To Nail Your Memoir’s Beginning, Stop Looking in the Wrong Direction

Image: close-up photo of the End key on a computer keyboard.
Photo by Nothing Ahead from Pexels

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

You’ve been told the first fifty pages of your memoir can make or break your publishing dreams. Listening to The Shit No One Tells You About Writing podcast has amplified those first-page stakes. So, you’ve active-verbed the hell out of your sentences, sharpened your imagery, and made sure every period is correctly placed.

But when the queries aren’t answered, or they’re answered with an unhelpful “thank you for submitting, but it’s not right for me,” you wonder what’s missing from your manuscript.

The beginning of every memoir must hook the reader, establish the setting, and reveal the situation and stakes. Most writers work tirelessly to develop these elements. But spending all your time at the beginning of act one might mean you’re looking in the wrong direction. Instead, try studying the end of your manuscript. Your closing pages shouldn’t just reflect all you’ve learned, or the triumph you feel—they must reveal your story’s resolution.

Once you know what you’re resolving, you can establish a clear path for getting there. This is essential because most openings are revised to death in an exhaustive line-by-line edit. The tedium of this process can cause you to rush through the rest of your manuscript, resulting in a middle that sags and an ending that flags.

Even if your opening pages light up an agent’s enthusiasm, that fervor will quickly wane if the writing that follows seem like it’s not going anywhere specific. Sadly, beautiful sentences can’t hide this issue. That’s why you must know your destination, no matter how your memoir is structured.

In artfully rendered manuscripts, the opening and closing pages give the story a sense of symmetry. Screenwriter Blake Snyder talks about this in his book, Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. He says, “[The opening image] sets the tone, mood, and style … and shows us a before snapshot of him or her.” The before snapshot is the narrator in full problem mode, well before they’ve figured things out. “The final image is the opposite of the opening image. It is your proof that change has occurred and that it’s real.”

Jane Alison’s craft book on the nonlinear form, Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, also explores the power of symmetrical scenes. Reviewing the opening and closing pages of the memoirs you love will help you see this symmetry in action. Here are a few examples to get you started.

  •  At the beginning of Wild, Cheryl Strayed is homeless, motherless, bootless, and unsure she can become the woman she once was. At the end, she’s a married mother visiting the Bridge of the Gods, the destination of her hike, who understands how this journey transformed her.
  • In The Glass Castle opening, Jeannette Walls avoids the homeless, dysfunctional parents she ran away from at eighteen. By the end, the entire family eats Thanksgiving together, showing that her shame has morphed into acceptance.
  • Nonlinear books also contain this symmetry. Michael Ondaatje’s nonlinear memoir, Running in the Family, chronicles his return to Sri Lanka so he can understand where he came from. In his half-page opening, he concisely reveals the drought happening both in his homeland, and in what he knows about his origins. In the closing, we experience the lushness of his understanding through the verdant place which now mercifully accepts the rain.
  • Krystal Sital’s intergenerational memoir, Secrets We Kept: Three Women of Trinidad, opens when her grandfather is rushed to a New York City hospital. Because she’d always seen her grandfather as her protector, she can’t understand why her grandmother might be reluctant to save him. At the end, a far-wiser Krystal is back in Trinidad. She acknowledges her grandfather’s complexity, the power of her mother and grandmother, and both the beauty and danger of her homeland.

If you don’t know your book’s ending, you’re not ready to nail your beginning. Keep writing until you arrive at a compelling ending point. Once that has been established, identify what you’ve resolved and then list the steps you took to get there. Now describe what the opposite looks like. That opposite is your story’s opening.

Sometimes, when we’re working on a story that happened more recently, or a situation that’s yet to resolve, we struggle to find the ending because life continues to happen. If this is the case, either take a break and return to this project when a clear ending emerges, or ask yourself the following questions: What have I set up? When in the future does it seem to resolve, even if that resolution is imperfect? Let that imperfect resolution be your ending until something better comes along. Then make sure your story works toward it. Even if you later discover this isn’t your memoir’s true ending, you’ll have practiced the art of telling a cohesive story.

If your ending is solid, consider revising backward, chapter by chapter, to ensure everything belongs. Once you reached the opening, apply a tool like a beat sheet to ensure you’ve hit the key turning points in the early part of your memoir. And don’t forget about beta readers. Their keen eyes can spot what’s truly working and what’s begging for revision.

While writing, revising, or waiting for feedback, choose five books you love. Read the opening and closing pages. Note their connections. Then do a last 25- and first 25-page review. See what issues the author resolves in those final twenty-five pages. Then find out how those issues were set up. Repeat this exercise several times, and you’ll know which direction to turn when it’s time to nail the beginning of this book and your next one.

Your turn: What symmetries have you discovered in your favorite memoirs?

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