[Podcast] Cristen Iris on Thinking Like a Filmmaker When Writing Your MemoirMay 10, 2023
Commercially viable memoirs are akin to novels. They engage the reader through storytelling techniques.
But new memoirists struggle to write an engaging story. They spend too much time inside their (the protagonist’s) head. The people they write about (the supporting characters) exist in a vacuum, often devoid of setting, dialogue, and action. And their memoir lacks an engaging character arc, or storyline.
Cristen Iris, an award-winning ghostwriter, developmental editor, and publishing consultant, wants to help new memoirists write a commercially viable memoir. Her best tip? Think like a filmmaker when writing your memoir.
In order to think like a filmmaker, you have to start with a book’s most basic unit. The scene.
What Is a Scene?
Scene writing is essential to good storytelling. Yet most new writers don’t even know the function of a scene.
According to Cristen, a scene is a mini-story. It has a beginning, middle, and end. Your character enters the scene in their “normal state,” an inciting event affects your character, and then your character changes. Their change can be either emotional or physical.
Let’s break this down further.
At the beginning of a scene, when your protagonist is in their “normal” state, they are living life normally. And then their life is interrupted.
Cristen calls this interruption the inciting event (think inciting incident for novelists). It disrupts the protagonist’s ordinary life. And it introduces a problem. The problem then forces your character to react and act.
By the end of the scene, your character has to shift their thinking, engage the problem, and change. Cristen says the change can be as simple as agreeing to a commitment they previously wanted to avoid. Or it can be as complex as your protagonist confronting a moral dilemma and making a decision that has long-lasting consequences on their life.
Here’s an example.
Your protagonist is eating breakfast on her family’s farm. From the backstory, we know she hasn’t left the safety and comfort of her home the entire week. Why? She caught her boyfriend cheating on her with her best friend. She’s humiliated. And since she lives in a small town, everyone knows about the scandal. To avoid further mortification, she’s resolved herself to never leaving the farm.
While she’s eating breakfast, her grandfather realizes they’re out of eggs. (They need eggs to make a birthday cake for the grandmother. If the grandmother doesn’t have a birthday cake, the entire day will be ruined.) The grandfather asks the protagonist to pick up more eggs from the store. The protagonist initially refuses. Her ex-boyfriend works at the grocery store, and she doesn’t want to see him. But her grandfather insists.
The protagonist has to make a decision: does she anger her grandfather and possibly ruin her grandmother’s birthday? Or, does she go to the store and endure the pointed stares and whispers of the locals as well as the humiliation of seeing her cheating ex-boyfriend? At the end of the scene, she agrees to pick up the eggs.
In this example, the protagonist’s “normal” state is not leaving the house. The inciting event is her grandfather demanding she pick up eggs from the store. And her change is her decision to leave the safety of her home, face her ex-boyfriend and the rumor-mill, and pick up the eggs for her grandmother’s birthday cake.
This scene also sets up the next scene in the story. The reader wants to know what will happen to the protagonist when she visits the grocery store. Will she talk to her ex-boyfriend? Will he beg her for her forgiveness? Will she get overwhelmed and leave the store without the eggs? What if her best friend is there? How will she react to this surprise?
As Cristen iterates, scenes are instrumental to good storytelling. They provide structure and meaning to a story. They allow the reader to experience your protagonist’s feelings and emotions as the story unfolds. And they keep the reader engaged in the story.
Think about the scenes in your memoir. Do they have a beginning, middle, and end? Do they have an inciting event that forces your protagonist to shift their thinking, engage (or actively avoid) the problem, and then change by the end of the scene?
The Key Is in the Setting
New memoirists falsely believe that a scene is a compilation of the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings. They think an endless stream of consciousness about deep questions and feelings will engage a reader. Cristen argues it won't.
Too much time in your character’s head isn’t immersive. It’s not visual. And it’s certainly not engaging.
To immerse your reader in a scene, you have to write setting. [link to Soumeya’s blog] To write setting, Cristen encourages new memoirists to think like a filmmaker.
Movie scenes are a conglomeration of action, dialogue, and characters. They rely on dialogue to reveal important information. They rely on character interaction or character decision-making to engage the viewer. They rely on the physical environment to set the mood and tone. A filmmaker weaves all of these elements together to create a strong scene. And Cristen wants new memoirists—you—to do this too.
Let’s analyze the last scene from the movie The Silence of the Lambs.
In the final scene of the movie, Clarice Starling, our heroine, is at her FBI Academy graduation party. Cake is being served. People are congratulating her, shaking her hand, telling her she did a good job on her case.
And then Clarice gets a phone call. She picks up the phone with, “Starling.”
“Well, Clarice, have the lambs stopped screaming?” comes from the other line.
Clarice’s eyes widen. She grips the phone harder and whispers, “Dr. Lecter.”
The exchange is brief and simple. Dr. Lecter advises her not to bother with tracing the call; they won’t be talking that long. As he talks, Clarice peers around a corner, watching her boss leave the building. She’s hesitant while on the phone. The viewer can feel her uncertainty.
On the other line, Dr. Lecter is disguised—a shaggy wig, brown hat, sunglasses, and a tan suit. He’s outside a small airport, sitting at a table surrounded by locals. A character we met earlier in the movie, Chilton, walks off the airplane oblivious to Dr. Lecter’s presence.
In a calm tone, Dr. Lecter finishes the conversation with, “…I’m having an old friend for dinner. Bye, Clarice.”
It’s a fantastic scene with a movie line quoted decades later. But what makes this scene so memorable?
The action in this scene is subtle. It’s neither a car chase nor a shootout. It’s simply a dialogue exchange between our two characters. But the action is just as intense as a harrowing chase scene.
Dr. Lecter—notorious cannibal—escaped prison. He’s a threat to civilian safety, and Clarice has him on the phone. As a recent graduate from the FBI Academy, Clarice has to turn in Dr. Lecter. No matter that they built a rapport while working on the case, he’s a public threat and she has a job to do. But her boss just left the building. And Dr. Lecter is too clever for a trace.
What should Clarice do? What is Dr. Lecter going to do? Is he going to kill someone?
The tension is palpable. We—the viewers—don’t know what’s going to happen next.
One of the most common praises for The Silence of the Lambs is the characterization of both Clarice and Dr. Lecter. They’re complex characters.
Clarice is cool, collected, and driven, but she’s also curious and, at times, reckless. She’s fearful of Dr. Lecter but also sees his humanity.
Dr. Lecter is well-mannered and charming, but also violent and a cannibal. He taunts Clarice, but also tries to protect her.
In this scene, Dr. Lecter reaches out to Clarice to reassure her of her safety. He won’t hunt her down. Because—in some twisted way—he cares for her. Clarice is torn: she’s loyal to the FBI, she’s still fearful of Dr. Lecter, but she owes him.
Without Dr. Lecter, Clarice would have never overcome her fears and taken down Buffalo Bill. Without Clarice, Dr. Lecter would have remained a prisoner at Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane—a location that bruised his pride.
Both characters have an odd bond. And their dynamic keeps the viewer invested—we want to know what will happen to their relationship.
The witty twist on “friend for dinner” isn’t the only thing that makes this scene so memorable.
According to Cristen, dialogue serves two purposes: to reveal something about the character/s; or move the story forward. The dialogue exchange in this scene accomplishes both: 1) it highlights the relationship between Clarice and Dr. Lecter; and 2) concludes the movie with renewed tension.
A large chunk of this movie explored the unusual relationship between Clarice and Dr. Lecter. And the buildup from previous scenes culminates in their final exchange: Dr. Lecter reassures Clarice of her safety, but Clarice refuses to extend the same courtesy. The dialogue shows Dr. Lecter’s character—mostly his respect for Clarice. And it further shows Clarice’s character—she’s oddly drawn to Dr. Lecter but also recognizes the threat he poses to society.
To the second point, this scene reveals Dr. Lecter’s next move. He’s going to “have a friend for dinner.” (He’s reverting to his cannibalistic tendencies.) Thus, concluding the movie with reintroduced tension. Will Clarice track down Dr. Lecter? How many people will Dr. Lecter kill—and eat—before he’s imprisoned again?
Without this dialogue exchange, we wouldn’t know if Clarice was safe from Dr. Lecter, nor would we know of Dr. Lecter’s next move. The dialogue is instrumental to this scene, and the main story.
Setting can be an effective tool to create mood and tone. How? Cristen explains that one way is to juxtapose the setting with your character’s emotions.
The party atmosphere of this scene is offset by the knowledge that Dr. Lecter is on the prowl. Clarice should be celebrating the best day of her life. Instead, she’s burdened by Dr. Lecter’s call. The graduation-ceremony setting emphasizes Clarice’s uncertainty and subtle fear.
The setting also reveals Dr. Lecter’s location. He’s outside the country sitting at an airport awaiting his next victim. And there’s a thrill in knowing that Dr. Lecter is out of reach of the authorities. Without these visual cues, the viewer would be lost and disappointed.
As you work on your memoir, think about Cristen’s recommended storytelling techniques. How can you introduce action? How will your characters react/act in each scene? How can you use dialogue to either reveal important information about the character, or move the story forward? How can you use setting to establish the mood of each scene?