(3) The Narrator
Similar to a novel, a memoir uses plot, dialogue, character, action, and setting to tell a
story. In a memoir, however, you are the narrator, the protagonist, and you tell the truth, as
best as you can remember, in your story. In a novel the story is called a plot-line, while in
memoir, the story is the narrative arc. In a novel the plot line usually advances with inciting
incidents, escalates, reaches a climax, and finally comes to a resolution. A story based on an
event or events in your life may not have such a tidy, stair-step progression as it moves along its
A bell-shaped curve might represent the plot-line in many novels, while your memoir
may have many inciting incidents with lulls in between like ocean waves rising and falling. In
between “waves” you also might present your greater understanding or wisdom acquired later
regarding your story as your narrative arc develops.
Being the narrator and main character of your memoir, you want your readers to
connect and empathize with you. You want readers to care about you and understand your
story. There are several ways to go about this. Write in a conversational tone, like you are
chatting with a friend over lunch. Anticipate what questions readers might have. Carefully
develop conflict with suspense and foreshadowing.
A memoir generally keeps a consistent point of view. For example, if you are relating a
story from the point of view of a child, keep that same point of view throughout, although you
might introduce the voice of experience that is clearly set apart from the childhood voice. A
memoir about childhood or any other time in your life, could have a third voice perhaps from a
book important to you, or a therapist’s voice viewed from the adult perspective. Also, think
about the backstory readers will need to understand your story and your characters. Decide
which voice, if you have more than one, will tell the backstory.
Reflect about the tone you want to set when writing your story. It can be light-hearted
and funny, serious and thoughtful, sad, or a combination of these tones. It is not a good idea to
write from anger and a wish to get revenge. No one wants to read a piece of whiny, ranting,
venting, or complaining writing. If anger is a part of your story, it is good to take a step back and
screen through your anger to experience it from a more remote place in your mind when
writing. Experienced writers say that anger may keep you helpless and out of control, and that
might be reflected in your writing.
Because you are the author of your memoir, your personal identity will be tied to your
published book. Readers may say of a novel, I don’t like this book, but it does not necessarily
mean they don’t like the author. Whereas, if you write about your life and people say they
don’t like your book, or if it is published and gets bad reviews, you may need to learn how to
separate who you are, from what you have written.
Writing Prompt: Write about five things you would like people to say about your memoir
and how you would achieve these goals in your writing.