How to Build a Compelling Narrative Arc for Your Memoir

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Today’s guest post is by author and nonfiction writing coach Tanja Pajevic (@tpajevic).

After 20 years of teaching writing, I continue to be amazed at the transformation that occurs for writers of memoir. The process of sifting through the pivotal events of one’s life to shape them into a cohesive narrative enables writers to step into their power at a deep level. At the same time, writing about your life can be challenging.  What do you include and what do you leave out?

A compelling memoir must be shaped. That’s why I encourage my clients to clarify their narrative arc before they start writing. Otherwise, it’s too easy to go down the rabbit hole—and waste weeks, months or even years of writing time.

Here are five steps to help you build a compelling narrative arc for your memoir. Let’s start with the most important step: clarify your story’s scope.

1. Clarify Your Scope

Compelling memoirs cover a particular time, theme or transformative event. They don’t cover your entire life—that’s autobiography.

Seems pretty straightforward, right? Most folks think so, until they sit down to write. Before they know it, they’re wrestling with an octopus.

You must choose. What you leave out is just as important as what you keep in. The following questions will help you narrow it down:

  • What is the specific challenge or time period you’d like to write about?
  • What is the transformation that occurred?
  • What did you learn as a result?

After my mom died, I wrote The Secret Life of Grief: A Memoir because I wanted to explore how to grieve consciously in a society that barely recognizes grief. This was my main theme.

Once you have that, you can begin to shape your narrative arc. Something needs to be figured out, discovered or transformed. This central question provides the story’s tension or conflict—the key to keeping your reader turning the pages.

2. Start with the Big Rocks

Stephen Covey is well known for his “rock, pebbles and sand” metaphor for time management. Here’s how it works: if you don’t start with the most important projects in your day (the big rocks: work, family, health), something small (email, side projects, etc.) will take up that time or space. Therefore, it’s essential that you start with the big rocks.

I find this analogy works incredibly well when you’re writing your story.

The big rocks in your memoir are the key scenes that support your transformation. Why do we start with these “big rocks?” Because if you start with the pebbles (the stories that are interesting, but not pivotal to the story), it’s easy to get sidetracked.

I see this happen to too many folks when they start writing. It’s also a problem for those who like to work with writing prompts, especially while writing memoir. Although prompts can help, they can also lead to writing scenes or snippets that don’t belong in this particular story. 

3. Flesh Out Your Narrative Arc

Once you’ve clarified your story’s scope, the pivotal transformation that occurred and the big rocks that you’ll use to tell your story, you’ll use that information to create a compelling narrative arc.

First, look at the big rocks you identified. How are they connected? Do they tell a clear story of transformation? We want to make sure that each big rock builds upon the last, adding complexity to your journey. If it doesn’t, revisit your list of big rocks. Is each one key to your transformation? If not, place it on a back-up list. Then identify what’s missing.

Although your story builds on one main conflict, additional challenges probably weave their way through the story. These will be your subplots or minor themes.

For example, my impetus for writing my grief memoir was to learn how to grieve consciously in a culture that barely acknowledges grief. At the same time, I was wrestling with the following:

  • I navigated grief as a member of the sandwich generation. I wanted to know how we raise children while burying our parents. How do we navigate those logistics? How do we fill our well when we’re caregiving on multiple levels?
  • Identity and ethnicity were important to me because a large part of my identity has always been my Serbian-American heritage. My parents immigrated from the former Yugoslavia, and we spent a good deal of my childhood going back and forth between Chicago and Yugoslavia. Since my husband is Japanese-American, I wanted to explore the cultural as well as familial patterns I was passing down to my children, as well as what I was ready to release.

Take a moment to clarify two or three minor themes that are starting to emerge in your memoir. Next to each, add a specific scene that exemplifies that theme.

For example, after my mother’s death, I ran into an acquaintance speaking German with her child at the grocery store. I made a passing remark about wishing I’d spoken more Serbian with my children when they were younger, which led to a cascade of regret around what I was (or wasn’t) passing down to my children. That was a very specific happening in a specific time and place (i.e.: scene) in which I was forced to grapple with my ethnicity. This is how you can fill out the narrative arc and build a rich, complex story.

4. Jump Into the Deep End

Now that we’ve got a list of your book’s most important scenes, where do you start? How do you open the book?

Start by jumping into the deep end. Don’t wade into your story.

In other words, start with your story’s inciting incident. What was the event that kicked off your crisis? Start there. And start with the raw, beating heart of it, not what happened the day before.

When we don’t know where to start, it’s easy to wade in with backstory: here’s what happened before this incredibly important thing happened. But that doesn’t pull your reader in. Nor does starting with the story of your birth.

What those beginnings do is ask your reader to wait—to be patient, to keep reading in hopes that something important will happen soon. But they might not wait for long. So indicate what’s at stake from the start. Later you can weave in the most important parts of your backstory.

Think about your experience listening to a master storyteller versus the friend who always bungles an anecdote. The master storyteller entices you with tension, making you wonder what will happen next, while the not-so-great-storyteller hems and haws, trying to get the story straight and figure out where to start.

Be that master storyteller. Know where your beats are, including where to start. 

5. Recognize That Your Story Will Grow and Change

In all likelihood, the memoir you end up with will be different from the one you started with or envisioned. Early drafts are often for the writer. After all, we write what we need to know. Part of the memoir-writing process, then, is culling that initial material and shifting the focus to telling a great story. There’s a big difference between writing a book for ourselves and writing one for the reader, and we can’t always see see that distinction when we begin.

Knowing this from the start can help keep your expectations in check. It can also allow you to have some compassion for yourself throughout the process. At its heart, memoir is a process of discovery—for the writer as well as the reader.

And here’s the thing: just as your story grows and changes, so will you. The process of writing your memoir may expand the constraints of what you thought was possible for yourself. I’ve seen this with my clients, as well as experienced it myself. Whether or not you end up publishing your memoir, the very act of writing it allows you to move into a deeper, more authentic sense of self. And that is a powerful experience.

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