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Writing

How to Effectively Structure Your Memoir

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 3 min read

A memoir is a nonfiction book that tells your own story, focusing on elements of your real life like personal experience, intimacy, and emotional truth. Memoirists write in a format using their life experience in service of a larger theme or idea. While there are many aspects of your life story that may be worth writing about, it is also important to choose the best memoir structure that fits your narrative arc in order to efficiently express them.

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4 Ways to Structure Your Memoir

Memoir writing is an avenue for you to share your own experiences, but one of the hardest parts is figuring out how. While there are many types of story structure, your personal memoir should be organized in a way that creates a compelling story and holds your reader’s interest.

If you’re looking to start writing your own memoir, here are a few ways you can structure it:

  1. In chronological order. Memoir writers serve as the main characters of their own narrative, sharing their points of view and takeaways from various experiences. A memoir is different from an autobiography in that it is not a book-length recollection of your entire life. When writing about moments from your own life, sometimes the simplest way is to start at the beginning and sequentially work through the order of events from first to last. A linear narrative can help showcase a storyline as it happened, without overthinking the form, and help you present your ideas in a clear and chronological way.
  2. Past versus present. Sometimes a memoir’s structure benefits from switching back and forth between the events leading up to a pivotal moment, and the ones following after. Maybe you have a significant event you want to write about first but it needs a quick backstory. Flashbacks (and flashforwards) are a useful way to introduce the current state or mood of your story while also detailing to the reader what happened leading up to this point—and what is to come. This structure can compare major moments to one another and play with time in a way that makes your own personal stories easier to track for the reader.
  3. Following a theme. When writing memoir, think about the memories that come to mind first. Do they fit into a category or follow a common theme? If you find that your central focus falls around topics like accepting change, overcoming adversity, grief, or relationships with family members, choose to write about experiences that specifically relate to those ideas, threading them together anecdotally through your narrative. A theme (or blend of themes) helps indicate a bigger, overarching point of your story that can connect the dots for your reader.
  4. Internal conflict. A memoir can also be centered around inner turmoil or a damaging secret, showing how you were affected by an internal conflict, and how it contributed to destructive behavior, various low points, or a lifelong struggle. Many memoirs about drug addiction, abuse, or illness will use this style format, and you can use it to turn your darkest moments into a version of an antagonist, and conveying how this adversary created a mental path of destruction and ultimately shaped your worldview. By writing a memoir focused around an internal problem, you give your audience more insight into how your state of mind led you to these problematic events in their lives, and see more clearly the struggle they experienced while going through it.

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