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Memoir: Finding Your Story

A friend of mine wants to turn her diaries into a memoir but doesn’t know where to begin. I read one of her diaries and marked all the passages that I found interesting—stories about dating, details about finances, notes about current events that took place a decade ago. Those details will be invaluable when adding dialogue and description to her scenes, but one thing was missing—a story.

The number one problem first-time memoir writers encounter is a lack of story. Their prose my sing, their anecdotes may make you laugh and cry, but if there’s no story, no one’s going to read your book.

But how do you impose a story arc onto your life? Life is messy. It doesn’t follow fiction conventions. It doesn’t have a neat inciting incident, a crisis, a climax, and a resolution. What should you do?

First, don’t panic. All memoirists face this dilemma. Second, pick up a copy of Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. Although McKee’s book and seminar are ostensibly designed for screenwriters, I know many novelists and memoirists who have benefited from his advice on how to write a great story.

Next, sit down and plot out your story. What is your protagonist’s (your) goal? What is at stake? (What will happen to her if she does not achieve that goal? Will she die? Will her lose her children? Will she lose her job?) What are the obstacles to her achieving that goal? What action is she going to take to overcome those obstacles? Remember that your protagonist must be active, not passive. She must go after her goal, not just sit back and let things happen to her.

Yesterday I began reading Dave Eggers’ A Hologram for a King (a novel). In the first three pages, he sets up the protagonist’s goal, the stakes, and the protagonist’s first obstacle to achieving that goal. Bam. Tension created. Story set in motion. All in three pages: Alan Clay is broke. He owes money to all his friends, he can’t pay his daughter’s college tuition, and he’s about to lose his house. One thing could solve all his problems: If he can sell Saudian Arabian King Abdullah on his company’s holographic teleconference system, he will earn a commission large enough to pay off all his debts and more. First obstacle? Alan overslept and is running two hours late for his meeting with the king.

Of course, you don’t need to so obviously state your protagonist’s goal and the stakes in the first three pages, but you do need to make it clear early on in the book. Otherwise, the reader isn’t going to care what happens to your protagonist, isn’t going to have any reason to keep turning the pages.

These rules apply for fiction, too, of course. So whether you’re working on a memoir or a novel, take a seat right now and write down your protagonist’s goal, what’s at stake if she doesn’t achieve that goal, and what obstacles lie in her way. Then share it with us below in comments. This is an important exercise, and it will help both you and others to see the framework of each other’s story in text. Here’s mine:

Goal: To make $50,000 working as a fashion model
What’s at stake: Her freedom, her college degree
First obstacle: Her modeling agent tells her she needs to lose weight.

What’s yours?

26 comments to Memoir: Finding Your Story

  • Hi Meghan! This is great advice and something I've struggled to find as I wrote the first draft of my memoir – about the year and a half that I lived aboard a sailboat with my family, as a teenager. The family's collective goal was to sail from Nova Scotia to the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal and on to Hawaii and British Columbia. My own goal – get through the experience without losing my growing sense of identity and independence.

    What's at stake – our lives!

    First obstacle – storms and freezing temperatures as we sail from Nocpva Scotia

    • meghancward

      Sounds like you have a clear sense of your story, Victoria! When I started writing my memoir, I had NO IDEA what the story was and it was really painful to think about it after I'd already written a 500-page draft. So I'm glad you've figured that out early on.

  • Victoria,

    It sounds like you have an excellent set of goals that will make for an interesting story.


  • annerallen

    A much-needed post! I used to work as a freelance editor and most of the projects people brought me were memoirs. But they weren't memoirs. They were a series of unrelated autobiographical essays. It was impossible for me to edit them into anything worth publishing. I wish I'd thought to ask the authors these questions. Some of those books might have been salvageable with major rewrites.

    • meghancward

      Yeah, Anne, I'm one of those writers who wrote the first draft of my memoir with no story arc in mind. NO FUN to have to go back and fix that later, but I did it. I hope all future memoirists will think about their story arc sooner than I did!

  • Kristan

    I use screenwriting principles too when I'm outlining and structuring my story. It's so helpful!

  • Thanks for the post! I'm nearly finished editing and prepping my memoir for publication, and these questions helped me make sure the story is solid! Here are my responses:
    Goal: To put to good use the tools I've learned as a Psychologist (& postpartum, parenting, grief/loss expert) when I become the one "on the couch"
    What's At Stake: My kids, family, and relationship with my husband, getting lost in grief, and basically, my sanity!
    First obstacle: My sister and brother-in-law die and I inherit their two children just before giving birth to my fourth…
    Many more obstacles to overcome–makes for quite a story!!
    Thanks again. I really love your blog!
    Christi Hibbert

  • Sian Williams

    Thanks for your post. It gives me something to work with.

  • Sian Williams

    Sorry, lost my goals, etc
    Goal is to repair damages of severe emotional pain and split identity during early childhood with the help of my caring psychiatrist and psychologist.
    Stake is healing otherwise I'll probably become totally catatonic to escape my damaged life.
    Obstacles are being severely depressed, and an Avoident Personality Disorder with some traits of Dependent P D.
    There is hope because I am making good progress
    I would like to write about this journey so that others can know that they have hope also.

  • Alonna Shaw

    Megan, thanks for this efficient and helpful post. I keep McKee's Story close at all times. Also, Storylogue (.) com has handy videos to keep writers inspired.

    • meghancward

      Alonna, I hadn't heard of Storylogue! Do you subscribe, or is there some content that's available for free? It looks like a wonderful resource for writers, but $20/mo is steep!

      • Alonna Shaw

        Megan, yes, I do subscribe. (One could probably jump in and out of the monthly subscription?) There are sample free videos on the site, but subscribing gives you the whole video.
        When I'm working and researching these are some of my tools I keep handy: CMOS, Unabridged MW, McKee's Storylogue, AutoCrit, and
        Also, I subscribe to Robert McKee's Byline newsletter. (In the Feb.12, 2013 edition they gave me a "gold box shout out" for my novel. I was so excited! I used one of McKee's quotes in my story.)
        As you recommended, getting a copy of his book "Story" is a good way to go and economical. Plus I like marking up all the pages.
        I've been to screenwriting seminars, but his is still on my bucket list.

  • Hello there, You have done a fantastic job. I?ll certainly digg it and personally recommend to my friends. I am confident they'll be benefited from this site.

  • Melissa Cronin

    Thanks, Meghan. This is just what I need. I've been working on a memoir for a couple of years and recently graduated from an MFA program where I learned that there is much, much more than simply dumping a story onto the page. I'm writing about a tragic accident in which an elderly man sped through a farmers' market, killing ten people and injuring several others. I was just one of the severely injured. I wrote my first draft in 6 months, but had no idea what the story was really about. With each successive draft, I finally realized that it's about how one's body and identity is impacted after such a trauma.

    The goal: Acceptance of physical changes in my body and new identity since the accident ( I used to work 12 hour shifts as a critical care nurse, ski, run, hike, bike, rock climb). The central question is: who am I now, nearly a decade after the accident? What's at stake: Giving up a nursing career, the athletic woman I once knew, earning power, emotional stability.Obstacle: Post-traumatic stress disorder, long term sequela of a brain injury, physical limitations.

    Again, thanks! This really helps.

    • meghancward

      Melissa, I remember when that happened. It was the Santa Monica Farmers' Market, right? I lived in LA years ago and used to frequent that farmers' market (for the crepes). Have you published anything yet about your story? Any newspaper or magazine articles? And do you have a website? I'd love to hear more about your story.

  • Meghan,
    This is a great post. I will soon be pitching my book to agents, so it is a great exercise. Here's mine:
    Goal: Rebuilding my life after losing everything in the financial crisis of 2008
    What's at stake: Ability to provide for my family
    First Obstacle: Selling my home in a housing market that is in the midst of collapse

  • -Hypatia associated with Alexandria

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