Whether you prefer to plan or improvise with your writing, outlining a basic plot for your memoir is a good idea. Why? Because it helps you see your book from a bigger perspective from the beginning. It’s also a vital component in turning your memoir into a page-turner. Your memoir is a story, remember, so it needs to follow the conventions of a story. you can’t just ramble on about something you experienced. You need to think of that experience like a musical symphony – outline key patterns and themes, strengthen the best bits, build to a crescendo!
Doing a basic plot is also important so that you can write with the end in mind, and not waste time on chapters and large chunks of a draft that you may not use.
Read on for seven basic plots you can use to outline your memoir, as well as key examples of comparative memoir titles for each.
Don’t make this memoir writing mistake
One of the most common illusions you can be under when you’re writing a memoir is thinking that you need to write the events exactly as they happened.
Yes, your memoir is a personal experience and needs to be honest in your feelings and experiences, but the events you include, and where you place them, need to follow a plot, like any good story.
Knowing the 7 basic story plots can really help you find how to structure your memoir. I’ve included examples of memoirs which fall into each plot category, too. You don’t need to just choose one, many memoirs are a combination of two.
What is a plot?
Put simply, the plot is the sequence or structure of events in a story.
Did you know that movies, books, even advertisements (or songs!) can fall into one of seven basic plots?
If you’re having trouble plotting your memoir, see where your story fits in terms of the plots below.
Because humans are creative, and our stories are as unique as the lines on our hands, your story will not be a carbon copy fit into one simple plot. But by using one or two to model your structure, you can be sure that archetypally, at least, you’ll satisfy the human need for a story that makes sense.
The Seven Basic Plots
Overcoming a Monster
Your story involves the difficult process of fighting a monster (a person, an idea, an internal enemy) and come out triumphant.
Addiction memoirs such as Mary Karr’s Lit and Augusten Burroughs’ Dry could fall into this plot.
Rags to Riches
This is such an archetypal ‘superhero’ type plot (used in many cartoons and comics like Wonder Woman) because the heroine becomes a sort of mythical creature in the elevation from ‘rags’ to ‘riches’.
The memoir: Homeless to Harvard, by Liz Murray comes to mind with this plot. Lots of celebrity memoirs (which are more like autobiographies, really) follow this plot structure, too.
This is one you often see in family memoirs, and I must admit I used this plot structure for A Letter From Paris. Basically, the hero sets out on a journey and must battle various problems and issues on the way to the end goal – a place, a feeling, a piece of information forms that ‘quest’.
Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance also comes to mind for using this plot.
Voyage and Return
This is a tricky one. Different to the Quest, it involves a return to the ‘ordinary world’ much sooner than with the Quest plot structure.
Here, you do travel out of your normal world into an unknown ‘special world’, but you bring that knowledge of the special world home.
Sarah Turnbull’s All Good Things comes to mind for using this plot structure.
This plot structure that involves lots of chaos and mistakes to really show the heroine’s journey through the world.
Think David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day.
This plot doesn’t end in happily-ever-after. There is literal or figurative death and loss. It’s very Shakespearean.
I tend to shy away from these memoirs but I’m midway through Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s The Erratics and wondering if it will have that kind of ending. It’s also slightly comic.
This plot is where the hero falls under some kind of spell (sleep, illness, a cult) before breaking free like a phoenix and coming back to life.
Perhaps Tara Westover’s Educated falls into this plot, but it also falls into the Quest structure, too.
Using these examples is a nice way to see the big picture for your memoir outline, and where you might place it in the market. It’s also useful to see the archetypes playing out in your personal story. As Willa Cather wrote:
“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”
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