not need to be fleshed out scenes – these tidbits of information can be given out in passing, 3rd party reporting or 2nd hand knowledge, or even quickly worked in by the narrator. The point of adding information is to keep readers from asking questions that would wreck their suspended disbelief. Things just have to be plausible enough. You can recognize and fill plot holes by asking a few simple questions, like “why are they doing this” or “why don’t they just”… in other words, especially if characters are making unsafe or unsmart decisions, why didn’t they avoid conflict and do something easier. Why are they determined to do this obviously dangerous plan of action. There must be something they are willing to risk everything for; or there needs to be established blocks or limitations preventing other paths. You’re scaffolding them into the plot narrative you’ve mapped for them.
If you’re not using a linear timeline, things get a little trickier. But still, imagine dominoes. Imagine your 9 (or however many) most powerful, dramatic scenes. I recommend using my Plot Dot writing outline for this. Figure out roughly where they go, in which order. It’s probably the case that you start with smaller scenes to establish the “status quo” or basis, before you hit the first big scene that gets things off in the wayward direction (forces your protagonist off the safe path they’ve been carefully abiding).
You need to figure out, what clues or background do readers need before they can properly understand and feel the impact of the emotionally charged scenes. Maybe the protagonist’s current situation or conflict or discoveries forces them to reconsider past historical scenes; in this case the timeline might jump, according to their current frame of mind. In any case, you need a strong trigger. Proust, for example, uses a madeline cake to trigger a flashback.
But be careful: most protagonist are not sitting around, thinking randomly about past events. There need to be current events with conflict (because, all good conflict is unresolved, creating tension and suspense – what will happen next – and all resolved conflict has no sting or bite, because it’s purely informational, without the hanging act of consequence).
4) Be Careful with Similes, Metaphors and Analogies
This is just one of the many things most amateur writers get wrong, but it’s worth pointing out here because description is important but imagery is distracting. Description is how things look, and done well, there’s an active component where everything you choose to spotlight (anything you mention: anything you don’t mention remains in the dark room)… anything you spotlight has an emotional resonance. I gave some tips about this in my book on nonfiction writing.
A simile, metaphor or analogy asks readers to picture something in their minds; if you’re also describing the scene, then you’re effectively taking them out of the scene, to picture other things that may be less gripping or engaging (because, only real active scene has unresolved conflict). Similes, metaphors and analogies can be great to explain things or help people fill things on an emotional level. But limit them to one per page (about 300 words) or even one good one every chapter. They’re basically castles on clouds; they may look pretty and feel creative, but they don’t hold any deep meaning in themselves and are easily forgotten.
The other important thing, when you’re comparing stuff, is… who is making this connection? Is your protagonist thinking that the wobbly table looks like a crippled elephant – if so, what does that say about their opinions, judgments, frame of mind? Why are they looking at the table at all or considering it; why aren’t they more distracted by something else. OR – is the author/narrator simply injecting wordplay into the story to show how creative they are; distracting from the active scene and calling attention to the puppetmaster and, consequentially, the farce of it all?
The problem is, most authors feel like similes, metaphor or analogies are their best writing, when they rarely are. Your best writing will be scenes where your characters are Feeling Deeply and wrestling with complex decisions and challenges and relationships.
5) Tap Into Universal Experiences
The other thing to avoid in memoir, is being so “you-specific” that it’s just an accounting of all the bad or interesting things that happened to you, but without tapping into a shared experience that other people can relate to. Timeless human themes, like wanting to have purpose, wanting to be loved and accepted, the pain of losing someone or being abandoned, the joy in being found and loved again.
I’m not a huge fan of having “themes” for each book, because it can become heavy-handed or preachy, especially if you’re calling to much attention to it or trying to cog your narrative under the Title Phrase.
Here are a few from Margaret Atwood’s Masterclass:
- Forbidden Love
- Family Love
- Unrequited Love
- Courage & Perseverance
- Coming of Age
You can also check out this huge list of literary themes here. The point is, just to make sure there’s more going on than the simple scene mechanics of what’s happening. For a story that matters, it has to strike a deeper chord.
6) Hold Readers’ Attentions
Where is this going? What’s the point? Why should I keep reading? Without sex, supernatural characters and lots of explosions, it’s going to be really hold to keep reader’s attentions. You can use the exact same tricks that fiction authors (or TV episodes) do:
1. Start the book just as the figurative meteor is about to destroy your life. In the first chapter, set up the “normal” background, introduce the event or problem or discovery that you’ve decided marks the beginning of your story. Make it big and impressive. It has to change everything. Or at least, you have to give some indication that it could change everything. In fiction, this is often taking away the set path: if a character has been counting on a raise for 5 years and suddenly gets fired instead, it forces them off their committed path, and they have to scramble for risky alternatives.
2. Start scenes in the middle of the action, right at the conflict, then build up to it. Start with a bang, a murder, a huge problem. Let the scene unfold as a reaction or response; then forming a plan. Fill it with difficult decisions (rock and a hard place, protagonists have to choose, and often make the wrong choice). Set up side-characters in opposition for dramatic effect; make people unhappy with your protagonist’s choices.
3. End every chapter at the height of tension or conflict – right at the “cliffhanger moment”. Just when sh*t hits the fan, someone gets caught, there’s a tragic accident. Just give a short, terse sentence saying what happened – “And then, the plane crashed” – and end the chapter.
End at the *point of change* as soon as something unexpected happens, or is revealed. This unexpected thing then triggers a response that begins in the next chapter or section. That’s when you can describe the action scene of the plane crashing, the landing, the characters regrouping and gathering supplies, get up to the next point of excitement – “There was no more food. And that’s when we started eating people.” – end the chapter.
The point is to let readers know that this is important by giving them the space and time to “feel” this dramatic shift; instead of covering it up or hiding it by just carrying on straightaway. I have a whole presentation about suspense and conflict, if you skip everything else, I hope you’ll watch that one, it’s important.
7) Hire a Great Editor
Even a poorly edited, badly written story can still hold up its own if the action and characters are good. This is rarely true with memoirs, which tend to be longer and more terrestrial. A great editor will probably help you figure out the purpose, point and theme of your book: why should anyone care? Why does this matter? How can I increase the dramatic tension and conflict so this isn’t boring? A *normal* editor will help polish your poor, wordy, distracting prose and get rid of the junk so at least it’s clean and makes sense, so it’s readable. And that’s important, of course, but it’s not enough. Before you hire a book editor, I hope you’ll go through my writing resources and courses – even though it’s hard work, nobody else is going to be able to fix the main, important, structural aspects of your story better than you. An editor can comment, suggest and guide you towards important revisions (if they know what they’re doing, most don’t!) but more often than not, they will only fix the cosmetic stuff, line-editing to smoothen the cadence, flow and style or copy-editing to spot typos, grammar and punctuation issues.
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.