Written by A Guest Author October 5th, 2023

Tips for Plotting a Memoir

By Emily-Jane Hills Orford

Are you writing a memoir? A story about your life or someone else’s life? Have you considered your theme? Or your plot? Remember, every life has a story to share and that story needs, no, in fact, it has both a theme and a plot. So, don’t randomly launch into the story of a person’s life, even if it’s your own life, without first considering the theme and the plot. And, in order to best develop the plot, you need a theme. Remember, life doesn’t just happen, even though there are times when we all feel like it does, and not always for the better. Plotting a memoir and giving it a theme is not so different from the short story or the novel. Life doesn’t ramble and neither should your story about this life.

Here are some tips to keep your plot and theme engaging and meaningful, just like the life you’re writing about. First of all, it always helps to make a list. I’m a passionate list writer. I’d be lost without my lists. But, seriously, without a list to lead you forward, your memoir is doomed to be a random collection of stories. From personal experience, I started writing my memoir by writing memory stories as I thought of them. The result was a mishmash of stories with no identifiable connection. I had to return to the drawing board, so to speak, and make a list. At the very least, it would sort out my ideas and memories into some sort of reasonable order.

What do you need on this list? The bare facts for one thing. Start by answering these questions:

  • Who are you writing about?
  • What are their life dates?
  • Where were they born? Where did they live?
  • Why do you want to write this story? What contributions did they make to the world around them?
  • What is so important about this story?
  • Are you exploring a dramatic life-changing event, like a battle won against a dreaded disease? Or an escape from a horrific situation?
  • Why is their life so important? Now this is a tricky question. I was interviewed by a national broadcasting station and was asked this very question. My answer? Every life is important. We just need someone to believe enough in that life to make it important enough to write about. When I was submitting my grandmother’s story, years ago, I frequently received rejection letters from big-name publishers telling me that they would only consider a biography of a famous person. My argument since then has been, how many books do we really need about famous people, when there are so many un-famous, more than ordinary, extra-ordinary, beyond the ordinary lives whose stories should be, need to be told. These are the stories that make our world, that define our world and our lives; these are the stories that describe who we are. Extraordinary people – we are all extraordinary, we all have a story to tell, our story.
  • Do you want your story to be a gift to the next generation? So that they can appreciate and understand their ancestors?

I’m sure you can think of more questions to add to your list, but these certainly will get you started. Fueled with these thoughts and a beginning list of questions, you are ready to launch into your memoir.

What next? Perhaps you should make a plot map, like you would for a work of fiction. The ‘what happened when’ is always a good place to start, and a good way to organize your thoughts, but be careful to keep the what happened when stories from sounding like another list of this happened when. How? Add descriptive narrative to set the scene. Add some dialogue between the characters involved in the story. Make your story come alive.

So, what is the theme of your memoir? Themes are the same for memoirs as they are for any story. Don’t confuse theme with the plot. Basically, plot is what the characters do, while theme is the lesson or moral underlying the plot. Theme is the message describing an opinion about life, human nature or elements of society. Themes include:

  • Human conflict with nature
  • Human conflict with society
  • Good versus evil – crime doesn’t pay
  • Overcoming adversity within or without – triumphing over life’s struggles
  • The power and the sacrifice of friendship – “Those who seek a friend without a fault remain without one.”
  • The power and the sacrifice of family
  • Love – romantic, situational, family, general sense of caring for another living creature
  • The cycle of life and the intricate connection between life and death

There are several themes in the above list that you will connect with right away. Life is full of these themes. However, it is helpful to maintain consistency in your storytelling art to choose one that fits best and stick to it. Be mindful of both your plot and your theme throughout the storytelling process. Keep referring to your lists and reflect on various turning point moments, special times that have changed the person you are writing about. Ask yourself more questions:

  • What kind of special moments became turning points?
  • Are there some moments of great joy and happiness, or moments of fear, sadness and inconsolable grief you wish to include to strengthen the theme and move the plot forward?

A memoir may seem like a compilation of complications, both nonsensical and often irrational. Life, quite simply, is full of chaos. So, how can you possibly sort through the chaos to create a sustainable plot? Well, your timeline and your lists should help you with that. And, of course, your theme. Remember that life is more than a series of ‘this happened when’ type of events. There is a reason for everything in life and there is a reason why you, as the writer, chose specific events to write about.

Emily-Jane Hills Orford is a country writer, living just outside the tiny community of North Gower, Ontario, near the nation’s capital. With degrees in art history, music and Canadian studies, the retired music teacher enjoys the quiet nature of her country home and the inspiration of working at her antique Jane Austen-style spinet desk, feeling quite complete as she writes and stares out the large picture window at the birds and the forest. She writes in several genres, including creative nonfiction, memoir, fantasy, and historical fiction. http://emilyjanebooks.ca


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