When I was writing my debut memoir, The Finer Things Club, I had no idea what I was doing. I did tons and tons of research on the best way to organize my story and, after quite a bit of digging, I found three good structures that I thought I would pass on in this post.

Memoirs are one of the trickiest genres to write for because it needs to be a delicate blend of unique storytelling. The purpose of a memoir is to convey an important moment or time within your life in a narrative (i.e. storytelling) structure. There was some kind of internal struggle you had to face and were forced to learn about. You’re job is to tell a story around what that was like for you.

There are three ways to do that:

Letter “e” Structure

  1. Start at the crossbar in a moment of action or key decision, and move forward for a short time
  2. Circle back around to the top of the “e” (how did you end up there?)
  3. Fill in just enough backstory to return us to the point of action; give the events that are the context of your decision, not your whole life story
  4. Once back at the crossbar, skip to the end/consequences of the action, and continue forward

(Source)

Circular Structure

First, you’ll want to start by identifying the key challenge or question you’re facing.

  1. The first scene shows that challenge in action: how does it actually harm or impeded your life?
  2. Then show us you trying to change or overcome it.
  3. Illustrate through an anecdote or action if it was unsuccessful, or successful enough to keep moving forward.
  4. Pair this with analysis or reflection about what happened and why it didn’t work, or why it wasn’t satisfying enough to end the story.
  5. Keep repeating events paired with reflection until you reach permanent or long-term change for the better.
  6. Finally, close out with a scene showing this changed self in action, preferably one that mirrors the opening scene.

(Source)

Letter “W” Structure

This particular outline is one of my own making, but it was inspired by this “phases of teaching” graphic a colleague sent me a few years ago when I was a classroom teacher. Here’s what it looks like in action:

  1. Anticipation is high and you’re excited for this next chapter in your life.
  2. You discover whatever challenge you’re facing is harder than you realized.
  3. This is where you’re “come to Jesus” moment happens and you’re completely disillusioned by what you’ve been told versus what you’re experiencing.
  4. Through reflection, action, or something else, you’ve begun to get a grip on what it is you’re trying to get a handle on.
  5. You reach what I’m calling “false peak” success, where you’re right on the edge of what it is you’re wanting (or you briefly achieve it), until suddenly…
  6. A minor set-back happens; it doesn’t discourage you as much as the first time, it’s just really inconvenient and annoying. Whatever you’re wanting/achieving is at stake once again, only temporarily.
  7. Through reflection or continued action, you finally…
  8. Reach success and/or have set yourself up well for the next phase or chapter of your life (a book two, perhaps?).

What can hinder the quality of your memoir?

If we’re going to talk about what can help your writing, we need to talk about what can potentially hurt it as well.

Memoirs can easily and unintentionally be turned into autobiographies (the story of their life), or worse— diary entries. The magic of a memoir lies in the unique-ness of its story, paired with a delicate balance of pain and education. There is often some kind of internal struggle the author is trying to understand and push their way through while illuminating their audience on what that was like for them.

So what, specifically, can hurt your chances of publication and/or readership?

  1. A series of “vignettes”: This happens when all the pieces are there, but they’re just not connected together—meaning, you’re missing a narrative. Imagine having the beads of a necklace without the string. What’s the overarching story that ties all those vignettes together?
  2. A family legacy: It’s not that your family’s story doesn’t have value, it’s that it has to answer that golden question of, “So what?” Who cares? What’s unique about this particular family legacy? It HAS to be unique, meaning non-replicable.
  3. Your writing isn’t distinct enough: Again, so what? What’s special about YOUR particular story? If you’re having a hard time explaining that to me in two sentences or less, you need to go deeper and get more detailed. What specifically are you trying to communicate to me and why?

When it comes to your memoir, your writing style (or “voice”) should be engaging and/or the story itself should be very unique.

I hope you found this helpful! Good luck with writing your memoir!


⭐ Let’s keep the conversation going! Email me at lauren@laurenericksonofficial.com 

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