All books, fiction or nonfiction, have story arcs. Memoirs are no exception. According to memoirist Adair Lara, the story arc is, “the emotional framework” of a memoir.
Your book must have an emotional driver from the first word of the book to the final period. Writers call this by a few names: the through line, the desire line, or even the happiness line. For you, the protagonist in the book, you hope for something. You NEED something.
I want…is a good way to start.
I want to live to see my children grow up.
I want my mother to love me.
I want to be first chair violinist in the London Philharmonic.
I want to climb Mt. Everest after the loss of my leg.
You can see in these statements how a single desire can drive a story and how obstacles play a part in derailing you from achieving it. If it is your memoir, it’s about you. Your desire. Even if you want to help your child overcome something, it is about how you deal with it or the impact on you that makes the story.
The arc, of course, has a beginning, middle, and end and is the storied path of attempting to obtain your burning desire.
The beginning often starts with a snapshot in time just before or just as life was about to change. For example, you are sitting in your doctor’s office when you are told you have Stage 4 cancer. Or, you are playing with your baby when your husband comes home drunk and hits you for the first time. It also could be the catalyst that turns your life around like if a demanding customer stiffs you on a bill as a diner waitress and you vow to never rely on someone to put a roof over your head.
The middle is filled with you trying to achieve your desire. It’s the actions you take or don’t take, the obstacles that get in your way, the result of the action (either success or failure), and your emotional response to what transpired. The story is in both the highs and the lows. You must be willing to share your failures because that’s where people connect with you and your story. People can’t relate to perfection and it doesn’t make an interesting story. People relate to your struggle – your hope and despair.
The end of the story is you achieving your desire, or not, or still working on it. The difference is that you’ve changed from the beginning of the story. You finish at a point after the first scene when your life turned upside down or you realized something about yourself. Consider how the obstacles and resulting successes and failures altered how you feel about who you are and your place in the world.
Once you understand your story arc, you realize which stories or events serve the greater purpose of your book and which are best for the “extra scenes” file. You don’t need to throw them out, just use them for a different purpose in the future. Find the events or emotion which relate to the through line and your desire to get there. Finally, take your readers on an emotional rollercoaster to keep them turning the page and rooting for you to succeed.
Raw, honest, and full of creative choices, memoir writing is one of the most challenging and cathartic of all the genres. Author of The Ghost of My Father, Scott Berkun, reveals his experience with writing a memoir in this post. You’ll see yourself in his writing and his struggle to make the story real and interesting at the same time.In your #memoir, the through line speaks to the essence of the human condition. #amwriting Click To Tweet
What does your through line reveal?