View Full Version : Narrative Structure of a Memoir?

Sohia Rose
12-31-2006, 10:56 PM
Should memoirs have sub-plots and the like?

Iíve been working on a memoir for the past year and Iím looking at things like organization of ideas and story lines. Of course, everything is true and has one theme, but Iíve cut scenes I didnít think weíre significant, or added to scenes that I thought would create more ďmeat.Ē

Whatís your advice for the narrative structure of a memoir?

12-31-2006, 11:12 PM
My suggestion would be to read some memoirs and see how different ones are done.

01-01-2007, 05:59 AM
I think memoirs can definitely have sub-plots. As far as should they have sub-plots, well, I'd say it's up to you and the story you want to tell. Like Irish Scribbler said, try reading a variety of memoirs to get a feel for different styles, narrative organization, etc.

Sohia Rose
01-03-2007, 02:27 AM

I have read several memoirs and they seem to be all over the place. But I was curious if there was some kind of formal structure.

04-21-2007, 09:55 AM
I'm bumping this thread because a friend of mine has asked me the same question. She's a great writer, has a fascinating - and unusual - story to tell and she already has a good agent who is excited about the project.
She has started work on it and has asked me for advice in organising it.

She's asked me if, when plotting out a novel, I use a special outline format. She wants to make sure she threads through all the subplots and characters, and she's experimenting with a spreadsheet to track and organize "characters," chapters and themes. So it's a buit like fiction writing, which is why she asked me.
Unfortunately, though, I don't plot my fiction; I write it as it comes.
So if any of you have any "how-to-plot-a-memoir" advice, I'd be grateful if you'd post it here!

04-21-2007, 03:35 PM

04-21-2007, 04:15 PM
I have, literally, an entire notebook trying to figure out my "plot." I did several exercises, took notes, jotted down anything that came to mind during the writing. My major dramatic question started off as very personal but it's changed and evolved over the writing and now it's opening up into something more universal. But it took 75,000 words to get there, and I'm not finished, so it may morph again.

Tell your friend not to fret too much about plot. I know it's hard because at first I really stressed about it, but mine came to me through the writing. It was a slow process, a building. Just because it's memoir and we're using "real events" from our lives doesn't necessarily mean we know how the story ends. I'm 75,000 words in and I still don't know. That's become the reason for writing--I want to know how it all ends--and I'm not talking about the "event" that ends the story, I'm talking about the emotional story, what those events mean to me NOW, how I interpret them. For me events are just events, the story is figuring them out.

But that may not be very helpful, and I suppose if someone had told me that when I first started writing the memoir, I would've rolled my eyes and thought: How do I friggen plot?!

A couple exercises I did:

Timeline -- Graph events on a timeline. Don't leave anything out. You don't have to use everything in the story, but sometimes small events that seem meaningless are actually significant or they trigger something significant in your memory.

Big events/Turning points -- jot down the big'uns. They can serve as anchors. More than likely you won't be able to use them all, but there could be a connecting thread between several that can serve as a subplot or major dramamtic question. For example, in my "Big 5" one of the common threads was a loss of innocence.

Reverse Plot--If you know which event ends the story, take that event and plot backwards. Ask yourself what CAUSED the final event. Write it down. Now ask yourself what caused that event and write it down. Keep doing this until you get to the source. In my case, it went all the way back to events that happened before I was born.

Hope that helps and good luck to your friend!

04-21-2007, 04:38 PM
Thanks so much to both of you - I've mailed her the link to this thread, and I'm sure she'll find these suggestions helpful.
Calamity, your "reverse plot" suggestion is exactly what I said to her, as it's what I would do myself, were I to write a memoir.
Thanks again!

04-28-2007, 10:16 PM
Hi all,
I've gotten so much out of this place by lurking for months. Now that my memoir has actually sold, (to Random House, out in June '08) I feel a little more confident that I can give something back. So, here goes:

I've been reading a lot of memoir, lately, to help me think about organizing my own. And, it seems to me that the most powerful are either organized around a specific theme or allow us to see how the writer transformed in some way. The Tender Bar, for example, goes through the author's entire life, but the theme is "what does it take to be a man?" Ruth Rieckle (sp? sorry) has written 3 memoirs about being a foody/food writer/food editor. Yet, each has a different theme, and in each, we can see how she grew. I just finished Jeannette Walls (sp? again?) The Glass Castle. While I enjoyed the book, thought it was well written and fascinating (it's about her crazy childhood) I really couldn't find a theme in it. I didn't really see what she learned, etc. So, for me it was less powerful. (Unlike RWS and Dry, which I felt, took us into his life in a way that we could easily see his transformation.) Anyone else have this experience? What do you all look for/like in a memoir?

Since my memoir only takes place over 1 year, (my husband and I, both shrinks, chucked it all to live in a converted bus and travel around the country), the predominant theme I'm trying to work with is what two such different people learned about themselves and each other, and how we changed on the trip. I sprinkle backstory throughout, when relevant. (Ie, since I didn't want to go on the trip at all, I talk about how my husband seems to be the better shrink, as he uses whatever tricks he can to get me to do almost anything - he even lied to get me to go on our first date!)

We didn't just dream of the road...
www.leavethedrivingtohim.blogspot.com (http://www.leavethedrivingtohim.blogspot.com/)

05-14-2007, 11:53 AM
First, consider your time frame. Does the story cover your whole life up to now, or a span of a few years, or one short space in time? Do you know how it ends?

If you know the answers to these questions, I'd do it just like a work of fiction: get your hook in as soon as possible -- within the first couple of pages. When did the excitement begin? What became different in your life? You uprooted to move halfway across the world? You won the lottery? You adopted a Third World child? Whatever it is, that's usually your beginning. (Excuse me if you're an experienced writer and already know this stuff; I can't tell from your post). Draw a line with your hook on the left, and your ending on the right.

At some point, you became committed and entrenched in the situation and were unable to get out of it. How? What happened that forced you to stick with it? Write that thing about a third of the way down the line from your beginning hook.

At another point, the situation deepened. How? Did your house halfway across the world burn to the ground? Did your lottery money run out and leave you destitute? Did your adopted child run away to find his birth mother? Whatever it was, write that on the line about two thirds from your hook.

Now go back and fill in the spaces with the things that led up to those pivotal points.

If you want to add subplots, create another line the same way, and alternate the chapters as necessary. Just make sure the subplots are relative to the main story.

That might get you started. Hope it helps.

05-26-2007, 03:45 PM
I've been writing and teaching about memoir writing for a couple of years, and have lots of ideas about finding the plot from the raw material of life and have written a step by step workbook for turning life into story in my workbook "Learn to Write your Memoir in 4 Weeks" available from my website, www.jerrywaxler.com (http://www.jerrywaxler.com/).

But I never thought in particular about multiple plots. So to respond to this question, I ended up posting an essay on my blog. Here's the summary of what I said. Most published memoirs use a simpler structure. You don't have to do what most memoirs do. It's your life. If you want to publish a more complex story, you would have more freedom writing "fiction based on life." If you want more details, or want to see more about my observations of memoir writing, check out my blog at , www.memorywritersnetwork.com/blog (http://www.memorywritersnetwork.com/blog).

Or if you want to talk more about specific plotting ideas, go ahead and start a thread about how to set up your life story. It would be fun to swap ideas here about how to set up your memoir.

Best wishes,
Jerry Waxler

05-27-2007, 08:25 PM
My own book, Look Me in the Eye, has multiple plots or threads running through it. Childhood comes and goes, a music career, a career as a toy designer, a car dealership . . . all those little stories are woven into the larger book.

In just one more week, people will begin to voice opinions about the success of this writing style, as Crown gives away a pile of reading copies at next week's BEA show.

Anyway, if readers of my book judge it to contain multiple sub-plots, then I am in favor of same.

05-27-2007, 11:35 PM
Homer Hickam's memoirs (most famous is Rocket Boys, the one "October Skies" movie was based on) all seem to be somewhat plot and sub-plot driven. And they're quite nicely done. As opposed to the "then, this happened" sense, it's that good storytelling which makes one want to ask, "and then what happened?"

05-28-2007, 05:47 PM
Subplots that are well-developed and well-integrated into a sophisticated storyline are a sign of good writing. I have never read a good memoir that didn't contain them.

A publishable memoir has several things going for it:

1) A compelling narrative and/or topic
2) A strong "voice"
3) Quality storytelling (not "this is what happened, then this is what happened)

The best way to discover what works and what doesn't in memoirs is to go out and read memoirs. If you haven't done your reading homework first, you don't have any business trying to write anything. Good writers are first good readers.