Deciding Between Simple and Complex Memoir Structures

Image: a complex stairway with unexpected angles, seen from above.
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Today’s guest post is by writer, coach and editor Lisa Cooper Ellison (@lisaellisonspen).

In my earlier post on memoir structure, we explored the scaffolds that can help you complete a first draft. These tools are great for reducing angst during the early stages of the writing process.

But eventually, you must settle on a final memoir structure.

At this crucial milestone, some writers freeze, fearing they’ll make the wrong choice. Others proceed with confidence. One of the challenges you’ll face is deciding whether to tell your story in a linear, chronological manner, or use a more complicated structure, like a braided narrative. Here’s how to decide what might be best for your memoir.

What is your narrative arc like?

Every memoir has a narrative arc made up of interconnected events (plot) that result in the narrator’s internal transformation (character arc). In the beginning, the narrator believes one thing or operates a certain way. In the middle that way of being and believing is tested. Overcoming those struggles shift the narrator’s worldview and circumstances in a way that creates a satisfying ending.

Understanding your narrative arc can help you identify the specific thing you wish to say about your topic. For example, Carol Smith’s memoir Crossing the River: Seven Stories that Saved My Life isn’t just about grief. It’s about how the stories Carol reported on for the Post-Intelligencer taught her how to live with immense heartache.

But your narrative arc can also tell you a lot about your ideal structure. Some stories, like Carol’s, follow a specific shape. In Crossing the River, each reported story shines like a star. Together they create a constellation of resilience that lights the path for Carol’s healing in the wake of her young son’s death.

However, many memoirs yearn to be told as straightforward stories. While that might seem like the easy way out, easy doesn’t mean ineffective. Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle is a linear memoir that explores child abuse, neglect, and the stories children tell themselves to survive chaotic upbringings. Like most coming-of-age memoirs, there’s less material to flashback to, which is one of the reasons why the linear structure works. But the linear form has other benefits. By staying in the child point of view, we get to experience the young, unreliable narrator’s take on her family’s wild behavior. In this way, Walls imposes the emotional work of the book onto the reader. Young Jeannette might think she’s having a wonderful time, but as readers, we fear for her.

Sometimes it’s better to approach the material slant, something Jeannine Ouellette does in her fragmented collection, The Part That Burns. Like The Glass Castle, The Part That Burns deals with child abuse, but this book is about what happens when a young mother reconnects to a body she’s dissociated from. Dissociation that results from trauma fractures memories—eliminating some parts, jumbling others, and rendering certain events so vividly it feels like they’re happening in the present moment. Reconnection after dissociation is a little like peeling an onion. Survivors circle around events, each time arriving at a deeper layer of understanding and significance. Ouellette uses prose poetry, flash nonfiction, and essays woven together in a circular form that effectively mimics this experience.

As you’re drafting you might uncover two or more complete and compelling arcs that speak to each other. Braiding them together might create a super arc that tells us something we would miss if these stories were told separately. Alex Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body uses the narrator’s personal experience with sexual abuse and a horrific crime to explore the complicated nature of the truth. Like the scales of justice, the narrative oscillates between the two stories and how they intersect within the narrator.

Finally, consider if your memoir chapters feel self-contained, or dive deeply into a concept but don’t necessarily tell a cohesive story with a beginning, middle, and end. If that’s the case, perhaps you’re writing an essay collection.

Do you intend to challenge the reader?

An unspoken contract exists between reader and writer that includes the following components:

  • You will entertain me—whether that’s taking me inside an unknown world, allowing me to be a detective who works through clues, teaching me something new, or making me feel something profound.
  • You will teach me something about the human condition.
  • More importantly, you will teach me something about myself.
  • The work this book requires will match the effort I’m prepared to put in.

The first three bullet points relate to your story. The last one is a matter of structure.

Straightforward structures are easier to craft and read. The best ones carry the reader on a journey that feels like a lucid dream. While readers might work through clues that help them anticipate what comes next, they can choose how deeply they delve into the material.

The more complex the structure, the more readers must chew on the content to understand its significance. This can lead to greater engagement for motivated readers, but others will give up.

Consider how much effort you want readers to put into the reading experience. What would you like them to chew on—something in their head (ideas) or something in their heart (emotions)? When written well, simple structures can leave more room for heart connections; complex ones sometimes keep readers in their heads.

Before deciding, think of the readership you want to reach and what they like to chew on. I know fans of literary memoir who love a good structural challenge, especially when it’s combined with beautifully written sentences. Others hope to use your story as a form of escapism.

What kind of success are you looking for?

Some writers simply want to write a book they can pass on to family members. Athena Dixon, author of The Incredible Shrinking Woman, values an engaged readership over a vast one. But I know other writers who won’t stop until they’ve secured an agent and a lucrative Big Five publishing deal.

The higher you wish to climb, the more competition you’ll face and the more hoops you’ll need to jump through. While there are always exceptions, memoirs with complicated structures can be a tough sell, even if you have a strong publication record.

If you’re invested in Big Five success, perhaps a simple three-act or letter e structure is best. But if your publishing goals are more modest, and simple structures don’t speak to you, small publishers might give you the freedom to experiment with form.

Do you have a specific vision for your project?

The goal of some memoirists is to turn their life experiences into art. But not all writers care about high art. Some just want to craft a story their friends can read. Others care so deeply about their artistic visions they’re willing to work for years—even decades—to get their stories and structures right.

More than a few talented writers have chosen to honor their visions over other concerns. Some, like Lilly Dancyger, have even canceled publishing deals. For these writers, artistic integrity is paramount.

Maybe that’s something you also value. Consider what you would do if an editor or agent asked you to make significant revisions that would sacrifice your original vision. Would you prefer to self-publish, work with a hybrid press, or reach out to a small, independent publisher before making changes that appeal to large traditional publishers?

Parting thoughts

Writing a book is an audacious endeavor that always requires more time than you initially budgeted. Because memoirists must write about their lives and make sense of them, their projects take longer to finish.

There are several kinds of time you’ll need to consider when writing a memoir—drafting time, resting time between drafts, time to reflect and understand your experiences, time to research your facts, and most importantly, time to acquire the skills needed to tell your story.

The fancier your structure, the more skills you’ll need to acquire, and as a result, the more time you’ll need to finish your project. So how important is this story to you? How much time can you invest in writing it? How much time can you invest in your skills? What else would you like to accomplish?

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