Using Fiction-writing Techniques to Craft a Memoir
Readers sometimes divide themselves into staunch fiction or non-fiction enthusiasts. But one thing we can agree on is that every reader wants a good book: writing that is satisfying, holds their attention, and keeps them reading – whether that’s a prize-winning novel, the latest presidential biography, or an inspirational memoir.
Does a successful memoir have to be written by a famous person?
The short answer is no.
Naturally, a famous name will attract a readership, so an unknown person will have to work harder to get sales, but plenty of memoirs do well despite the absence of a familiar face on the cover. Recent examples are The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, about a couple who lost everything and embarked on a life-changing 630-mile journey; and This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay, a collection of diary entries from his time as a junior doctor.
Can a memoir be as compelling as a work of fiction?
Autobiography is usually the story of a whole life, but a memoir centres on one element or theme. If you’re writing your own biography, focus on one interesting aspect, or a specific time. Think of your life story as your plot.
Of course, where memoir deviates from fiction is in its truth – accuracy and authenticity are essential. This doesn’t mean that memoir writers lack imagination; conjuring up a vivid conversation from twenty years ago might call for creativity with the dialogue. This is all part of the craft.
Writing can be a scary prospect, but using advice given to budding novelists will help you to shape your memoir.
Plotting your story
Ask yourself why you feel compelled to write. Is it a confessional? What you experienced during an adventure? How you overcame a personal crisis? Your answers will inform your plot, structure and narrative.
Work out your chronology: a memoir doesn’t have to follow the timeline of your life but, as with fiction, the story must make sense. You might want to include a flashback to your childhood – just make sure it has a purpose in moving the narrative forward and that the transition is clear, so your readers can orient themselves. If you’re a new writer, starting with a straightforward timeline may help; you can amend this as the writing begins to flow, or when you edit.
Plan the beginning: potential readers may scan through the first few pages in the bookshop or use the ‘look inside’ feature on the internet; those opening paragraphs must hook them in. So, choose a vivid anecdote to start, something that reflects the theme or plot you’ve chosen, but avoid giving away the key to the story right at the beginning – you want them to read on!
Think about the middle: what’s the story? The arc of a fiction narrative tends to peak where there’s tension or conflict, the moment when we wonder what will happen next, how our protagonist will escape from prison, reach their destination, or achieve their heart’s desire. Scrutinise your manuscript with a writer’s eye. What will you emphasise, and what can drift into the background? Consider the pacing and the vocabulary you need to maintain your reader’s interest.
Consider the ending: readers are looking for a satisfying conclusion; it might be happy, it might be sad, but it mustn’t be disappointing. Even if you leave a few teasers to tempt them back to your next instalment, there should be a resolution, an answer to an earlier question, a battle won, or a challenge overcome. At all costs, avoid a cliffhanger – even in fiction, readers may be incensed if they’re left with a major unsolved plot point.
Have a compelling protagonist
The main protagonist is you! So, it should be easy to create a fully fleshed-out character. Be honest, and focus on your experience and emotional reactions. Aim to present the truth as you see it but avoid sounding showy or patronising. Of course, you can be funny, and wit is a definite selling point, but if your readers don’t like you, they may not read on. In one sense you’re the hero of your own story, but no one is perfect, so be open about your weaknesses and mistakes, allow people to empathise with you, and if there are other heroes in your life, let them shine through too.
Mastering point of view
Luckily you don’t need to wrestle with point of view. It’s your story, so you’ll be writing in the first person. Make use of this powerful tool to let us into your thoughts, feelings and motivations. Like a fiction writer, you should aim to ‘show’ not ‘tell’; avoid dry description by allowing us to see what you saw and feel what you felt. Tell us what you’ve learnt about yourself, about others, and about the world.
Create your setting
The setting encompasses both time and place. Small details will add colour to your work and help to engage your reader with the period you’re depicting – the music of that time, a brand of drink, or what you were wearing. Bring your location to life: effective descriptions aren’t just visual but include textures, smells and sounds. Even the weather can contribute to the mood. These specifics will illuminate the backdrop to your story.
Who are your readers?
A memoir which is destined for family and friends is a different proposition from one that seeks a wider audience. Your Uncle Jack’s antics at your birthday party might amuse your sister, but may be irrelevant if you’re targeting a broader range of readers! Keep your readership in mind as you write and edit your work.
Don’t forget that your memoir will include other real people. There isn’t room here to discuss the associated risks and challenges, but seek out good resources, and if you think something you write might be controversial, seek legal advice.
Polishing your writing
Typing ‘The End’ isn’t the final part of the process. Completing your first draft is a major achievement, but it will certainly need revisions if you want it to shine. Allow your work to ‘rest’ for a while before you read it again – whether it’s a week or a month is up to you – but aim to start with fresh eyes and imagine you’re seeing it for the first time. When it’s ready for a second opinion, seek someone who’s objective and ask them to give you detailed feedback. After further revisions you need to consider finding an experienced editor for your manuscript – especially if you’re going down the self-publishing route. Look for a package including a development edit and a copy-edit. That way, you’ll get the nitty-gritty errors corrected, and you’ll also know the basic structure of your book is sound.
Betterwrite Associate Editor