It’s often said that there are a million ways to tell a story—and thus a million ways to start one. So how do you generate a good starting idea? (Note: When I say “starting,” I’m referring to not only the beginning of your memoir as a whole, but also the openings of chapters, sections, even paragraphs and sentences.)
First, you need a menu—you need to be aware of your choices. Ask yourself this question: “Other than a chronological start, what other ways of beginning can I think of?”
Just posing this question will get your creative wheels turning. You’ll think of different aspects of the subject you want to write about and judge each of them as a possible starting point. You’ll realize there are many ways to begin, each of them lending itself to a different way of structuring and shaping everything to follow.
But how do you distinguish a promising idea from a going-nowhere idea? The answer is that you have to have a sense of what you want from your start so you can recognize the potential of an idea and instinctively want to try to make it work. Let’s consider the ingredients of a good start.
1. ENGAGE READERS QUICKLY AND AGGRESSIVELY
Over time, what holds readers is value and character, but first you need the hook, the promise that causes them to read the next paragraph, and then the paragraph after that, until you’ve won them over and they decide to stay.
Sweep them up in a good story or compelling situation. Physical action is a traditional solution, but a slam-bang action scene is not required as long as you create some sort of initial momentum and energy. And you have to be able to sustain it without a sharp drop-off. Three pages of lively storytelling that comes to a dead stop as you gear down into slow-moving narrative is not really a start—it’s a stunt. The interest it creates will be short-lived.
In a memoir, your hook might be as low-key as a demonstration that this book or chapter will be a worthwhile reading experience. It might suggest a revelation of unknown or fascinating material, a strong emotion or interesting situation, a surprising insight into the author (meaning you) or something relating directly to the reader.
2. DEMONSTRATE THAT THE READER IS IN GOOD HANDS
Make it clear you know your job is to deliver and that you’re going to do it without asking the reader to be patient as you flail around, trying to get on track. Convince readers that they’re in good hands with you and that you are taking them in a clear and certain direction. Project confidence and command of content and voice. Give no hints that you don’t know what you’re doing.
3. ESTABLISH A GOOD CONVERSATION WITH THE READER
Kurt Vonnegut said you have to “be a good date for the reader.” You have to create an immediate relationship that responds to basic questions about who you are and what it will be like to accompany you on this autobiographical journey. Different kinds of books require different relationships between writer and reader. Memoir probably requires a more personal—and possibly more intimate—relationship than any other kind of book. But this still leaves vast room for variation.
Thinking of such personal writing as a (one-sided) conversation or “date” with readers leads to an interesting question: Is this conversation external or internal? That is, is writing your book the equivalent of sitting down in your living room and telling a small group of people the story of your life (external), or are you having an internal conversation with yourself while allowing readers to listen in?
Are you addressing an audience or reflecting in private? If you are starting a story, let’s say, about a childhood visit to your grandparents, is the goal to report the facts of the visit—a relatively descriptive or journalistic objective—or is it something more personal: perhaps digging down into memory to recapture a distant experience, discover something unseen at the time or reflect on what it means to ?you today?
Whatever you do, your chances of success increase with your awareness. At some point in your start, you have to know your primary intent and signal it to the reader. If you do that, the reader will look forward to hearing more of what you have to say.
4. LAY A FOUNDATION FOR THE REST OF YOUR STORY
The start is not just the first thing you say—it’s a foundation the rest of the book or chapter will be built on. What you need is the beginning of a structure that can support what’s to follow. You might not achieve this on the first page, but you should certainly put some sort of foundation in place near the beginning.
In addition to establishing the book’s purpose and personality, and making it compelling to readers, you have to start building whatever factual groundwork and scene setting will be needed to launch successive chapters or topics. Make sure you’re answering journalism’s “Five Ws and H” questions: who, what, when, where, why and how? Consider making yourself a checklist to accomplish this.
5. REMEMBER THAT EXCITEMENT IS CONTAGIOUS
If you aren’t stimulated by the start, forget about stimulating anyone else. This is often overlooked as an objective of the start, but I think it’s obviously essential that the writer is energized about continuing to write the story.
If there’s a choice between doing what you think will please readers and doing what you want for yourself, please yourself. Doing it your way will stoke your ambition and creativity; trying to do it in what you think is their way will probably lead to a half-hearted effort. Be confident that if you write it your way and write it well, your story will please readers even if it isn’t exactly what they had in mind.
As you write, don’t forget to keep asking yourself if you’re getting enough energy into your pages. If there’s a single quality that’s critical to a good start, it’s energy in any form.
Excerpted from You Don’t Have to Be Famous © 2007 by STEVE ZOUSMER, with permission from Writer’s Digest Books.
This article appeared in the September issue of Writer’s Digest.Click here to order your copy in print. If you prefer a digital download of the issue, click here.
You might also like:
Creative Nonfiction Writing
Whether you curl up with memoirs on a frequent basis or pick one up every now and again, you know powerful memoirs have the capacity to take you, as a reader, for an exhilarating ride.
I’m a connoisseur of memoirs. In the past seven years, I might have read three books that weren’t part of the memoir genre. Not only do I devour memoirs, I also have written my own, and I coach memoir writers on turning their memories into manuscripts.
By dissecting memoirs from both the reader’s and writer’s perspectives, I’ve identified common elements that powerful, compelling memoirs all share. If you’re planning to write a memoir, here’s how to make sure your story takes your readers on a journey they won’t forget.
1. Narrow your focus
Your memoir should be written as if the entire book is a snapshot of one theme of your life. Or consider it a pie, where your life represents the whole pie, and you are writing a book about a teeny-tiny sliver.
Your memoir is not an autobiography. The difference is that an autobiography spans your entire life, and a memoir focuses on one particular moment or series of moments around a theme. You want your readers to walk away knowing you, and that one experience, on a much deeper level.
Perhaps you are familiar with Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. This memoir focuses on Frank’s life as a first-generation immigrant child in Brooklyn. Angela is his mother, and much of the storyline focuses on her and how Frank saw her, as well as the role she played in trying to hold the entire family together.
2. Include more than just your story
I know I just instructed you to narrow down your focus, but we need to think bigger in our writing pursuits.
For example, if Hillary Clinton wrote a memoir about raising a child in the White House, she would be pulling in tidbits about how she handled the media, who she let visit her daughter during sleepovers and how she navigated the politics of parenting during her time in the White House.
Likewise, if Madonna was writing a memoir about reinventing herself after 20 years away from the public spotlight, she most likely would include what it felt like to return to the music scene and how she continued to travel and perform while raising her children.
How does this apply to you? Imagine you are writing a memoir about your three-week trek through the Himalayan Mountains. While the focus is on your trip, as well as what you learned about yourself along the way, it would be wise to include other details as well.
You could describe the geography and history of the area, share interesting snippets about the people and donkeys you interacted with, and discuss your exploration of life-and-death questions as you progressed along your arduous journey.
Your readers want to know about you, but it’s the backstory and vivid details that make for a powerful memoir.
3. Tell the truth
One of the best ways to write a powerful memoir is to be honest and genuine. This is often tricky, because we don’t want to hurt or upset the people (our family and friends!) we’ve written into our books. But it’s important that you tell the truth — even if it makes your journey as an author more difficult.
When I wrote my memoir,Breaking the Silence: My Final Forty Days as a Public School Teacher, I knew I had a major dilemma: If I opted to tell the whole truth, I would pretty much ensure I would never get a job with New York City Public Schools again.
But I also knew teachers, parents and administrators needed to hear why great teachers are leaving education in droves and why the current educational system is not doing what’s right for our nation’s kids. I wrote my book with brutal honesty, and it has paid off with my readers — and is bringing national attention to what is happening behind closed school doors.
One more note on honesty: Memoirs explore the concept of truth as seen through your eyes. Don’t write in a snarky manner or with a bitter tone. The motivation for writing a memoir shouldn’t be to exact revenge or whine or seek forgiveness; it should simply be to share your experience.
Don’t exaggerate or bend the truth in your memoir. Your story, the unique one that you hold and cherish, is enough. There is no need to fabricate or embellish.
4. Put your readers in your shoes
Powerful writers show, not tell. And for a memoir writer, this is essential to your success, because you must invite your reader into your perspective so she can draw her own conclusions.
The best way to do this is to unfold the story before your reader’s eyes by using vivid language that helps him visualize each scene.
Perhaps you want to explain that your aunt was a “raging alcoholic.” If you say this directly, your description will likely come across as judgmental and critical. Instead, paint a picture for your audience so they come to this conclusion on their own. You might write something like this:
“Vodka bottles littered her bedroom, and I had learned, the hard way, not to knock on her door until well after noon. Most days she didn’t emerge into our living quarters until closer to sunset, and I would read her facial expression to gauge whether or not I should inquire about money — just so I could eat one meal before bedtime.”
5. Employ elements of fiction to bring your story to life
I like to think of the people in memoirs as characters. A great memoir pulls you into their lives: what they struggle with, what they are successful at and what they wonder about.
Many of the best memoir writers focus on a few key characteristics of their characters, allowing the reader to get to know each one in depth. Your readers must be able to love your characters or hate them, and you can’t do that by providing too much detail.
Introduce intriguing setting details and develop a captivating plot from your story. Show your readers the locations you describe and evoke emotions within them. They need to experience your story, almost as if is was their own.
6. Create an emotional journey
Don’t aim to knock your readers’ socks off. Knock off their pants, shirt, shoes and underwear too! Leave your readers with their mouths open in awe, or laughing hysterically, or crying tears of sympathy and sadness — or all three.
Take them on an emotional journey which will provoke them to read the next chapter, wonder about you well after they finish the last page, and tell their friends and colleagues about your book. The best way to evoke these feelings in your readers is to connect your emotions, as the protagonist, with pivotal events happening throughout your narrative arc.
Most of us are familiar with the narrative arc. In school, our teachers used to draw a “mountain” and once we reached the precipice, we were to fill in the climatic point of the book or story. Your memoir is no different: You need to create enough tension to shape your overall story, as well as each individual chapter, with that narrative arc.
That moment when you realized your husband had an affair? Don’t just say you were sad, angry or devastated. Instead, you might say something like:
“I learned of my husband’s affair when the February bank statements arrived and I realized that in one month’s time, he had purchased a ring and two massages at a high-end spa.
Those gifts weren’t mine. He was using our money to woo another lady and build a new life. I curled up in a ball and wept for three hours — I had been demoted to the other woman.”
Will you write a memoir?
When you follow these guidelines while writing your memoir, you will captivate your audience and leave them begging for more. But more importantly, you will share your own authentic story with the world.
Have you written or are you planning to write a memoir?
This post originally ran in April 2015. We updated it in April 2017.
This post contains affiliate links. That means if you purchase through our links, you’re supporting The Write Life — and we thank you for that!
Filed Under: Craft
Learn Scrivener Fast
New to the popular writing program? Get up to speed quickly and learn how to make the most of Scrivener with this course.
Get It Now