Memoir How To | Story Elements

by mandeesears

This memoir how to will break down story elements that should be included in your writing. Memoir examples and story suggestions will help get you started as a memoirist.

What is a story? The easy answer: it contains a beginning, middle and end. Or, an inciting event, obstacles in solving the event and a resolution. Or, as with traditional literature and theatre: Act I, Act II and Act III. Confused? Understandable.

It's much easier to write a story when you understand what readers expect from a story. This article will help you break down and understand story elements so you can write a great story!

What is Memoir?

Definition of Memoir

Memoir is a sub-catagory of the Autobiography/Biography genre. It differs from the traditional arc of an autobiography/biography that encompasses the chronological events of one's entire life.

Memoir narrows and focuses on a specific time period, event or people in one's life instead of covering an entire lifetime. Childhood, teen years, career, marriage/divorce, illness, spiritual quests and so on are often the theme of a memoir.

Writing Memoir

Select -- Focus -- Reduce -- Write

is the mantra for writing memoir.

Memoir Writing References

Some of My Favorites...
Your Life as Story

Tarcher  / $22.0  $24.95
Writing Your Life: Putting Your Past on Paper

Harper Paperbacks  / $12.69  $1.71
Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past

Da Capo Press  / $13.49  $8.73
Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir

Mariner Books  / $9.99  $2.33
Writing Life Stories: How To Make Memories Into Memoirs, Ideas Into Essays And Life Into ...

Writers Digest Books  / $10.49  $3.22

What's in a Story?

Does it Keep Your Attention?

In my Sultan Elementary School 5th grade history class, we were assigned to read two biographies of famous Americans and then write a book report about each. I chose Benjamin Franklin and Dolly Madison. 

It took me weeks to read the book about ole Ben. Sure it had interesting quotes and tidbits about Franklin but it read like a police report -- Just the Facts Ma'am! It was great reading just before bed -- put me out like a light. 

The second book about Dolly Madison, I read in two days. The author told the "story" of her life. It had a begining, middle and end just as a traditional story does. The facts were all there but intricately woven thoughout the story. I absorbed facts about her without even realizing. 

I got an "A" on that book report. 

The moral of that anecdote is in order to keep a readers attention you need to write a traditional story with traditional story elements not just the facts -- that's what spreadsheets are for. 

Story Elements

Must Haves for Memoir Writers

Stories should contain a beginning, middle and end -- or to borrow from Shakespeare -- Act I, Act II and Act III. 

The elements of a story within this format should go something like this:

  1. Beginning - Inciting event and desire of protagonist ("you" in memoir)
  2. Middle - Problems and obstacles resulting from number one and leading to a crisis
  3. End - Climax and resolution or realization

This is a simplistic view but accurate nonetheless. 

The bottom line is in memoir, just like fiction, the protagonist (you) must grow and/or change or there is no basis for a story. 

The growth/change can be emotional or physical -- doesn't matter -- just has to be there or there is no story. 

As simple as that! :D

Story Elements
Story Elements

Example using a Fairytale

English Teachers Technique

One of my English professors always started her creative writing classes the same way -- with a fairytale. You break it down, analyze it and then write your own story following the story guidelines of the fairytale. 

This has been done more than a few times but it is still the best example of elements in a traditional story... so here goes! 


Beginning --

  • Inciting Event -- Father dies and Cinderella is left in the charge of her stepmother. She is made to wear rags and do all the household chores including waiting on her stepfamily hand and foot. 
  • Desire -- Her desire is to escape this way of life.

Middle --

  • Obstacles/Problems-- 
    • Invitation to the Ball arrives. 
    • Cinderella wants to attend but is told she can't. 
    • She continues to wish and dream of going to the ball while completeing her daily chores. 
    • Her stepsisters leave for the Ball. 
    • A fairy Godmother appears and decks Cinderella out for the Ball complete with transportation and a warning -- Midnight. 
    • Cinderella arrives at the ball, dances with the Prince and races away at midnight leaving behind a glass slipper. 
  • Crisis Point -- Prince announces he will marry whomever fits the shoe.

End --

  • Climax -- The stepsisters try to force the shoe on their feet to no avail. 
  • They laugh when the footman suggests Cinderella try. 
  • The shoe fits Cinderella. 
  • Resolution -- She marries the Prince and trades her slavery lifestyle for that of a Princess. They live happily ever after. 
Story Arc
Story Arc

"You" are the Protagonist in a Memoir

Literary Devices: Protagonist

Learn by Example -- Memoir

Putting Example to Practice

Now, apply the elements of the fairytale anaysis above to a time period or event in your life. Write an outline.

To begin writing your story, follow the outline you made and add details, dialog, settings and all the other fiction techniques used in good memoirs. 

Congratulations, you have just written a short memoir. 

Updated: 01/29/2013, mandeesears
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Ignatius Idio on 07/12/2014

I have read a few memoirs and autobiographies which do not have references or bibliographies. Why do authors omit references or bibliographies in their stories?

sandyspider on 10/06/2011

Nice tips.

KarenTBTEN on 09/03/2011

I like how you tie the tips to the needs of the reader and use your own 5th grade story.

Holistic_Health on 07/07/2011

Thanks for this. I'm trying to get away from 'just the facts' in my writing and make it more interesting.

celeBritys4africA on 07/04/2011

A great mini-guide. Thanks.

RebeccaE on 07/01/2011

this is great and I love the suggestions, this is perfect. Happy to have read this.

sheilamarie on 06/25/2011

I love the fairy tale idea! I used to have my fourth graders write a fairy tale when I was teaching. It's simple to see how all the story elements work that way.

nightbear on 06/23/2011

How fun that you came up with such a simple solution to a sometimes perturbing problem. Even I was able to get the drift. I don't write memoirs, but I bet I could now.

mandeesears on 06/23/2011

Awe, Towanda, you and Caroline are two of my biggest supporters. Thank goodness we found each other!

You're welcome Theresa! I fixed the typo (thanks for that) and I am glad you were inspired. Memoir is a wonderful genre and who better to write about your life than you. Go for it!! :D

ohcaroline on 06/23/2011

This should be entitled: Memoirs made simple! Congratulations, you did just that.

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