Last week I stumbled upon my special blue notebook in the box where I keep all the draft material from A Letter From Paris. When I opened the notebook and remembered the rainy Saturday I sat down to study one of my favourite memoirs in intense detail, I remember how focused I was, almost like I was studying for a PhD.
The notebook contains a detailed breakdown of Cheryl Strayed’s WILD, chapter by chapter. I’ve always thought Strayed a master of structure, so I wanted to search for even more clues to how to use her tricks in my own book.
If you’ve read the post I wrote on Finding Literary Memoirs To Model you’ll know how useful I find reading other memoirs in your own genre.
But the notes I made in my blue notebook – and the questions I asked – might help you further. My memoir is very very different to WILD. But studying story, and structural devices used in wonderful books – can help no matter what your topic or theme.
When to do this writing exercise:
Don’t do this if you haven’t already written at least a draft, or a partial draft of your memoir. It’s better if you’ve already written something, because your mind will ping off in all sorts of creative directions to see how your story can mathematically mirror the structural devices you’re finding in the memoir you’ve chosen to model.
The other reason it’s better if you’ve written a partial or complete draft before you do this exercise is because you’re now sifting through the story to figure out what goes where, and how to make each chapter fit in the structure of the overall whole.
By the time I’d started that blue notebook I’d already decided I was going to write A Letter From Paris in line with the classic Three Act Structure. I wanted to know exactly how Strayed had finished each Act so well that kept the reader wanting to know more – turning the pages of the story. I well remember the winter I read WILD. I’m such a slow reader, usually, but I could not put it down. It wasn’t just because I’d recently lost my own mum, so I wanted to know how she dealt with that grief, but I remembered that each chapter ended on a surprise or a question that left me desperate to get to the next part of the story.
Here’s the specific questions I asked as I sifted through WILD to help me with my own memoir draft. If you’ve found a memoir that covers a similar universal theme or topic or narrative structure to the one you’re writing, it’s a brilliant way to help. In some ways, it’s a quick way to find a writing mentor that costs nothing but time and attention, too.
Questions to ask (pick and choose, depending on your particular challenge):
- How long is each chapter – word count and page count?
- Where does each Act start and finish (page and chapter)
- When do you learn about the main character’s background through flashback or other devices?
- How many flashbacks are in each chapter – how does the writer shift into them?
- What tense is used in what chapter – does it change? How?
- When does the main character enter the special world?
- What archetypes (ally / mentor / enemy) do minor characters play?
- What tasks / ordeals do they endure in the special world in each chapter
- How is the reader left at the end of each chapter – do we still have questions? Is there an element of surprise?
- What examples does the author use to show how the main character is dealing with the ‘ordeal’ of the memoir?
- What’s the internal desire of the memoir?
- What’s the external desire of the memoir?
- How does the external reflect the internal (TIP: this is a great way to learn how to better show, not tell in your writing)?
- How does the reader know what time frame the memoir is set in? Is there a reference to the outside world, etc? [For example, in WILD, she referenced the OJ Simpson trial, which helps the reader to know the decade, if not the year she took her hike. I used this in my own book and referenced Trump’s battle for the Presidency, because it’s a global news story I thought everyone would be able to relate to – and remember].
- How much time passes in each chapter? How is this shown?
- How does each chapter start – is it a scene? Dialogue?
- How much dialogue is in each chapter – does it speed things up?
- When and where does the pace get slow, and why?
- What universal themes are covered, and how?
- When and how in a chapter does the reader get surprised?
- When and how do we see that the main character has changed (either from start of chapter to end of chapter or start of novel to end)
I think I wrote 1-2 short pages on each of WILD’s chapters. I also then went back with my own draft to see where and how my story and the archetypes / characters / ordeals I was facing, could be better told in line with the structural tips I’d gleaned from studying Srayed’s bestselling (and beautifully-written) memoir.
My memoir is VERY different to WILD, but this doesn’t matter. Studying the way she structured the story helped me simplify my complex tale and filter it down by the conventions of how to tell a story.
If you want to take a shortcut (this exercise can take anywhere from 2-4 hours), I wrote Secrets of Bestselling Memoirs after making a little notebook with details on four other bestselling memoirs to figure out exactly what they had in common.