Bestselling memoirs can generally fall into one of the following three story categories. This is because gripping stories follow certain rules, whether it’s a movie, a great ad, or a rolling joke around the campfire.
Even if you’re writing a literary memoir, you still want it to sell, right? If you don’t want it to sell (perhaps you’re just writing a memoir for your family), I’m sure you want people to finish reading it.
When you look at bestselling memoirs such as Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, or Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, or my favourite, Lit by Mary Karr, they each follow one of the three types of ‘story’ outlined below. When you’re finding literary memoirs to model, you might also like to see which category each falls into.
By pinpointing the structure of other bestselling memoirs, it help you choose the way you want to tell your personal story.
Make note of the key themes in each type of memoir for what to include.
1: The redemption memoir
This is typically a memoir of how you overcame any adversity, big or small. It could be an addiction, or an injury, or a limiting belief.
Perhaps you achieved something momentous?
Commercial memoirs such as those written by sports stars or celebrities very often follow the redemption storyline trajectory.
Typically the main character explores their key theme or obstacle (addiction, grief, world record to use the examples below) in intense detail, failing a number of times to resolve it, until the final third of the book, where they overcome and ‘redeem’ themselves to the reader.
The last third of the book is when you’re cheering for the author because they’ve achieved something that seemed so far off in the beginning of the book.
KEY THEME IN A REDEMPTION MEMOIR
- There needs to be something in the past that the narrator has done, which the reader will eventually need to ‘forgive’. It could be an addiction, an evil, a lie, even a crime. The redemption memoir can be really powerful, because they explore such universal themes of failure and imperfection, and we love to be on the ‘inside’ in how someone overcomes such an adversity.
- We all love to see someone hit rock bottom and then overcome adversity, or make a complete mind-shift when it seems they’ve lost everything (or are unredeemable in some other way). If you want to see the redemption narrative in a TV series, I highly recommend Sinner on Netflix.
Examples of the redemption memoir:
Lit by Mary Karr. Dry by Augusten Burroughs. WILD by Cheryl Strayed, Mr Ordinary Goes to Jail by Wil Paterson.
2: The ‘walking away from it all’ memoir
This is typically a memoir of how you walked away from a certain kind of life (a job, a relationship, a partying lifestyle, a place), and moved into a completely new way of being.
Lots of travel memoirs follow this journey, memoirs about divorce or breakup, and also many health memoirs follow the ‘walking away from it all’ pattern.
KEY THEME IN A ‘WALKING AWAY FROM IT ALL’ MEMOIR:
- Typically, the ‘walking away from it all’ memoir starts with a catalyst scene which is a wake-up call that leads the narrator to start a completely new life which follows none of the conventions of the previous one.
- I personally love to see how others have started over from scratch. While every memoir must have conflict and obstacles, the difference with the walking away from it all memoir is that the challenges are completely new and fresh to the narrator. Archetypally, they really have entered a ‘new’ world, when they’ve walked away from whatever they’ve left.
- It might be a health crisis that brings on the walk away, so that the person goes on to discover an entirely new lifestyle. Or walking away from a faith or religion, such as Tara Westover’s incredibly well-written Educated.
Examples of the ‘walking away from it all’ memoir:
Eat, Pray, Love by Liz Gilbert, When in Rome by Penny Green, Almost French by Sarah Turnbull. Holy Cow by Sarah Macdonald, Balilicious by Becky Wicks, Educated by Tara Westover, Tracks by Robyn Davidson.
3: The ‘you are not alone’ memoir
This kind of memoir can sometimes border on or overlap with self-help or creative non-fiction, or even a non-fiction which explores a subject by uses personal story to show how to do something.
The ‘you are not alone’ memoir dives into what happens when we fail or go through a typically human (universal) experience.
Perhaps your memoir is about knitting, and you could be exploring how knitting saved you from adrenal burnout (or helped you quit smoking) or soothed you when your mother died. It could be as light as a craft memoir or as deep as an addiction memoir, but the key theme is that you’re exploring a topic that many people can relate to, and allowing people who love or also share an interest with that topic, to deeply connect to you and gain tips and experiences that will inspire, uplift, educate or comfort them.
KEY THEME IN A ‘YOU ARE NOT ALONE’ MEMOIR:
- You explore your vulnerabilities around a topic, theme, hobby, addiction, health issue, relationship or passion. Minute details draw the reader into your very personal, but universal issue or theme. You may even have a step-by-step guide or toolkit that you also give to the reader.
- Making yourself vulnerable by exposing clear details and scenes that everyone can relate to allows the reader to deeply relate to what you’ve gone through, seeing your personal story as a very relatable story. It could be about your family agonies or an addiction, but the key is vulnerability and everyday detail. It can be as deep as Mary Karr’s Liars Club or as light as Marian Keyes’ cookery book / memoir of overcoming depression.
Claire Dederer’s Poser is about yoga, which sounds small and everyday, but by taking us into the story of how she struggled to overcome the basic poses (and put up with a selection of painful yoga classes), we perhaps don’t feel so alone next time we’re at yoga and we just want to storm off and get a pizza!
All memoirs have a driving desire and a central character who changes in some way, but the key with the ‘you are not alone’ memoir is that there’s no clear-cut redemption at the end. That’s not to say the reader isn’t satisfied: all memoirs have a clear beginning, middle and end, but by choosing this as your memoir style, you can see how you could blend the style with another type of non-fiction such as self-help or step-by-step guide.
Examples of the ‘you are not alone’ memoir:
Saved by a Cake by Marian Keyes, Poser by Claire Dederer, Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, Liars Club by Mary Karr, You Are A Badass by Jen Sincero (technically a self-help but she uses so much personal anecdote that I think it’s a blend).
What about you, what type of memoir are you writing or reading? Can you pin it down to one of the three types? Sometimes memoirs overlap, and that’s fine, too. Rules are made to be broken! But I find studying similar patterns and breaking down story structure can help with the very overwhelming task of writing your memoir first draft.
Don’t forget that every memoir must have a Universal Theme(s), too, so make sure you clarify yours before you outline your memoir.