Okay, technically, memoir is about you. But a good memoir has several elements that give your story universal appeal.

Before we talk about what a memoir is, it’s important to clarify what memoir is not.

Journal vs. Memoir

Journaling is a good thing. I highly recommend it! Keep in mind that journaling has one primary audience—the writer. In fact, if you’re thinking about writing a memoir, a journal is a great place to start. (If you’re writing an emotionally painful story, don’t skip this step.) Write out everything you want to remember, and you’ll always have it. I prefer to journal longhand with colored pens in a pretty journal, but you can use a Word document, plain notebook paper, or even the back of a napkin.

Remember, a string of journal entries does not make a good memoir. While your experiences are uniquely yours, they must resonate with the reader. If your reader can’t relate, they’ll put down your story (and not recommend it to anyone else.)

Autobiography vs. Memoir

Autobiography is the story of a person’s entire life. It typically starts from birth and ends either with the death or close to the end of life. But unless you’re Oprah or Billy Graham, no one but your mother and best friend will want to read it.

If your life were a patchwork quilt, a memoir would be the story of one square of fabric.  Maybe it came from your wedding dress, or the t-shirt you got from camp the summer you  made a decision for Christ. You don’t need to go into detail about the whole quilt, just one memorable aspect of it.

Your timeline could span for decades, but the story must have a protagonist who overcomes some adversity. It doesn’t have to be about a tragic loss, although it can. I’ve read some funny travel memoirs and poignant dog memoirs that feature a protagonist conquering potty-training or finding lodging in a quirky little town without a hotel.

In the travel memoir, the writer doesn’t tell her whole life story, only the part from the trip’s beginning to the end. The dog memoir started with looking at puppies and ended at the dog’s grave.

Memoir, the Platypus Genre

We’ve all heard that advice, “write what you know.” So, a memoir is easy-peasy, right?

In a sense, yes. The writer knows better than anyone what he experienced, felt, and thought at any given time. Writing that experience in a way that resonates with your reader is probably the most difficult thing you’ll ever write. Just as a platypus resembles a random combination of a duck and a beaver, a memoir must have a seamless combination of nonfiction and fiction.

It’s nonfiction, so even the most extraordinary circumstances must ring true, but memoir writers must employ all the fiction-writing skills. Setting, characterization, dialogue and pacing are crucial to writing a story that keeps readers turning the page. It’s like a novel, only with true events.

Like fiction, memoir has to have certain structural elements—a hook, a big turning point in the middle, a climax near the end, and a satisfying ending. Without this structure, your memoir will read like a bunch of memories strung together and will not connect with your reader. The challenge is fitting life events into that structure.

Memoir depends on two important elements: Frame and Theme

Aside from the basic story structure, good memoir is set up with a frame that carries the reader from beginning to end. For example, in Tara Westover’s Educated, the reader sees events in Tara’s life within a framework of education. Tara’s parents eschewed formal education and did very little to teach her even the basics. We see her overcome her uneducated state and all she sacrificed to earn a master’s degree.

Within that framework, a memoir writer can weave related themes throughout the book. Educated touches on abuse, neglect, growing up in a fundamentalist household, mental illness, isolation, and dysfunctional family relations. Memoir often touches on alcoholism, drug abuse, divorce, cancer and poverty, but the possibilities are limitless.

Writing your own story

The best way to learn how to write a memoir is to just do it. A good memoir takes several drafts to weave all the necessary elements in.

Like a skilled quiltmaker, a memoirist weaves the threads of theme throughout the story pattern (structure), which then accentuates the beauty of the frame. Every detail blends to make a gorgeous, one-of-a kind piece

Lyneta Smith lives with her husband, Doug, near Nashville, TN. When she’s not writing, you can find her down at the local coffee shop chatting with friends, or hanging out with her adult daughters. You can read more of her story of redemption and hope after a traumatic childhood in her memoir, Curtain Call.

Writing Tip Newsletter

Join us for encouragement as you write and get Kathi's free 7 Day Platform Plan!

Success! Please check email to confirm.