By Jerry Payne
December 3, 2016
What makes for a compelling memoir? More than anything, it’s often what’s called in the biz the “narrative arc.” The plot! Great memoirs are told as stories, drawing in the reader and making him or her wonder what’s going to happen next. A good memoir, like a good novel, is a page-turning affair, filled with interesting characters doing interesting things. And yet, the idea of a strong narrative arc seems to be an afterthought for most beginner memoirists. Why?
Simple. People typically don’t view their lives as stories. We go about our lives living one day at a time, and soon enough weeks go by and then months and then years. We don’t ever seem to stop very long to examine where we’ve been or how we got to where we are. We don’t see, in other words, the narrative arcs of our own lives. But they’re there nevertheless, every bit as much as the narrative arcs of any story ever written.
As our lives progress, what happens to us seems random. We go here or we go there. We meet this person and then that person. Events pop up here and there. Obstacles present themselves. Coincidences seem to jump into the picture occasionally, some meaningful, some not. We make plans, the plans go off without a hitch; we make other plans, and everything goes awry. And the days go by. Half the time we don’t even notice what’s happening to us because it all unfolds so slowly, so gradually. From within, all the events of our lives just seem to sort of run together in a jumble and everything seems haphazard. The last thing it seems like is a coherent story!
Yet, a funny thing happens if you stop for a moment and look backward over your life. It looks a lot different than it looked as you lived it. When you take the time to examine it, to consider how you made it to this point in time, darned if it doesn’t look like, well, a story. And a carefully crafted one at that. Those random events seem less like random events and more like plot points. And the random people who have come in and out of your life start to resemble characters, some major, some just walk-on. In fact, very little seems random or coincidental. Even the coincidences start to reflect meaning. Everything suddenly seems to possess purpose. It’s no longer a case of something happened and then something else happened. It’s a case of something happened because something else happened. Everything becomes connected.
Face it. You’re living a story. If you’re considering writing your memoirs, then you need to start thinking that way. You’re the main character in a fascinating play. Can you see it? It has drama, it has humor, it has pathos, tragedy, suspense, romance—why, there’s something in there for the whole family. In other words, a compelling memoir is much more than just a dry recitation of facts and dates. And if you reduce it just to that, then you’re missing the dramatic story that it really is.