If you’re starting your memoir right now and confronted with a mass of possibilities for what to include (and write), understanding the five essential ingredients to every page-turning memoir is going to help you outline your memoir and validate the story idea at the same time. And if you’re at the point in drafting where you’re revising your manuscript (perhaps you have 200 000 + words you need to cut by over half!), this list is going to help you prioritise what to cut and keep.

With any big creative project (and, let’s face it, a memoir manuscript is a big project!), knowing how to simplify and which order to do this is going to save you time and agony.

I’ve shared before that I wrote the first draft for A Letter From Paris in three months. The reason I was able to write the draft of such a complex story relatively quickly, is because i studied comparative titles in the memoir and biography / history genre like they were roadmaps and essentially created a system so that I wasn’t writing a heap of draft material I would need to throw away. Yes, the material changed enormously from first to final draft (and i can’t even define the number of drafts, because there was a lot of revision!) but this system that i used for the structure gave me freedom to know I was on the right track with that initial agony draft. The first draft truly is the hardest! Creating something big (like a book) is all about prioritising where you focus your attention. If you know what the five structural components to a compelling narrative include, you know what to write, and in what order, and you know if you’re on the right track!

I like to think of these essential ingredients as the staples a hiker needs to learn to pack to survive in the bush. Water, torch, lighter, raincoat, swiss army knife, iodine drops (*NB I’m not a professional hiker so this could be wrong!). Whether your trek is in Kathmandu or the Andes or the Scottish highlands or Wilson’s Promontory, these staples will help you no matter the terrain.

It’s the same with the five essential ingredients for a good story! Whether you’re writing about a lost love affair or a year spent visiting shamans in the Amazon, these key ingredients will validate the story idea and ensure your memoir ‘works’.

Just like essential ingredients for making a cake (eggs, flour, milk, butter, sugar), dropping or even altering one key item is going to grossly affect the taste and rise of the cake. So be sure you include each ingredient I’m about to share – don’t skip one, or the whole recipe may not work!

 

Ingredient Number 1: Universal Themes

Fellow memoir author Patti Hall once wrote:

“The reason people read memoir is because they relate your story, not because they are called by the uniqueness of it.”

If you’ve ever wondered why memoir is such a widely-read genre, and bestselling books by otherwise ‘non’ famous ordinary people end up on the bestseller lists (think EDUCATED by Tara Westover, MAID by Stephanie Land, WILD by Cheryl Strayed, etc etc) it’s indeed because we can relate to the universal human elements to their story. 

Identify your universal theme(s) when you’re beginning the draft or better yet, outlining your memoir, so you can be sure to focus on that theme and not go off track writing about every element of your life. It’s also going to validate that you do, in fact, have a relatable story that will be enjoyed by millions of strangers, not just your family and friends who already know you.
Go back to clarifying your universal themes at the revision stage so you can find comparative titles, get ready for the promotional aspect of book publishing, and so you can see what the ‘takeaway’ is for the reader. The universal themes are what will ensure your personal story is read by as wide an audience as possible. In short? Compelling and relatable universal theme = bestselling memoir material.

Ingredient Number 2: Your Holy Hook

Your holy hook is the opening to your story – it’s the ‘hinge’ on which the door to your story hangs, so-to-speak. Without a strong ‘hook’ – that eternal question that’s always in the reader’s mind (“why should i keep reading?”) will never be answered! 

In my experience – both writing my own books, editing others’ manuscripts and coaching authors on the memoir query and the proposal, the hook is the most misunderstood element of story structure.
people misunderstand what a hook is, and don’t spend enough time clarifying it.
Without a ‘hook’ there is no reason for your story to exist when there are plenty of others on the same topics and themes. Your hook will be personal, it will be unusual, and, unfortunately with memoir, it’s often a bit of a blind spot for the writer because it’s a wound you’ve blanked out for your very survival. 

Your hook will sell your story and compel the reader to keep reading. Without it? It’s vague and general and I will read a story on the same topic or experience from someone else. See my QUERY class for more on the hook and why it matters so much to knowing how to sell your story.

By the way, EVERY story has a hook! Even when you cannot see it. If you are compelled to write this story, there’s a reason. It’s generally to be found in this hook, which is completely unique to you.

When you’re revising your memoir or getting ready for publication or even pitching it to agents and editors, the hook will be front and centre of every query you send. You might even pitch some essays and articles based on your memoir hook. Hooks are memorable (another reason viral essays often lead to book deals!). To see some examples of strong hooks that sold memoirs from an essay or article, read this post on essays that led to book deals.

Ingredient Number 3: A structural ‘container’ for your story

Without proper story structure, there’s no way to pace  or outline a book-length work. It also makes it so much harder (nigh impossible) to write a manuscript if you have no structure. What goes into the beginning? What goes into the middle? How do you ensure a strong and memorable finish? If you write an entire manuscript without even the simplest outline to the structure, you will go wildly off-track and won’t know what to cut or keep. There’s a reason scriptwriters, bestselling authors, even top ad executives use the Hero’s Journey and the 3 Act Structure for everything from a car advertisement to a speech or a launch or a marketing pitch to a Hollywood film.

I personally love the 3 Act Story Structure and I use this in conjunction with the Hero’s Journey to teach the narrative framework to develop your story inside The Art of Memoir.
When i was studying different memoirs and creating my own map to write A Letter From Paris first draft in three months, I analysed the structure of my chosen comparative titles and they ALL used the 3 Act Story Structure. To create my own roadmap for writing that draft so quickly, I created a unique method which uses the hero’s journey in combination with the 3 act story structure AND these 5 components that sell memoir. You can learn more in The Art of Memoir free class.

This writing blueprint essentially allowed me to make a loose plan of what needed to be included when and where, so that when i sat down to write the manuscript I always had a place to ‘go’. I wasn’t just spewing out every single thing that happened in my life and most importantly, it helped me not to write an entire draft of backstory, which is what most authors of personal narrative struggle to avoid! 

Story Structure


This unique structure I teach inside The Art of Memoir will help most of all when you get to the revision stage. By ensuring you’ve ticked the boxes to the basics of each Act, as well as identifying the symbolism in each stage of the hero’s journey in your memoir, you will be streets ahead of a manuscript that’s simply a mass of memories, with no clear structure. It’s almost like the difference between a house with no walls or doors inside – there’s no way for the reader to understand where to go and what they are supposed to ‘feel’ in each part of the house. I hope that makes sense.

Another reason the Hero’s Journey works so well for memoir is because the stages mimic the steps of human growth and awareness. By writing the draft and loosely considering each stage as you work through your OWN experiences and story, you gain a much richer understanding of your own personal evolution. It’s fantastically empowering!

Ingredient Number 4: Two conflicting desires

Without conflict, there is no story. Period. Whether your story is happy or sad, this conflict needs to be exposed and explored, but most writers only identify the superficial conflict in their story.
The thing with memoir is that it’s intensely personal and (unless your memoir is about a physical escape from danger) the conflict is mostly internal. So this creates a unique problem when it comes to writing a compelling story and keeping the reader invested in turning the pages.

The only way to resolve this is to identify the two conflicting desires at the heart of your story. My first book was rejected until i identified the second desire and exposed it in a certain part of the second Act. While it may take a bit of writing (and deep-diving) to get to the deepest desire (the unconscious desire, I call it), your manuscript simply won’t work without it. You’ll attain the superficial goal of the story and then no-one will want to keep reading. Your story won’t resonate as deeply with your readers, either.

There’s always the thing you want, and the thing you really want. The reader wants to know about the one you never admitted to, until you achieved the thing you thought you wanted.

When you’re revising your manuscript, you need to ensure this second desire takes precedence at a certain place in the narrative, so the reader doesn’t throw the book away as soon as you reached the superficial goal.

 

Ingredient Number 5: Your basic premise

“What is your memoir about?”

I’ve asked this question to so many writers during story coaching sessions, or even when they’re ready to query.  I’m always surprised by how long it takes to get the answer. Because if you can’t summarise the premise of your story in a short paragraph, it’s a sign you’re not clear enough on the story yourself.

People find it really hard to simplify their book into one sentence, but it must be done. Your basic premise is the central argument or assertion that your book makes. It’s the plot, summed up in as few words as possible. It’s the question or the journey or the conflict at the heart of the story. It needs to be clear, and it needs to be short. 

When you start writing your book, you need to come up with a basic premise so you can use it as a sort of ‘torch’ to guide your way through writing the manuscript. Without it, you’ll write a manuscript that is really two or three separate stories (and yes, i’ve looked at manuscripts like this, it’s painful having to tell the writer they need to drop two of the stories). 

When you’re revising, keeping your basic premise front and centre of your mind means you examine every chapter, every Act and every part of your book through the lens of “does this explore or further reveal the basic premise?” and if it doesn’t, you know that you need to cut that part of the book. 

In summary:

Each of these memoir ingredients works in conjunction with the others – and neglecting just one will mean that your story won’t work, like a cake that doesn’t rise when you bake it!

The good news is that if you can outline your memoir with these five essential ingredients, you have a clear path to write a story that sells. You also have a valid story idea because you’ve passed it through the 5 essential ingredients to a compelling story! When you start hiking in rough terrain writing your memoir manuscript yes, you will still be challenged and it takes work but you’ll KNOW you have the resources at your disposal to craft a compelling book!

You’ll also love:
How to write your memoir outline
Finding your Universal Themes