How (and Why) to Structure Your Memoir Like a Bestselling Novel
By David Griffin Brown
When embarking on the deeply personal journey of memoir writing, many authors might not initially see the connection to the craft of fiction. One is based on true events, the other is made up—sure. But both are forms of storytelling. An engaging memoir, while rooted in reality, employs the same narrative devices that make novels compelling.
Memoir vs. Autobiography: A Tale of Specificity
An autobiography is the story of someone’s life. A memoir is a story from someone’s life. But more than that, memoir requires a specific focus. An interesting slice of life isn’t enough—your memoir should also make a thematic statement about what it means to be human.
Autobiographies are nearly impossible to sell unless the subject is famous. They simply aren’t that interesting in terms of storytelling. Without a specific trajectory, they tend to lack emotional draw. Memoir, on the other hand, is an ever-popular genre. The specificity of memoir creates both greater immediacy and relatability because we see who a character truly is when they are struggling toward something they want.
When writing a memoir, the first order of business is choosing a specific narrative goal. Showcase a time in your life when you wanted something (badly). When the narrator cares deeply about something, the reader will too. Next, consider the all-important connection between the inciting incident and the climax. The inciting incident is the moment when this goal crystallizes in the narrator’s mind; the climax is when the narrator either achieves or fails to achieve their goal.
Aspiring memoirists often try to encapsulate too much, which means the story meanders. The result: the stakes are diluted. Instead, zoom in. Keep a tight focus on the story and what you hope to achieve with it.
Examples of Specific Narrative Goals from Successful Memoirs
Educated by Tara Westover—The quest for self-invention through education. Westover charts her journey from a survivalist childhood in Idaho to earning a PhD from Cambridge University, framing her story as a relentless pursuit of knowledge against all odds.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed—The quest to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mojave Desert to Washington State, alone. Strayed's memoir focuses on the redemptive power of nature and the physical challenge of hiking over a thousand miles as a pathway to emotional restoration following the death of her mother.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion—The quest to process grief and trauma in the year following her husband’s death, her daughter’s brush with death, and her own medical catastrophe. Didion weaves her narrative around reflections on mourning and the struggle to make sense of a world that has irrevocably changed.
Dry by Augusten Burroughs—The quest for sobriety through rehab. Burroughs takes us through his life in advertising in New York City and his struggle with alcoholism. The memoir serves as a raw, often humorous account of his journey towards recovery, reflecting the messy and non-linear path of overcoming addiction.
Crafting a Memoir: Lessons from Fiction
One might argue that life doesn't always present itself in a neat narrative arc. However, when we sit down to write our stories, we must chisel away the superfluous, hone in on a specific trajectory, and craft our experiences into a structure that resonates. How? By borrowing from fiction's toolbox.
The Hook: Like a novel, a memoir must draw the reader in from the outset. Consider which moment of your story has the gravitational pull to capture a reader’s interest and place that moment strategically at the beginning. This will often be the inciting incident, the moment when the narrative goal crystallizes for the narrator. However, some memoirs will begin before or after the inciting incident. Some might even begin with a scene that precedes the climax to give readers a clear idea of where the story is headed.
Pacing: Life can be slow, but your memoir shouldn't be. Pacing keeps pages turning. A memoir needs peaks and valleys, with moments of tension and release, much like a novel. But keep in mind that the tension should build all the way to the highest peak—the climax.
Characterization: Even though the characters in a memoir are real people, they must be as thoughtfully developed as any fictional character. The narrator (you) needs careful crafting to ensure depth and growth throughout the narrative. It can help to start thinking about the narrator as a character other than yourself. You might even try writing the first draft in third person.
Conflict and Stakes: Identify the central conflict and make sure it's clear why it matters. High stakes heighten engagement. What does the narrator stand to gain or lose? A large part of your reader’s emotional draw comes from being worried about the narrator, about the potential failure of their quest.
Themes: A memoir should circle around a central theme, offering readers a lens through which they can view and make sense of the events. In high school English class, discussions of theme can be abstract and nonspecific. However, theme has a specific structural role that relates to internal conflict and the narrator’s ultimate transformation. In other words, the narrator must learn an important life lesson in order to achieve their goal in the end. A statement about this lesson is your structural theme.
Climax and Resolution: Your memoir should build towards a climax—a moment when the conflict reaches its peak—followed by the falling action or resolution. In some of the memoirs I edit, the scene of highest drama comes too early, leaving only a “quiet” climax that blends right into the resolution. That tends to work against your reader’s emotional draw. You want to keep them eagerly turning pages right up until this important moment, which means you must find a way to give the climax powerful impact.
Scene Crafting: Show, Don’t Tell
The principle of "show, don't tell" is foundational for captivating readers and creating an immersive experience rather than a mere account. Showing allows readers to live the story, to feel the textures of the world you're presenting, and to understand characters through actions and senses rather than flat explanations. Telling, on the other hand, gives the reader information directly but often at the expense of emotional engagement. While some telling has its place, it should be used sparingly. Ideally, you want to lean heavily on showing (around 90%) and save telling for only when necessary (about 10%), to maintain narrative momentum without losing the reader’s interest.
Tips for applying the Show, Don't Tell Principle in Your Memoir
- Focus on sensory details: describe what characters see, hear, smell, touch, and taste to fully immerse readers in the scene.
- Use dialogue and action to reveal character traits and emotions instead of directly stating them.
- Present character thoughts and emotions through their actions and reactions, allowing readers to infer what they are feeling.
- Incorporate conflict within scenes as it is the lifeblood of engagement, keeping readers invested in the outcome.
- When providing context or backstory, do it through the lens of the character's present experiences and actions.
- Avoid overloading scenes with a character’s internal musings—demonstrate much of their interiority through their interactions and decisions instead.
- Employ relevant details only—every description in a scene should do double duty, not only by immersing readers in the moment but also by contributing to character development, voice, and mood.
- Treat your readers like detectives. Give them clues and let them come to their own conclusions about narrative context.
By following these tips and balancing the art of show and tell, writers can craft memoirs that are not just read, but experienced.
In crafting a memoir, the writer’s primary task is to transform personal memories into a narrative that offers an engaging and meaningful experience for the reader. The effectiveness of a memoir hinges on the reader’s journey through the text—their ability to share vicariously in the author's experiences as if they were their own. By employing the “show, don't tell” principle, you ensure that the reader isn't merely an observer of past events, but an active participant.
The journey of a memoir should be as carefully mapped as any work of fiction, with a clear trajectory from the inciting incident that sets the narrative in motion to the climactic moment wherein the “quest” is decided. It's not enough to stitch together a series of memories; the memoir must zoom in on a specific story that keeps the reader eager to know what will happen next.
Once you have found your trajectory and hammered out a first draft, it is crucial to step back and view the work through the eyes of an impartial reader. Seeking feedback is an essential step in this process. Trusted readers, beta readers, and professional editors can all provide invaluable insight. As I often tell clients, a great book is honed, not hatched. Much of the honing requires long consideration of different readers’ perspectives.
By keeping the reader's experience at the forefront of your writing process, and by welcoming the constructive critiques of your readership and editorial team, you can elevate your memoir from a personal reflection to a universal tale of the human condition.
David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.