It’s important to choose a story structure for your memoir early in the writing stages. Why? Because it helps eliminate overwhelm and it also shows you where to begin (and middle, and end) the story.
It’s also a vital component in turning your memoir into a page-turner. Your memoir is a storyy, so it needs to follow the conventions of a story. you can’t just ramble on about something you experienced or make a really common mistake which is to include every single thing that happened in the story.
You need to think of that experience like a musical symphony – outline key patterns and themes, strengthen the best bits, build to a crescendo!
That’s the art of storytelling.
Understanding the basics of plotting and story structure 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 need to be edited out. Wouldn’t you rather focus on the compelling bits of the story?
The 7 basic plots can help. I don’t know who first articulated these 7 plots, but i first heard about them on a podcast about screenwriting. Soon after, I saw these in 2 minute advertisements to 300 page novels. It’s fascinating how often a pattern can be repeated – but tell a totally different story!
So don’t worry about your story being a replica of every other memoir that uses that plot – these are containers, meant to be used for metaphor, meaning and structure, not literal copying.
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. MAID by Stephanie Land would fall into this structure, too.
This is one you often see in family memoirs, and I used this 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’.
EDUCATED by Tara Westover and Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance use this story structure.
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. It’s a great one for travel memoirs though, but you might need to play around with timings to make it compelling and clearly show the transformation.
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 sequel to Almost French, All Good Things comes to mind for using this plot structure. I also used this in Love & Other U-Turns, my first memoir.
This plot structure that involves lots of chaos and mistakes to really show the heroine’s journey through the world.
Paris Match by John Von Sothen is laugh-out-loud funny! A great example of a travel memoir that uses the comic plot structure.
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. Another two mentioned in this video I just recorded include ENEMY by Ruth Clare or Michelle Tom’s TEN THOUSAND AFTERSHOCKS.
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.
Kathryn Harrison’s bestselling & controversial The Kiss fits into this plot, as does Uncultured by Daniella Mestyanek Young.
Using these examples is a simple way to know where to start your story, find some comparative titles, and see where you might place it in the market. 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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Thank you. I found this to be helpful.
Thank you. This helps me to write my synopsis.
i’m a novice writer attempting to write a health memoir and now trying to put together an outline as a guide
I found this very helpful as I start my journey through unfamiliar territory of story writing.
Thanks for the help, especially now cause we need to make a good memoir. Thanks a lot.
Where is the plot in “Motherless Daughters” by Hope Edelman or “Educated” by Westover. I don’t seem to be able to come up with a plot for a personal memoir about my survival of living without a mother from the time of my mother’s death when I was a toddler (17 months old) to now approaching the age of 85 years old. In addition to living without the warmth of a mother’s love and without all that a mother does for her child, I lived with the blame from my sister, who was 13 years my senior, that I caused my mother’s death. Her constant berating me left me always feeling guilty. I am an aunt to her five children whom I have had no contact for over 50 years and three of whom I have never seen. I had a brother 11 years older than me who died when he was 19 years old And many losses go on and on.
Is my plot about survival of the losses I have sustained from the age of 17 months old and how to live without hugs, kisses, kindness, and with an alcoholic father and a mean sister etc? That my ancestrial DNA and relying on my mother’s spirit has carried me through life’s challenges.
Point on. Your delivery of simplicity is commendable!
Thank you so much!