Does my autobiography/memoir need a narrative arc?

21 May 2021


At its best, a memoir or autobiography is more than just a retelling of someone’s life. It pulls you in and makes you feel what they felt and compels you to cheer them on, hoping for a happy ending.

It’s not a checklist of events, it’s a story. Perhaps it’s your story.

It’s not always the actual events of one’s life that make for a great book, but the way you lay out those events in your book.

In 2005, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Los Angeles Times, J. R. Moehringer, released his memoir The Tender Bar. Believe it or not, his life as a journalist is but a small part of the third act.

His story is that of a boy whose father is nothing more than a voice on the radio, a disc jockey who moves around a lot. As you read The Tender Bar, you follow J.R. as he tries to learn how to be a man. And instead of his father, a group of men at the local tavern become his father-by-committee and the bar becomes his sanctuary.

The beauty of The Tender Bar is the natural story arc. It keeps you reading and wondering how the story will end. Does he ever connect with his father? Will the bar, in the end, become a blessing or a crutch?

The characters are mesmerizing, and the story has everything you’d want in a feature-length movie. In fact, George Clooney is making that movie right now!

The Tender Bar is a memoir, but it reads like a novel because it has a wonderful narrative arc. If you want your story to stand out and compel readers to keep turning those pages, finding your narrative arc is the ticket.

What is a Narrative Arc?

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Simply put, a narrative arc is the structure of a story. One of the most basic models you’ll see is the 3-part model that consists of a beginning, a middle, and the end.

However, you can get a little better understanding if you think of it like this:

1. Inciting Event – This happens in the first part of the story and it’s the event that puts everything else in motion.

2. Climax – The climax is the peak of the action, the big dramatic moment where everything is at stake. It can be a big battle scene or an emotional encounter, but it is the moment everyone has been waiting for.

3. Resolution – Once the climax has come to its conclusion, it’s time to deal with the new reality. What has the climax created?

Let’s take a look at an example most of us would be familiar with: The Lion King.

Inciting Event — Scar lures Simba and Nala to the elephant graveyard where his hyenas try to kill them. He also lures Mufasa to the scene where he can kill him. The death of Mufasa, makes Simba run away, both out of fear and guilt.

Climax — Simba returns to the Pridelands. Scar and Simba have an epic fight. Scar tells Simba that he, not Simba killed Mufasa. This marks both a climax in action as well as an emotional climax as Simba finally learns that his father’s death was not his fault. Of course, Simba wins the fight.

Resolution — Simba takes the throne of the Pridelands and restores peace, harmony, and Hakuna Matata-like feelings for all.

Autobiography vs. Memoir

One of the primary factors you’ll want to consider when deciding if you want to follow a narrative arc in your book is whether you are writing an autobiography or a memoir. Here’s how they differ:

Autobiography – More straightforward and chronological. Usually covers the subject’s whole life. As a step-by-step telling of the facts, it may be less inclined towards a narrative arc, but it can still be done.

Memoir – Usually focused on one portion of the subject’s life. This can be a specific time or a theme. Regardless, memoirs tend to be less formal and rely heavily on emotion and personal realizations. This makes them a natural fit for narrative arc structure.

Examples of Memoirs with Narrative Arc

Memoirs have boomed over the last 30 years or so and many of the most successful ones were later turned into movies. Why? Because they told a story worthy of the silver screen that could captivate an audience. Here are just a few examples.

Eat, Pray, Loveby Elizabeth Gilbert

Rather than a retelling of her entire life, this book focuses on a journey of self-care and self-discovery that connected emotionally with millions.

Inciting Event – Gilbert recalls sitting on the floor and thinking, “I don’t want to be married anymore.” This leads to the journey of self-discovery.

Climax – Gilbert comes to terms with her ended marriage while in Ashram, India. Acceptance.

Resolution – Now that Gilbert is more self-aware, she is able to fall in love again.

Angela’s Ashes – by Frank McCourt

This Pulitzer Prize winner doesn’t even make it to McCourt’s 20’s. It’s the tale of his childhood and the hardships he endured until he finally made his way to America at the age of 19. It’s a story of perseverance, hardship, and more than a little humor as well.

Inciting Event – The McCourt’s move from New York back to Ireland.

Climax – McCourt confesses his many sins and accepts absolution.

Resolution – McCourt finds his way back to New York to start a new life.

A Walk in the Woods – by Bill Bryson

This memoir is about just what its title says: a walk in the woods. Okay, so it ends up being around 800 miles of walking on the 2,200-mile-long Appalachian Trail, with an out-of-shape and obnoxious buddy for companionship. Hilarity ensues and life lessons are learned.

Inciting Event – Bryson moves back to the U.S. after years of living in Europe. Excited to rediscover his country, he decides to take on the Appalachian Trail.

Climax – Bryson loses track of his hiking partner, finally finding him wounded, but safe enough.

Resolution – The pair admit defeat and return to their lives but retain a bit of pride for the distance over the Appalachian Trail they did travel, and the lessons learned.

These are just a few examples of memoirs that became movies, but that doesn’t mean that all memoirs with narrative arcs are full-on film fodder.

The key take-away here is that they were books first and written so well that they became bestsellers and then eventually movies. That only happens if the story is good, and the emotions reach readers. 

It’s Your Life, Your Story

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So how can you (or your ghostwriter) incorporate this into your memoir or autobiography?

Think about it this way – how does your book end? Your life is a journey, and even though it’s not done, your book will be finished. What’s that ending spot?

Once you know that, you can think about how you got there. Was there an inciting event that set the wheels in motion? When did things come to a head?

Map it out before you start writing and you may be surprised to find that your story has a nice, clear narrative arc if you choose to follow it.

Your life is more than just a string of events. It’s a story. Your story. Tell it like one.

Tyler Omoth  
Tyler grew up knowing he wanted to be a writer. In 2005 he landed his first professional writing role as a radio advertising copywriter. Since then he has penned over 70 books for children as well as blog posts, white papers, press releases, greeting cards and articles. He's even managed to get a few short stories and poems published. He's written for just about every kind of business out there and loves the challenge of finding the right voice to fit each client, even if it means matching their existing voice. He believes that the best writing strikes an emotional chord, even if it's just a 30-second advertisement. He is Hubspot certified for content marketing and knows how to create content that is SEO friendly. A Minnesota transplant living in Tampa, FL, when he's not writing Tyler is probably watching baseball or embracing the chaos of life with his wife, Mary, and twin toddlers, Gavin and Rachel.

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