Writing the Perfect Memoir: 5 Unforgettable Memoir Formats

08 Feb 2022


“The ordinary stories of our ordinary lives have extraordinary gifts coded within them.” — Christina Baldwin

Writing a memoir often seems reserved for people with extraordinary lives. There is a perception that memoirs should tell remarkable stories about singular people.

While memoirs of singular lives are truly inspiring, the truth is that people with seemingly ordinary lives have so much to tell. Stories of so-called ordinary lives can deliver untold value to anyone who reads about them. Thus, anyone with an inner desire to tell their life story should set about chronicling their unique experience.

The question then becomes how to go about penning a memoir that truly encapsulates one’s unique experience.

5 Unforgettable Memoir Formats

1. The Desire Within

This memoir format revolves around a statement or question. The author specifically addresses a wish, desire, or goal they achieved. As a result, the entire memoir discusses the subject’s journey in attaining their desire.

Some authors prefer starting from the climactic event and working their way up to that moment.

For instance, an Olympic athlete describes their crowning achievement. They discuss their feelings and satisfaction after making their dreams come true. Then, they take the reader on the journey leading up to that crowning moment.

Other authors prefer to start from their journey’s beginning. As they narrate the story, the overarching theme is the desire to achieve something in their lives. The story eventually leads up to the crowning achievement. As a result, the climactic moment comes much later in the story.

With either memoir format,  the overarching theme revolves around the subject’s innermost wishes and desires. However, authors must ensure they do not give away too much at the book’s outset. For instance, starting the story with a climactic event only works if the narrative piques the reader’s interest. Otherwise, there may be no need to read the rest of the book if the author has already revealed the most crucial information.

American author and columnist Caroline Knapp make a great point by saying, “By definition, a memoir demands a certain degree of introspection and self-disclosure. In order to fully engage a reader, the narrator has to make herself known, has to allow her own self-awareness to inform the event she describes.” Indeed, the writer must make herself known throughout the narrative. The key lies in providing the reader with just enough to keep them moving on to the next page.

2. The Bumps in the Road

Some of the most memorable memoirs chronicle the obstacles and roadblocks along the subject’s journey. This memoir format typically follows a chronological order, especially if the subject has to face one bump in the road after another.

Generally speaking, this memoir format takes readers along a tough road filled with valuable lessons and insights.

For instance, the subject tells the story of the challenges they faced to become famous athletes, entertainers, business leaders, scientists, military commanders, and so on.

The “bump in the road” memoir format may also focus on a specific episode in the subject’s life. For example, think of a military leader describing everything they went through during a war. The narrative gravitates around the difficulties the subject faced as they eventually overcame the obstacles they had to endure.

Neil Simon, American playwright, screenwriter, and author, offers this wonderful thought, “It’s always painful when you’re writing memoir because you’ve got to go through the dark places, but it gives you a chance to find out the person you really are, not the person you thought you were.” This valuable insight underscores a valuable element in this memoir format: the author must highlight how overcoming bumps in the road has transformed them into the person they are today. In other words, the subject would have never become the singular individual they are, had it not been for the challenges they faced.

3. The Rollercoaster Ride

The “rollercoaster” ride is a type of memoir format that takes readers on a wild adventure across a number of places, circumstances, characters, and events.

Consequently, the “rollercoaster” ride memoir format tends to leapfrog from one event, time, and place to another.

The main objective is to keep readers on their toes, so they never know what to expect. Nevertheless, the author must ensure the story’s events clearly link to one another.

Failing to link events adequately may lead to a confusing narrative.

“Rollercoaster” memoirs often “play” with time. Authors tend to move throughout time in this memoir format. They describe past and present events interchangeably.

This approach allows authors to explain why certain events happened and how those events impact the present.

For instance, a political leader’s memoirs may address several specific events that highlighted their career. Thus, the author needs to provide details explaining why those events occurred.

The rollercoaster ride forces the author to jump between the past and present in order to give readers the full picture.

Poet Staceyann Chin offers the following tidbit, “I’m a memoir writer. I try to understand the world by taking experiences I have and making them into a story, whether it’s a narrative memoir, blogging for The Huffington Post, writing poems, or talking on the screen about what has happened to me and how that related to the world at large.” Ultimately, a rollercoaster ride must relate the author’s personal story to the world at large. Their thoughts, experiences, and feelings must fit within a larger scheme. This approach enables the author to give readers an exciting and coherent view of their perspective.

4. Turning Points

The “turning points” memoir format focuses the narrative on a singular, life-changing event. These events can be either good or bad. Nevertheless, turning points tend to be tragic events that turn the subject’s life upside down.

In this memoir format, the story typically focuses on a period of the author’s life.

As a result, most of the details surrounding their childhood, family history, or professional experiences may go unnoticed unless they directly contribute to the main event.

For example, the “turning point” memoir format describes how the tragic loss of a loved one changes the author’s life. The narrative ultimately ends with valuable lessons learned, leading the author to become a better person in the end.

Blues singer Judy Collins once stated the following, “My Book ‘Trust Your Heart,’ which is the story of my life, will be followed by ‘Singing Lesson,’ a memoir of love, loss, hope, and healing, which talks about the death of my son and the hope that has been the aftermath of healing from that tragedy.” In this memoir, Collins describes how the loss of her son become a significant turning point in her life. While sorrowful and tragic, the healing process allowed her to become a better person. Therefore, despite the despondent event marking her overall outlook on life, the story offers a positive outcome.

Please note that not all turning points need to be sad. There are positive turning points that can turn the author’s life upside-down. In this approach, the author comes across a fortuitous event or singular achievement that completely changes their life.

For instance, artists describe how a hit song or part in a movie catapults them to overnight fame. Similarly, unexpected windfalls such as winning the lottery transform the subject’s life. When using positive turning points, authors must ensure they convey an important lesson. In doing so, the author can reveal how their life was never the same again.

5. Going in Reverse

Most memoirs follow a chronological order. They start at the earliest point in the subject’s life and work their way up to the time of writing. This approach works very well when the subject has lived a long and rich life.

Also, this memoir format works very well when exploring extensive periods of the subject’s life. Presidents and political leaders with long careers typically use this format.

In contrast, the “going in reverse” memoir format begins with the present time and goes back into the past.

This style is generally the most complex as it requires a consistent storyline throughout the entire narrative. If the author fails to maintain a consistent storyline, the overall narrative may become too confusing to follow.

Consider this example:

A famous entertainer begins their memoirs by describing how success and fame shaped their life after a poor childhood. The story goes back in time to highlight specific events that contributed to their success, leading them to become rich and famous. However, a series of events leads them back to where they started; poor and obscure.

Please note that this memoir format does not begin with a climactic event. Instead, the author discusses climactic events throughout the book’s narrative, eventually coming full circle to the book’s beginning. This memoir format is great when the author ends up right back where they started. Along the way, the memoir recounts the most valuable lessons learned, often underscoring transformational experiences. Thus, the subject is not the same even though they wind up back to where the story began.

Renowned writer Elie Wiesel once said, “I will say, with memoirs, you must be honest. You must be truthful.” Indeed, coming full circle in a memoir requires the author to be honest about what happened and why it happened. Without honesty, memoirs lack the personal touch readers crave to uncover.

How a Ghostwriter Can Help Produce an Unforgettable Memoir

There are times when writing a memoir may prove to be more complex than anticipated.

Writing a memoir requires time.

Authors need time to sit down to organize their ideas. They must then create an outline before putting down a single word on paper.

Once a reasonable outline is ready, the author can set about producing an initial draft. Upon completion, that draft must go through revisions before a final manuscript can emerge.

Producing a final manuscript can take months or even years, depending on time and effort. Unfortunately, not everyone has the luxury of setting aside weeks or even months to focus on writing.

In addition, writing a memoir requires experience.

First-time writers often learn that writing is not a fluid process. In other words, writing tends to function more like stop-and-go traffic. Some days are full of inspiration and yield positive results. Some days produce very little results, even with focused writing time.

Given these potential limitations, the emergence of a ghostwriter can help memoir writers get past the most complicated hurdles. Memoir writers can choose to hire a ghostwriter to help them with some or all of the work. In particular, ghostwriters can tackle the heavy lifting, that is, putting pen to paper.

Memoir authors typically go through the creative aspect of the planning process. Thus, authors produce outlines and curate content for inclusion in the text itself. Ghostwriters can then set out crafting the literary material that comprises the text itself.

Ultimately, hiring a trusted ghostwriter helps memoir writers produce professional-quality content that truly reflects their intended message. However, there is one caveat: not all professional ghostwriters are suitable for every type of project. As a result, memoir authors ought to meet and interview ghostwriters until they find someone that shares their vision and has the right experience.

Final Thoughts

A memoir is a deeply personal exercise. Memoirs help transmit learning experiences that can enhance readers’ lives. Seemingly ordinary people have extraordinary tales to tell. Therefore, the challenge becomes to find the most appropriate format to reflect the journey. The right format can make a story come alive from page one.

The right memoir format can take a person’s journey through life and translate it into a universal language, understandable to people from all walks of life. The trick lies in ensuring memoir writers find the most suitable format. That process often requires some experimentation. Nevertheless, the outcome is certainly worth the effort.

Zach Richter 

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