How a Little Psychology Can Improve Your Memoir’s Setup

Image: a mirror covered in condensation, obscuring the reflected image.
Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels

Today’s guest post is by editor and coach Lisa Cooper Ellison (@lisaellisonspen).

Every memoirist faces the same dilemma: where to begin, what to keep, and what darlings to cut. Many writers either freeze or overwrite act one, because they want to immerse you in that special soup of hilarious-terrifying-crazy-and-weird that inspired them to write their story. But a setup that drags on too long can lose your readers.

In Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, Blake Snyder calls the early part of act one the antithesis, or the world before your journey begins. Your main job in this section is to reveal the Six Things that Need Fixing—or the narrator flaws and problems you’ll resolve by the end of your book.

Narrator flaws generally fall into three categories:

  • Flaws of perception
  • Problematic behaviors
  • Interpersonal issues

Flaws of perception

Flaws of perception include misbeliefs and faulty thinking, what psychologists call cognitive distortions. These flaws are the internal problems that impact your narrator’s worldview. We form these flawed perceptions based on our assumptions or lessons we learn from our experiences. Common cognitive distortions include black-and-white thinking, jumping to conclusions, or catastrophizing. These cognitive distortions can lead to beliefs like I should never ask for help, if I’m not perfect no one will love me, and good women don’t get angry.

It’s not uncommon for writers to create extensive lists of faulty beliefs or cognitive distortions when first working on this exercise. But limit yourself to two or three, then laser in on the scenes that reveal them.

Studying lists of cognitive distortions, common flawed beliefs, and even Twelve-Step character defects can help you identify your narrator’s internal struggles. Once you know them, you’ll understand what motivates their behavior, which leads to our next item.

Problematic behaviors

Behavior arises from our worldview and follows the following format:

stimulus (outside event) › belief (internal filter) › our response (external action)

Image: a graphic indicating the circular cycle of stimulus prompting belief, when then prompts response, which leads back to stimulus.

Some of our actions look great on the outside, but actually get us into trouble, like people pleasing or trying to be superhuman. Then there are the ones most people know are problematic, like passive aggression, hypervigilance, or using silence as a weapon.

When you link your narrator’s beliefs and thoughts with external behaviors, your manuscript will benefit in three ways:

  • If beta readers and critique group members have encouraged you to show more and tell less, identifying your problematic behaviors (actions) will help you pinpoint which things you must show in the forward-moving story. This can help you limit your opening’s backstory to the most essential items.
  • You will develop a tight cause-and-effect chain between events, which is how you create a propulsive opening.
  • Learning about how beliefs and cognitive distortions feed behavior will give you more compassion for your characters. For example, most people hate it when someone tries to control them. Yet, few know that control is fueled by deep fear of losing something we value.

Returning to the Twelve-Step list of character defects and exploring lists of maladaptive coping mechanisms can help you uncover the two or three actions that need fixing. While it can feel painful or awkward to examine unflattering traits, revealing your flaws will turn you into a trustworthy narrator readers are more likely to care about.

Interpersonal issues

In storytelling, every hero has an antagonist, or a character who creates obstacles in their path. That means most conflicts take place between characters. Many bestselling memoirs are populated with characters who behave badly—just look at Mary Karr’s parents in The Liars Club, Tobias Wolff’s stepfather in This Boy’s Life, or Krystal Sital’s grandfather in Secrets We Kept: Three Women of Trinidad. While these characters were either born or thrust into these relationships, many of our antagonists are people we’ve chosen to be with.

Before exploring the problems between your characters, return to your ending, so you can see which relationships have transformed. Look for ones that have fallen away as well as those that have taken on a new form.

Understanding which relationships have changed will help you determine who must be developed in act one, and who’s part of your story’s context. This is essential, because many memoirists use too many act-one pages to develop flawed parents, abusive family members, or painful situations that provide a context for the narrator’s current reactions. But if transformed versions of those relationships don’t appear in your ending, they’re probably not as important as you think.

Once you know who’s important, it’s time to determine what’s going on between them. Most issues fall into one of the following categories:

  • Communication: you share and listen equally
  • Trust: you honor your word
  • Boundaries: you’re not too close or too far away
  • Respect: you see and understand my perspective
  • Support: you’ve got my back

When assessing each essential relationship (there’s probably one major and one minor one), consider which aspects have changed or improved. Do they communicate more honestly, see each other more clearly, or relate in a new way? In the setup, reveal the opposite.

Once you’ve explored these three areas, you’re ready to create your final list, which might look a little like this:

  • I see things in black-and-white (internal)
  • I believe I need to be perfect (internal)
  • I’m a chronic people pleaser (external)
  • I don’t ask for help (external)
  • My partner doesn’t respect my boundaries (between)
  • My mother tells me what to do (between)

Next, identify one scene that represents each item on your list. If you’ve written more than one, choose the best example, then repurpose the rest of your material in another project. Focusing on the Six Things that Need Fixing can eliminate your act-one dilemmas regarding which aspects of your story’s special soup readers need to consume. Develop them well, and you’ll hook your reader and keep them invested in your memoir.

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