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How to Outline Your Memoir: 5 Steps for Organizing Your Memoir

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jan 10, 2020 • 3 min read

A memoir is a nonfiction book that presents a firsthand retelling of a period in an author’s own life. It is a particularly personal form of nonfiction writing. Memoirists write about themselves, using first-person narrative voice and firsthand accounts of situations. Compared to other forms of nonfiction, such as third-person biography or history, memoirs reveal more about their authors and those authors’ life experiences.

A memoir is closely related to the nonfiction format known as autobiography, but the two forms are not identical. Most notably, an autobiography is a first-person account of its author’s entire life, whereas a memoir tends to focus on a particular era of the author’s own life or a particular facet of their existence, such as their professional career.



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5 Reasons to Outline Your Memoir

As you set about writing your own memoir, you’ll need to collate a lot of disparate real-life experiences and effectively organize them into a cohesive narrative arc. A good memoir outline can help you structure these experiences in a compelling way. A well-written outline can reveal the following information to memoir writers:

  1. An outline helps you know where to start. The inciting action of a personal or professional arc will be revealed as you break your story down into an outline.
  2. An outline will reveal the key story beats. Adapting your life experiences into a narrative can be challenging, but an outline helps you recognize turning points in your life or career.
  3. An outline highlights important events. It can enable you to suss out the important eras in your life story—such as high school, marriage, or a first job—and know what to discard.
  4. An outline enables you to condense stories into chapters. In outlining you can short stories into individual chapters, or even flashbacks, as a part of the whole story.
  5. An outline emphasizes recurring themes. Once you’ve broken your story out into an outline, you’ll be in a place to recognize the themes that seem to guide your life experiences.

If you identify these elements before you start writing, you can expedite the memoir-writing process. For memoirists, writing memoir outlines can reveal what episodes would contribute to the most compelling story for a reader.

How to Outline Your Memoir in 5 Steps

Before you embark on the first draft of your book writing process, use a memoir outline to lay out the key elements and structure of your whole book. This will be doubly important the first time you write a personal memoir. If nothing else, an outline will help you organize your memoir and tell your story in the most effective way.

1. Lay out the Events You Might Cover in Chronological Order.

This does not mean that your final memoir structure will be chronological. Nonetheless, it’s helpful to know the order in which everything really happened. You can play with your memoir’s chronology later.

2. Begin Crafting a Story Arc.

This is where you rearrange your chronological events to fit a compelling story arc. Perhaps you really will follow exact chronology from start to finish. (Many authors opt for this approach on their first book.) Or perhaps you will start in the middle of the chronology and use certain events as backstory to the primary narrative of your memoir.

3. Think About How You Want the Story to End.

Yes, it’s true that you don’t have a beginning or a middle yet, but a good book builds toward its conclusion at all times. Therefore, ponder what kind of takeaway or conclusion you want your reader to depart with when they’re done with your memoir. Begin crafting a story structure that will logically lead them to that point.

4. Center the Narrative Around Yourself.

In the case of a memoir, your main character is you. So make sure that your presence and first-person point of view are evenly represented at all junctures of your memoir. This is even true for informative memoirs, such as personal cookbooks or travel memoirs. Your personal story is what prevents the book from being dry.

5. Settle on a Final Story Arc for Your Memoir.

Your arc might follow a traditional narrative structure with three acts building toward a climax. Or perhaps your memoir, which documents real life and not a fantasy, doesn’t naturally lend itself toward inciting action, rising action, and climax. However you choose to organize your book, use the outline as a roadmap that will give you guidance at every stage of your story.

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