We’ve all studied basic story structures in our high school English classes. And if you’re anything like me, you probably purged them from your memory. What will I ever need to know this for?
But your English teacher had some valuable stuff to say: story structure, particularly the narrative arc, is just as important to memoir writing as it is to fiction writing.
Dave and I recently sat down with co-authors, Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray, to discuss their memoir, “I’ll Push You.” The co-authors emphasized the importance of getting your story architecture in place before writing.
Why Story Architecture Is Important
Story structures helps you as an author establish your overarching theme--the "why" of your story. It also makes sure your story flows. Those two things work in tandem to hook your reader, so they'll keep reading.
Here are three tips on story structure, so your memoir will be read and move others.
1. Form Your Book's Skeleton
Before you begin writing, brainstorm the general idea of your book. Start by creating a chapter-by-chapter skeleton.
Dig into the thematic components, characters, and flashbacks critical to the narrative. With each new idea, think of how it relates to the whole of your book. What is the big idea? How do the individual ideas build to support the primary idea? Which comes first, and which should come last? Where do you want to take the reader, and how do these stories create movement for that journey?
The brainstorming phase is the perfect opportunity to consider the flow of your book and your overarching message. Don’t be afraid to delete ideas or pencil in potential concepts.
As hard as it is to do, scrap those that don’t work, and fiddle around with those you think might work until you have a working structure.
If you’re more daring, consider the connecting pieces between your chapters. Justin and Patrick brainstormed ideas to transition the closing sentence of a chapter into the beginning sentence of the succeeding chapter. This will help your book flow.
2. Establish Your Characters' Journey
A book cannot succeed without complex characters. Memoirs included. Proper characterization is important to your story’s structure, because its their journey (and their transformation!) that creates the narrative arc.
When structuring your story, consider the characters' pain, joys, internal dilemmas, moments of decision, their hardships, and their victories as well as insights--even if small.
Your story’s structure will reflect your characters' journey from conflict to resolution (even if that resolution is complicated).
3. Set Your Pace
Story structure builds the pace of your book. You don’t want to spend too much time on a single section of your story. And you don’t want to rush other sections. Intentionally structuring your book will prevent either from happening.
The structure of your book must keep the reader engaged without overwhelming them. You must provide reprieves after hard topics. Help readers evaluate struggles and lessons. And sometimes you abandon the unresolved struggles for a few chapters, and tie them up later.
These moments where you slow down the pace, or change the tone, will provide relief for the reader, especially if you're tackling tough topics common to memoirs.
Creating and then evaluating structure will help you think strategically about where to insert those moments of relief. If you spend a couple of chapters tackling an emotionally depressive subject, maybe then is the time to thoughtfully add a dash of humor.
Patrick and Justin were conscious of this in their book, particularly as they tackled the subject of suicide. Talking about this critical moment in Justin's life was important to the narrative arc (how Justin overcame despair); however, they were aware that they needed to relieve some tension after this chapter. They strategically added a bit of humor.
Of course, adding humor isn't the only way to create relief--and pacing--in a book. Justin and Patrick also used flashbacks to pause the crescendo of drama in the present, to understand the unique relationship between the two best friends.
The key is to think strategically about structure. Don't just assume you can "write your story" and people will be moved by it.
Moving people demands engaging their emotions, yes. But to engage emotions demands analytic, strategic moves--like structuring.