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.