“I have an idea for a memoir. But I don’t know how to structure it. What do I do?”
A memoir, like any book, needs to be structured. It needs to provide a compelling story and maintain your reader’s attention.
We spoke with Anna LeBaron, author of The Polygamist’s Daughter, who grew up in a cult. In her memoir, she chronicles her coming of age in the midst of a volatile atmosphere, one in which she was on the run from authorities. Her story is structured in a way that demands your attention from the beginning until the end.
In this blog post, we share the best tips on how to structure your memoir.
Find Your Angle
There is a book, blog or article written about every idea.
In Anna’s case, multiple books were written about her family and her villainous father. Out of all the books written on her family, not one chronicled the experience of the children. So she wrote from the perspective of a child. Her memoir provided a new perspective to an old topic.
When you think about your own memoir, ask yourself: “What does my story provide to my reader?” and “How does my story differ from others?”
For instance, loss of a child, addiction, dysfunctional families, poverty—all of these subjects have been discussed at length before. And it is more difficult to find a literary agent if you simply rehash what has already been written on these subjects. That’s not to say you can’t write on these topics. But to do so effectively, you have to provide a fresh take. What in your story is fresh?
Your Structure Needs Some Thinking—And Tension
Once you have an angle to work with, you need to structure your memoir in a way that keeps your reader’s interest.
Your structure can be written in chronological order, or a change between past and present, or center it on a message or theme you want to share, with no particular reference to chronology. Each of these options can be effective in storytelling, if you build on the proper tension.
The chronological structure presents a linear story. This is effective if you withhold information from the reader and/or allude (foreshadow) to coming problems.
Anna structured her book as a chronological timepiece of her childhood. She did not use flashbacks nor foreshadowing to build the tension. Instead, she maintained tension by withholding information. The reader learns pertinent information—such as when she learned that her father was a murderer—at the same time she did as a child. This technique keeps her reader engaged.
A “past vs. present” memoir structure is used to compare life events without being held back by chronology. This technique is most effective through the use of flashbacks and flashforewords.
“I’ll Push You,” a memoir about two friends—one confined to a wheelchair—and their journey on the 500-mile Camino de Santiago trek, uses past vs.present structure. The memoir vacillates between the past—Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray’s childhood—and the present—their journey along the Camino. The flashbacks provide useful characterization that further explain the struggles the two men endured in the present.
The thematic structure of a memoir connects various memories based upon a message you are trying to share.
In Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, her stories are connected to her overarching message: that writing brings joy to life. She threads her message throughout each chapter with each memory she selects. Not all of her memories celebrate the joy of writing. Some of her stories explore the hardships of writing. This makes the more hopeful stories more meaningful.
Choose the structure that best fits your angle. And choose a structure that best maintains tension throughout your story [link to tension blog post]. If you plan to share shocking information over time, the chronological structure will be best for tension building. If you want to leave the reader with cliffhangers or life comparisons that compels them to keep reading, consider the past vs. present structure. And if you want to build tension through internal conflict and questions of morality, choose the thematic structure.
The most important thing to do before you write your memoir: find your unique angle. And then choose a structure that supports your angle.
Here’s a Glance at the Episode
[2:10] Anna provides an overview of her story and what to expect in her book.
[5:02] Anna shares her motivation to write her memoir, as well as her angle on the book.
[13:50] We learn how Anna wrote her book, her editorial process, and collaborating in close relation with an editor.
[19:48] Anna shares how she started writing, the journey of reliving her trauma while writing, and why she chose to hide the identities of certain people in her book.
[30:38] A discussion on telling your story without being too salacious.
Links Mentioned In This Episode
To check out Anna’s book The Polygamist’s Daughter, click here.
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