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 could do this is because i studied comparative memoir titles like they were roadmaps and essentially created a system so that I wasn’t writing a heap of material I would eventually need to throw away. Creating something big (like a book) is all about prioritising where you focus your attention. If you know what the five essential ingredients are, you know what to put first, 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 memoir! Whether you’re writing about a lost love affair or a year spent seeking counsel with ten different therapists, 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 thing may not work!
Ingredient Number 1: Universal Themes
My lovely friend Patti Hall (and fellow memoiraholic) wrote on instagram a few months ago:
“The reason people read memoir is because they relate to 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 people end up on the bestseller lists (think EDUCATED by Tara Westover, MAID by Stephanie Land, WILD by Cheryl Strayed, etc etc) it’s because we can relate to what’s universal in their story.
Make sure you identify your universal themes when you’re at the beginning stage of your memoir so you can be sure to focus on that theme throughout. It’s also going to validate that you do, in fact, have a relatable story that will be enjoyed by a very wide cross-section of the public!
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. Translation? Strong universal themes = bestseller material.
Ingredient Number 2: Your story hook
Your 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 work for others and particularly when i used to work in magazine journalism as an editor – 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. This is another reason I’m holding a live workshop on these 5 ingredients – so we can workshop your hook.
Your hook will sell your story and compel the reader to keep reading. Without it? It’s vague and general and I can get a better story on the same topic or experience elsewhere.
By the way, EVERY story has a hook! You just have to find it.
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!).
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 Hollywood film.
I personally love the 3 Act Story Structure and I use this in conjunction with the Hero’s Journey in 90 Day 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 favourite comparative titles and they ALL used the 3 Act Story Structure and I could identify each stage of the Hero’s Journey (the stages aren’t always sequential).
This 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.
The structure 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 so many times, and I’m always surprised by how long it takes to get the answer. It reminds me of when i used to work as a freelance journalist, trying all sorts of questions and angles to get the most important information for the story.
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.
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 compelling story. 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!