Why your memoir needs conflict

“An effective story grabs your gut, tightens your throat, makes your heart race and your lungs pump, brings tears to your eyes or an explosion of laughter to your lips.”

Christopher Vogler

Effectively-written stories lead to very physical reactions. Think about the books you’ve never forgotten – no doubt they had a really physical reaction on you. Perhaps a section brought you to tears or laughter, or fear or even anxiety for the protagonist.

The secret sauce to getting this reaction in a reader is including conflict in your story – and knowing where to put it.

With any story – memoir, particularly – conflict is necessary to keep readers turning the page. Even if your memoir covers a positive topic (say, it’s self-help in angle, like Jen Sincero’s You’re a Badass At Making Money), you must illustrate contrast and difficulty in reaching an objective to keep the reader invested in the ‘outcome’ of the story. For example, Sincero does this brilliantly by weaving in her failures in trying to make money – it’s self-help memoir, really.

The most unsatisfying memoirs I’ve read, haven’t included enough conflict. They’re superficial and keep the reader at arms length, as though the writer is too scared to dig a bit deeper or expose any vulnerability. They can even give off the  impression that the writer was afraid to look too deeply into their motivations to find the real driving desire behind the memoir.

What is conflict?

Conflict is like a block  or disruption on the way to an end-goal. In story structure, conflict is imperative, because it keeps the reader uncertain that you’re going to achieve the end goal of the narrative of the memoir. So they keep reading!

Conflict is just a challenge on the way to the end of the story. But the way you write about those challenges can make or break your book.

WRITING TIP: dig deep. If it’s slightly painful to write about, it’s probably true and good.

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.
No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.
Robert Frost

Two types of conflict
  • Conflict can be internal:
    Eg. Why can’t this particular thing satisfy me? How and why do i keep sabotaging my efforts for health or success or love or happiness?
  • Conflict can be external:
    Someone or something in the outer world blocks you from achieving something.

Conflict is absolutely imperative in memoir.

Writing tip: The reason memoir is so difficult is because exploring our memories of inner and outer conflict can be really difficult, particularly traumatic memories (which can even physically bring back the feeling in our bodies). Be exceedingly gentle with yourself as you explore this emotional territory.


  1. Brainstorm every conflict and problem and obstacle you faced in the journey to get to the resolution of the theme you’ve clarified in your focus sentence.
  2. Use your conflicts to move the story along – try to include some form of conflict or uncertainty in every single chapter. Stuck for scenes that illustrate these conflicts?You should have some ideas from your synopsis, but go into more detail now as you pour out every single challenge you faced in your journey.
  3. Why was something hard? How did it feel? Did your challenge come in the way of a person who physically challenged you, or was it internal or an actual physical object or freak accident that threw a block in your path  (ie. You were hiking the Camino trail and broke your leg on the first day?).

The conflict – and how you resolved or rose to the challenge (or failed) is always the most interesting part of the story.

Where do i put the conflict?

In terms of the three act structure, the biggest conflict isn’t resolved until somewhere near the end of the second act. But try to include a few smaller battles that build up to that biggest challenge – and lead up to that bigger conflict, from the beginning of the story.

Without conflict, there is no story – just stasis.

Need more tips on writing good memoir? My e-book: Secrets of Bestselling Memoirs, breaks down the structure of some of the highest-selling memoirs of all time.


About the Author:

Author. Editor. Memoir course creator. Lover of cats, kindness, and coffee.

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