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Writing Techniques For Memoirs Part 1

In the wonderful world of memoirs, there are many techniques that can be employed, and it can be overwhelming.

writing techniques for memoirs

In the first of these writing techniques for memoirs articles, I aim to show you simply what they are. You'll be presented with simple lists. In other articles, I will take each one and expand on the theme.

The aim is to write your first draft, leave it, reflect and then look at how you can transform it. I always say the magic is in the editing, and even there, the key is not to try and cram everything in.

Each technique serves a specific purpose, enabling you to convey your narratives effectively, engage readers emotionally, and create a lasting impact.

Memoir Writing Techniques

Establish a clear theme

Description: A theme is the central message or underlying idea that runs throughout your memoir. You need one of these. There could be one overall, or you can have an overall one and a theme per chapter. Whatever you do - have one.

Why use it: A clear theme gives your memoir coherence and purpose, guiding your writing and resonating with readers.

How to use it: Reflect on your experiences, identify the recurring motifs or lessons learned, and distil them into a central theme.

Example: The theme of resilience in the face of adversity.

When not to use it: Avoid vague or overly broad themes that lack focus or fail to provide a unifying thread for your memoir.

Impact: Helps the writer stay focused and gives readers a deeper understanding of the memoir's purpose.

Start with a captivating opening

Description: An attention-grabbing beginning that hooks the reader and sets the tone for your memoir.

Why use it: A compelling opening captures readers' interest and compels them to continue reading.

How to use it: Consider starting with a captivating anecdote, a powerful quote, or an intriguing scene that draws readers in.

Example: "It was a cold winter night when I first encountered the spectre of my past." Ok... make it even better...

When not to use it: Avoid starting with lengthy background information or excessive exposition that may lose readers' interest.

Impact: Engages readers from the start, making them eager to delve deeper into your memoir.

Create a sense of place

Description: Use descriptive language to transport readers to the locations where your memoir takes place.

Why use it: Creating a vivid sense of place enhances reader immersion, making them feel like they are experiencing your journey firsthand.

How to use it: Describe the physical surroundings, landscapes, architecture, or cultural nuances that define a particular setting.

Example: Paint a picture of a bustling street in a vibrant city, or capture the serenity of a remote countryside retreat.

When not to use it: Avoid excessive or irrelevant descriptions that detract from the main narrative or slow down the pace.

Impact: This makes your memoir more vivid and tangible, allowing readers to visualise and experience the locations you describe.

Create a strong narrative arc

The narrative arc

Description: Structuring your memoir with a clear beginning, middle, and end that traces your personal journey.

Why use it: A strong narrative arc provides a sense of purpose and direction to your memoir, keeping readers engaged.

How to use it: Establish the initial situation, introduce conflict or challenges, and show the resolution or personal growth.

Example: Introduce a struggle, describe the emotional journey, and end with a transformative realisation or resolution.

When not to use it: Avoid a fragmented or disjointed structure that confuses readers or lacks a cohesive narrative flow.

Impact: Gives your memoir a satisfying structure, allowing readers to witness your personal evolution and development.

Employ sensory imagery

Description: Using descriptive language to evoke vivid mental images engages readers' senses.

Why use it: Sensory imagery makes your memoir immersive, allowing readers to experience the story through their senses.

How to use it: Describe sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures to paint a detailed and sensory-rich picture for readers.

Example: "The aroma of freshly brewed coffee filled the room, its rich scent mingling with the soft hum of conversation."

When not to use it: Avoid excessive or irrelevant sensory descriptions that overshadow the main narrative or slow down the pacing.

Impact: Enhances reader immersion, brings scenes to life, and creates a more vivid and memorable reading experience.

Show, don't tell

Description: Using storytelling techniques to illustrate events, emotions, and experiences rather than stating them directly.

Why use it: Showing allows readers to engage with the story and draw their own conclusions, creating a more immersive experience.

How to use it: Use dialogue, action, and descriptive language to paint a picture for readers, allowing them to experience the story.

Example: Instead of saying, "I was terrified," show the fear through trembling hands, racing heartbeat, and shaky voice.

Tell examples

  • Dad was kind and caring

  • She was exhausted after a long day at work

  • The room was filled with a sweet aroma of freshly baked cookies

  • He was thrilled to receive the news of his promotion

  • The sun was setting, casting a warm orange glow across the horizon

  • They were relieved when the storm finally passed

  • The old book had a worn cover, showing its years of use

Show examples

  • Dad's warm smile greeted me at the door, his arms open for a comforting embrace

  • She trudged through the front door, her shoulders slumped and her eyes heavy with fatigue. Each step seemed to carry the weight of the long workday

  • As I entered the room, the air enveloped me in a cloud of sweetness, mingling with the irresistible scent of freshly baked cookies. I couldn't resist the urge to take a deep breath, indulging my senses in the mouth-watering aroma

When not to use it: Avoid relying solely on showing, as some narrative summary or telling can help provide necessary context.

Impact: This makes your memoir more dynamic and engaging, enabling readers to connect with the story on an emotional level.

Develop relatable characters

Description: Bringing the people in your life to life by portraying them as multi-dimensional and relatable individuals. This includes you.

Consider the following for each character.

  • What is their name – do you need to hide who they are?

  • Describe the character's state at the beginning of the memoir. This includes their personality, attitudes, goals, beliefs, and relationships.

  • Add in and describe significant events or turning points in the memoir that contribute to the character's transformation.

  • Describe the evolution of the character. How do they react to the key events? How do their beliefs or attitudes change? How do their relationships evolve?

  • Describe any emotions and emotional growth as they move through the story.

  • Describe the character's state by the end of the memoir. How have they grown or changed? What have they learned?

  • Consider where each character features in the narrative arc and why.

Why use it: Relatable characters make your memoir more authentic and help readers form emotional connections with your story.

How to use it: Show the personalities, quirks, and motivations of the people in your life through their actions, dialogue, and interactions with others.

Example: Instead of presenting someone as a mere figure, depict their unique traits, struggles, and growth throughout the memoir.

When not to use it: Avoid excessive character development that detracts from the main narrative or overwhelms the reader.

Impact: Allows readers to empathise with the people in your life and adds depth and authenticity to your memoir.

Pick one and play with it. Have fun. You can edit anything that doesn't work. I find that the techniques work best when I need to remove waffle. I know you are thinking Dale doesn't waffle, but I like the rest, and the best of us can write and write and write.

What works best for me is having a plan before I start, and as luck would have it, I have a memoir planner that has been designed to help you get stuff out of your head and structured. And we all love a bit of structure, don't we?

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