Writing yourself a focus sentence is essential if you want to write a compelling story that readers turn the pages and cannot put down.

One of the hardest parts of writing a book, but particularly a memoir, since it does involve choosing personal history to include, is feeling overwhelmed by all the material, themes or ideas you want to include.
What if the theme or time span you want to cover is so huge, you feel like it could be two books, or three?

To get over this overwhelm (and start writing!) you need to be able to answer the question “what is your story about?” and answer with the key focus of your story, otherwise you’ll keep procrastinating or trying all sorts of tangents that don’t even end up in your first draft.

The thing is, your book needs to be able to be summarised in just a sentence so that people GET what you’re trying to share. Why? It cannot be about too many things, and most people confuse memoir with autobiography. It’s not. Even if your story is a narrative of a personal experience that spanned decades, you MUST be able to answer the question: What is the story about? Or nobody will read it.  Don’t make the reader (or listener, if you’re describing your story to someone) take “too many calories to digest”. You need simplicity and you need clarity. We have low attention spans already, if you take too long describing events and scenes, without summarising the STORY, you’ve lost your reader.

Remember: your story needs to be about one key area of focus when you describe it to others.

I’ve been told the focus sentence formula is one of the most helpful steps in my story mapping method. Because i give you a quick way to clarify what you do and do NOT need to write in your book.

Why you need to write yourself a focus sentence.

This is going to help you stay on track with the themes or topics of your narrative, and will also help you brainstorm essay or article topics and ideas further down the track when you’re looking to get published or get clips for your book proposal. It’s absolutely essential to stop you writing about too many different (unrelated or less-important) aspects of your story.

The first step you need to take when you’ve been tinkering with a story idea is to write a focus sentence and summarise the premise of the book.

  • With my second memoir, A Letter From Paris, if I hadn’t used a focus sentence I wouldn’t have been able to write the first draft in less than 3 months. This is exactly why a focus sentence imperative to getting your memoir draft written in 90 days, which is why it’s part of the foundational process I teach inside The Art of Memoir.

Getting my focus sentence up on my pin-board stopped me from going off-track every time I sat down to write. It also kept me my brain ticking along with ideas, even when I wasn’t actively working on the book, to keep the story progressing towards the resolution of that focus sentence.

The magic of focus

That’s the magic of the focus sentence. It’s as though, by condensing a large and magnificently complex slice of your life into one sentence, you can start to form your chapters and plot the story in the background even when you’re not actively writing. Your brain can form creative loops and connections while you’re going about your day.

Every day when I sat down to write, I brought everything back to my focus sentence:

Does this chapter, scene or action relate to the questions raised in the focus sentence?

Note: If you’ve already written a complete draft of your memoir, it’s not too late! Get your focus sentence ready now, so that you can go back and edit, knowing what to include in the story.

Finding the focus sentence for your memoir is the best thing you can do to prevent and clarify overwhelm before you sit down to write the first draft. 

Learn my focus sentence formula inside The Art of Memoir.

You can get some ideas for focus sentences in the sub-title of memoirs you love.

Yes, memoir is personal reflection, and you’ll cover lots of different aspects to your exploration of this theme or topic.

But a focus sentence helps you remember your memoir is a story, and as such it needs a premise, action that moves towards or against that premise, and a resolution.

Everything you choose to include (action, events, memories, back story) has to drive the story forward, or the central plot or premise of your book. Your focus sentence will clarify that central premise.

To help you find your focus sentence, remember that a memoir is a book-length work of personal writing where you are making an argument for something.

Choosing what to include (and stopping yourself from going off on wild drafting tangents!) becomes a lot simpler when you’ve summarised your memoir into a one-sentence argument, question or theme.

By having that sentence to hand when you’re sitting down to write, you’ll find that your mind starts to focus on the key scenes and events that you’ll need to include to tell that particular story.

  • What is the key lesson, question, theme, conflict or journey or question that your memoir will address? 
Memoir focus sentence examples:

In Helen Brown’s bestselling memoir, Cleo, the focus sentence may have been: Can a cat help a family heal from trauma?

In Sarah Turnbull’s Almost French, her focus sentence may have been: Is it possible for a very Australian girl to fully integrate with the French way of life, for love?

By narrowing the focus of your memoir with a one-sentence summary, you’ll have a clearer pathway  to mapping out the story arc.

The most important thing is to sum up the biggest question that your memoir stirs up in you. This way, even if you don’t have all the answers (to that question, yet), you can start writing. And most importantly, you’ll be able to answer the question: WHAT IS THE STORY? without taking hours and describing scenes, rather than story.

Want to learn the Focus Sentence Formula?

I teach the Focus Sentence Formula in a very specific way (with templates) inside The Art of Memoir. You can’t get this wrong, because the sentence is for you only in the drafting stage, but if you’re going to practise pitching your memoir, you need to be able to summarise the premise in this particular way that I teach.
Like every other element of story and narrative, the reason you’ll save time and agony if you learn this formula to get to your basic premise means you’ll always know where your story starts, finishes, and what to do when you reach the messy middle.
Learn more inside my signature writing programme, THE ART OF MEMOIR.