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Writing

How to Know if Your Story is a Memoir or a Novel

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 3 min read

When an author has a story to tell, they have to make a decision: Is this my story? Or someone else’s? If your main character is someone other than you, you’re likely writing a novel. However, if you want to share the true events of your own life story with readers, then memoir writing is your genre. Whichever you decide, it’s important to figure out before you start writing a book whether it’s going to be a memoir or a novel.

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4 Advantages of Writing Your Story as a Novel

By writing your own story as a novel, you can incorporate different creative writing techniques and literary styles to convey truthful, non-fictional narratives.

  1. More creative freedom. A work of fiction allows an author to use creative writing to create a more explosive tale of real events and real people that a writer could not get away with in an autobiographical novel. In a more fictionalized account, you could take more time to build the necessary story pieces and move them around as you wish.
  2. Can protect friends and family. Many writers don’t want to write about their real life experiences because it may affect their relationships with loved ones—but writing fiction (even if based on true events) can help an author skirt the awkwardness or pain of having to have an uncomfortable confrontation with a friend or family member you’ve written about.
  3. Can provide various points of view. A memoir is written in first person, but a novel is not beholden to that. You can retell the fictionalized events from your entire life in the second or third person as well, creating a more layered, great story by allowing for different perspectives from different characters. Learn more about point of view in our complete guide here.
  4. Better for first time writers. If you’re a new writer writing your first book, there might not be enough interest in you personally to grab the attention of publishers. However, a well-written work of autobiographical fiction or creative nonfiction is sometimes more compelling than the plain truth. For instance, James Frey’s New York Times bestseller A Million Little Pieces was a largely embellished account of some real events in his life, but because it was marketed as a memoir, it received a lot of controversy for being untrue.

3 Advantages of Writing Your Story as a Memoir

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.

  1. Enables self-discovery. The memoir book writing process requires you to really reexamine your own experiences, not just write an entire book retelling them. Writing a memoir requires a narrative thread that ties your personal experiences together, allowing you to view your personal story through a critical lens, and objectively identify moments of growth or trauma that contributed to who you are as a person.
  2. Allows you to tell your own story. A novel needs a compelling plot, character development, and a story arc—but a memoir lets you lay bare the truth without focusing so much on flourishes (as it still has to remain as much a nonfiction book as possible). While there is a storytelling aspect to a good memoir, it’s more about sharing a first-person piece of the author’s life and giving the readers the raw experience of a true story.
  3. Makes sense of the past. Memoir writing can be cathartic, and structuring your life experiences like a good story can help you view your history from start to finish in a different light, offering new perspectives on old trauma or events. Memoir writers can structure their past in a different way that makes more sense to them—and not necessarily in the linear sequence, it happened. Memoirists may feel more understanding in viewing the experiences of their real-life events in that way, both during the process of writing and long after.
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