The Narrative Arc in Memoir Writing

Jerry Payne

March 22, 2019

In an earlier blog, I wrote about memoir as story. A memoir, I wrote, should be more than just a dry recitation of the facts of a person’s life. A life is more than the sum of its parts, after all. Lives, carefully examined, follow plotlines, just like the most intricate plays. They come with joy, tragedy, humor, pathos, drama, suspense, and everything else a good story comes with. They should thus be presented that way. With this in mind, it’s a good idea to examine what we writers call the “narrative arc.”

A narrative arc of a story is essentially its plotline and it can take different forms. Aristotle identified three major parts of a story: the beginning, providing background information, including introducing the characters; the middle, presenting us with a crisis in need of a solution; and the end, typically giving us the climax and the resolution to the crisis. Hence, we have the three-act play.

In the nineteenth century, German playwright and novelist Gustav Freytag expanded on this idea a bit, summarizing a story’s structure as essentially a five-part deal. You have 1) exposition, which is the background information that leads to 2) rising action (the crisis), ultimately leading to 3) the dramatic climax. Then there’s 4) falling action as we catch our breath and the story begins to wind its way to a conclusion, and then 5) the resolution—or dénouement if you want to impress your friends—where all the details get sown up nice and neatly.

There’s overlap, as you might guess, where some of the falling action bleeds into the resolution, and it’s hard to tell the two apart. Every now and again you come across very dull arguments about how a resolution is subtly different than a dénouement, and some people even break it apart more by adding the term “conclusion” to the end so that you have falling action bleeding into resolution, then dénouement, then the conclusion. Outside tedious theory, it all pretty much runs together and it’s more important to understand the basic structure than the details.

The point is, compelling stories have narrative arcs. Drama is built. Action rises and falls. If you’re going to tell a compelling story, you’ll find that it’s fairly impossible to escape some form of this structure. A climax doesn’t work very well without some buildup (rising action). The buildup loses steam if we don’t know who the characters are, hence the need for exposition. We don’t typically like to be left hanging, especially with true stories, and so a resolution is necessary.

For most memoirs, I like to offer a variation on the narrative arc, arrived at after years of ghostwriting memoirs. I like to build a memoir around what I call a “turning point.” In literary theory, particularly with respect to fiction, you might hear this described as the “inciting event” or “catalyst.” Every life has at least one of these moments. A life-altering moment. Something that helps define a person or at least heavily influences her. Or, if nothing else, something that just gets her life off track. Or on track, as the case may be.

Sometimes it might not be readily apparent at first, but think about where you are now and what moment (or even series of moments) started you on your way here. It needn’t be a hugely dramatic moment. Typically, it’s a moment of crisis that requires a resolution of some description, a hurdle that you had to clear to move forward with your life. Maybe it’s somebody you met along the way who profoundly influenced you (for good or for bad). Or maybe it was just a key decision you had to make about your life. This is what I would recommend you build your story around. With the turning point in mind, you can revisit Herr Freytag and properly present your life as the story that it is.

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