How to Write Your Memoir Like a Novel

A few years ago, I went to a workshop in New York City for writers. There I was surrounded by a group of novelists. As someone who loves to write fiction, I was interested, but at the time, I wasn’t working on a novel. I was working on a memoir, a book about a series of adventures I had in Paris called Crowdsourcing Paris that was published just a few weeks ago.

“Is this a waste of time?” I thought. “Can the techniques they’re teaching at this workshop actually help me write a better memoir?”

And for you, if you’re working on a book about your life, what can you learn from novelists? Are there any fiction techniques that you can apply to your memoir writing?

In this post, I want to share what I learned both from the workshop and since then about writing a memoir. If you’re writing memoir, I think these techniques will change your writing process and result in a much better book.

And if you’re working on a novel right now, pay attention too, because these same techniques will help you with your writing.

Can Memoir Writers Learn from Novelists?

As I was sitting in that workshop in NYC, it began to dawn on me, slowly and then all at once, how similar memoirs and novels are.

Before we talk about what memoirists can learn from novelists, let’s talk about what makes a good memoir in the first place.

Here are some things people love about memoir:

  • Tells an entertaining, engaging story
  • Life lessons you can apply to your own life
  • Getting a different perspective on life and the world
  • Funny and/or emotionally moving

When you look at those four criteria readers want in a memoir, you can see that three of them are exactly what many readers want in a novel. Which is to say this:

Novelists and memoir writers are trying to accomplish many of the same goals! The only difference is that memoir writers are writing their personal life stories.

I’ve been told again and again that my memoir, Crowdsourcing Paris, is a fast read. One person even read it in two days. A major reason that people have so much fun reading my book is because I wrote it like a novel, using the techniques we’re going to talk about below.

And if you’re writing a memoir, so should you!

How to Write Your Memoir Like a Novel: 4 Fiction Techniques for Memoir Writers

What can memoir writers learn from novelists? There are five literary techniques that I drew from my novel writing experience to write my memoir:

1. Limited Scope

When most people approach writing a memoir, they just start writing. They start with the day they were born, and if they can keep up with the writing process, they go all the way to the present moment.

But think of your favorite novels. There are certainly stories that span a character’s entire life, but what is much more common is the stories that have a limited scope, encompassing a specific situation. For example:

  • A quest
  • An adventure
  • A crime that must be solved
  • A new romantic relationship (or the unraveling of one)
  • Betrayal and revenge
  • A coming of age experience

Great stories, in other words, are rarely about an entire life. Instead, they’re usually about one intense period in a character’s life.

The same is true for your memoir. Instead of trying to write a historical autobiography, which is not the purpose of memoir, choose one very intense period of your life and write about that.

The best way I’ve found to choose that period is to write a premise. A premise is a single-sentence summary of your story. For memoir writers, your premise should contain three things:

  1. A character (i.e. you)
  2. A situation (the intense life event you experienced)
  3. A lesson

And you should combine those things into just one sentence.

Why one sentence? Because you can’t summarize your entire life in one sentence, but you can write about one specific situation.

Then, anything that doesn’t fit into your premise should be cut and put into another book.

Don’t try to write an autobiography. Instead, choose a limited scope for your memoir and write the best story you can.

2. Story Structure

Novelists think a lot about plot and structure. We have jargon we use, like  three acts, turning points, climaxes, inciting incidents, falling action, and resolutions. We spend time outlining, mapping our story, and even creating spreadsheets to track the rise and fall between each scene.

Memoir writers, though? They don’t think much about plot and structure. And it’s a shame, because this is the best fiction technique you can apply to your memoir.

When I wrote Crowdsourcing Paris, I wrote the entire first draft just based on how I remembered things happened. But then I went back and read my book and thought, “There’s something missing here.” I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it wasn’t accomplishing the things I wanted it to. There were a lot of good sections and a few bad sections, but it didn’t feel like a book yet.

When I wrote the second draft, I intentionally spent time outlining the plot and structure that I wanted to bring to the story. I rearranged the timing of events slightly to build tension and drama. I cut backstory and added flashbacks to increase the pace of the story and get the reader into the action faster. I rewrote scenes to heighten the suspense.

By the time I finished the second draft, it was a great story, not just a bunch of great scenes.

We don’t have time to get into everything you should know about plot and structure, but here are a few resources you can use to learn more about this for your memoir.

First is K.M. Weiland’s own series on the Secrets of Story Structure, which is thorough and so helpful.

For a quick guide, Matt Heron has a great Writer’s Cheat Sheet to Plot and Structure here.

I also love Story Grid’s approach. You can find an article on how to use Story Grid for your memoir here.

3. Show Decisions

Most writers are familiar with the advice, “Show, Don’t Tell.” The idea is that you should always show the important moments in a story, writing a full scene with description, dialogue, action, and narrative, not just tell the reader about it in summary.

But the question is what do you show? What’s the most important thing to show?

When trying to “show,” most memoir writers write about the bad things that happened to them, and that’s smart because you can’t show change and character arc without diving into the hard parts of your story.

But often, memoir writers leave out the most important part of those experiences: the decision.

Good stories are about characters who make decisions. That’s why every scene in your memoir should be centered on a decision, a choice that you made, usually between two bad things or two good things.

I get that this is hard. When you’re writing a story about your own life, it can be hard to find the decisions you made in a situation. After all, much of the time, the events in our lives are outside of our control, especially the negative experiences.

But these decisions are actually what drive all the action in your story, and if you are the main character in your memoir, you have to be the one driving the action, you have to be the protagonist, and you have to show your decisions.

This was one of the hardest parts of writing my memoir. But showing my decisions, more than any other technique I learned from fiction writers, was the thing that most impacted my memoir.

4. Kill Your Darlings

Kill your darlings,” said Stephn King. “Kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

I wrote over 100,000 words in my memoir. However, by the time the book was finally published it was only 52,000 words long.

That means I had to cut almost 50 percent of the book. Some of those scenes and paragraphs and sentences were amazing. I had labored over many of them for hours, even days.

And yet, they didn’t fit the story I was trying to tell.

You have to kill your darlings. You have to cut the sections of your book that don’t fit.

Doesn’t fit the premise? Cut the scene.

Outside of the limited scope of the story? Cut the scene.

No decision? Cut the scene.

Doesn’t fit the story structure? Cut the scene or rewrite it until it does.

This is one of the hardest parts of writing a memoir, but it can also be some of the most fun. I had several experiences where I cut a chapter and all of a sudden the flow of the story was so much better.

I use Scrivener to write my memoir, so when I cut things, I always put them into a folder of saved sections. Someday, I may be able to incorporate those sections into another book. Some, I even put back into the story after realizing the book really did need that section.

The point is you have to be willing to be ruthless. If you don’t, your story can easily get bogged down by the weight of a lot of good sections that don’t serve the purpose of your book as a whole.

This Is How to Write a Great Memoir

If you want to write a memoir that’s fun to read, not just something that passes on your life experience and legacy, learn the fiction techniques novelists know.

There are certainly great reasons to write an autobiography sharing your entire life experience, but unless you’re famous or a historical figure, don’t expect anyone beyond your family to read it.

But if you want to write a memoir that’s actually fun to read, then use the fiction techniques above to make your memoir good.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever thought about writing a book about your life? Which of these techniques do you think would be most helpful for your story? Tell us in the comments!

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About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in Paris, now available. If you’re writing a memoir, you can also click here to get a free guide with 10 tools every memoir writer needs. You can also follow Joe on Instagram (@jhbunting).

Comments

  1. Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Joe!

  2. I used fiction writing techniques for my autobiography ‘A Serpent’s Conscience’, but because it spanned a quarter of a century I put more emphasis developing the character arc.

    • The character arc is an essential part of every good memoir! Interesting that your autobiography covered 25 years. What were the challenges of covering that long of a period of time?

  3. I WAS JUST ON THE “WRITE PRACTICE” WEBSITE A MINUTE BEFORE YOUR POST !!

  4. Thank you, Joe, for posting these very helpful suggestions for memoir writers! After years of writing notes for my memoir to finish ‘some day,’ I’m using NaNoWriMo 2019 to dive right in. Your strategies will help me organize, select, draft, and focus on the theme and the rest of the story.

  5. Hi, I did not find the podcast for this blog!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hey, Suzette! There is no audio version of this post, since it was written by guest author Joe Bunting.

  6. Some very intriguing ideas here which I will use. I’ve wanted to write a memoir of my grandmother’s life but work it into a series of novels which I have started. This post has helped me see how I can actually do that. Thank you.

  7. Ethel Lytton says

    How timely! I just finished a memoir class in September and am participating in NaNoWriMo and doing research for a memoir for my descendants. THANKS!

  8. Great post, Joe! To anyone else reading this, I have been participating in Joe’s HOW TO WRITE A MEMOIR class so that I can turn my memoir into a fiction work, and the class has been AMAZING. The interactive worksheet we’re using has been tremendously helpful, and I have a much clearer idea for the direction of my story. Those in the class who are simply writing their memoirs have likewise said how beneficial the instruction has been. Just putting it out there because it’s my first class with the Write Practice, and I’ve had a great experience!

  9. Thanks for sharing these tips today! It’s always wonderful to find common ground with writers. We can learn from every kind of writing.

  10. “Have you ever thought about writing a book about your life?” Oh yes, my novel-in-progress turns out to intersect my real life with dramatic flair, so I might been looking in the wrong place for so many years >_<

    "Which of these techniques do you think would be most helpful for your story?" Definitely the tip about showing decisions, showing irreversible turning points. Now that all the research for my novel-turned-memoir is in place, story structure is also what I need too.

  11. Casandra Merritt says

    Hi Joe, I was just reading your post on how to structure a premise sentence before I came across this. Here’s mine:

    When an Irishman, who’s a fierce supporter of the American Revolution is taken captive aboard a British warship commanded by the persuasive and cunning Captain Pierce, who has orders to track down the “pirate” John Paul Jones, who has been attacking the British Isles, Pierce makes it his personal goal to force him to submit to British rule, and he must escape and join Jones and his ragtag crew to take him down.

    This needs a lot of work, and I would appreciate any suggestions on how to improve it. For instance, could it be shortened, or does it need to be more specific? Thanks!

  12. Hi Joe! Thanks for the tips, it’s super useful. I’m writing a memoir at the moment so it comes super handy 😉

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