Are you writing a memoir? If so, it’s a good idea to think about what kind of approach you’re taking. Are you reporting on events in your life or are you writing a narrative memoir? The easiest way to write the story of your life, or part of your life, is to write a report, but the difference for your reader is (subject matter aside) like the difference between reading a book-length newspaper report and a novel.
What is a report
A report is non-emotive writing. Its aim is to share facts about events rather than judgements. Though it uses expositional language (telling rather than showing) turning a report into showing events rather than telling about them doesn’t by itself change it from a report to a narrative.
The definition of report writing is creating an account or statement that describes in detail an event, situation or occurrence, usually as the result of observation or inquiry. The two most common forms of report writing are news report writing and academic report writing. Report writing is different from other forms of writing because it only includes facts, not the opinion or judgement of the writer.Reference.com
What is a narrative?
A narrative or story is an account of a series of related events, experiences, or the like, whether true (episode, vignette, travelogue, memoir, autobiography, biography) or fictitious.https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narrative
Note that a narrative can be composed of either true or fictitious events, so the elements that make a good novel are the same ones that make a good narrative memoir. Also the subject matter of a narrative and non-narrative memoir or report are exactly the same in that they’re both describing a series of events, hence, it’s not the content of a memoir that makes it a narrative memoir or not, it’s how we approach writing it, in particular, how we structure it and what we choose to focus on or draw out of our story.
A narrative consists of a set of events (the story) recounted in a process of narration (or discourse), in which the events are selected and arranged in a particular order (the plot).https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narrative
A narrative memoir is written by a human narrator who speaks directly to the reader, not an unspecified omniscient narrator, and they are usually written in first person (I, me, my and so on) making them highly personal. But that alone doesn’t make it narrative. More important is that the events are structured such that they create a plot, just like in fiction.
What is a plot and how does it relate to a memoir?
Plot is a literary term used to describe the events that make up a story, or the main part of a story. These events relate to each other in a pattern or a sequence. The structure of a novel depends on the organization of events in the plot of the story. Plot is known as the foundation of a novel or story, around which the characters and settings are built. It is meant to organize information and events in a logical manner.https://literarydevices.net/plot/
The key to understanding how this relates to the series of events that make up the story of someone’s life lies in the words ‘these events relate to each other in a pattern or a sequence’ and ‘around which the characters and settings are built.’
Events can relate in terms of time, of course. That is the most obvious way for events in a memoir to relate, but it’s not the only way they can be related, and it’s not necessarily as easy as it might seem at first because that time relationship needs to be related through cause and effect. To turn the description of a bunch of events into a narrative, what happens to the main character has to be shown to cause changes or responses in him or her and, in turn, affect how he or she responds to later events, as well as showing how events earlier in the timeline effect those later in the timeline.
If the characters and settings are built only around a time relationship between events, then this aspect of showing characters reactions to events and how they change and grow because of them is vitally important. A report wouldn’t deal with this inner-journey aspect when relating a series of events.
The plot is the sequence of events, where each event affects the next one through the principle of cause-and-effect. The causal events of a plot can be thought of as a series of events linked by the connector “and so”.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plot_(narrative)
Events should be linked so that the reader knows where they are, how much time has passed since the last scene, and briefly anything that impacts on the new scene or themes of the book that happened between scenes.
Plot and structure
Plot is closely related to structure, and so how a memoir is structured is very important in making a narrative memoir. Plots have several structural parts: the introduction; rising action – a series of events build up the conflict and tension; climax – the turning point and moment of highest interest and emotion; falling action or winding up – sharing the results of the central character’s actions; and resolution.
Looking at this structure can help a memoir writer decide on which part of their life to focus. The most dramatic part of a life should be the climax for the memoir. Choose what will be your climax and you’ve essentially worked out which events to focus on. Others can be included, of course, but only in so far as they contribute to the event(s) in the climax. The rising action should be anything that increases the challenges faced, both on the inner and outer journey levels, and the introduction should introduce the issue that is uppermost in the events at the climax, and so on.
If you want to write a memoir and can’t find a climax in terms of events, then look for a climax in terms of your sense of self, a challenge to your beliefs, a turning point in the way you live your life, an inner rather than an outer climax.
Non-time-related memoir plot/structures
Though events in a memoir are set in that we can’t add events that didn’t happen, and they do happen in a set timeline, we can choose how much weight to give to different events, and what we choose to say and not say about them. The most important events are those that most influence the central character’s life goals, beliefs and challenges.
Thematic patterns and sequences, such as those based on beliefs and personal challenges that infuse a part or all of someone’s life, can be used as a way to turn a series of events into a plot that transcends the time element.
For example, the book Out of Latvia (AIA Publishing’s best seller) by David Kerr, is the story of the son of a Latvian immigrant and his journey across the world in search of his roots. The story includes the central character’s father’s story, but rather than write the father’s story first, followed by the son’s story – as you would if following only the timeline for your plot – the father’s story is included as aspects of it relate to the son’s story at various stages of his life, and not necessarily in linear time order. Also the whole book is focused on two questions that keep the reader reading: whether or not the son will ever gain a sense of approval from his father and whether or not the father will ever return to Latvia. These two questions form thematic relationships between events from two lives, thus turning the story of a series of events into a plot, an essential element in a narrative memoir.
I often tell memoir writers to look for their personal challenges, either for their whole life – if there is one – or for different segments of their life, and then use those challenges to tie the story of the events of their life together. For instance, if I wrote a memoir, I’d take the angle of my investigation of my mind and spiritual nature because that’s something I’ve worked on my whole life. I could use it as the lens through which to view everything I’ve done, my reactions to what has happened to me and ensuing life choices.
An example of one personal challenge for a young Western mother in a third world country might be how she can best care for her children in the less-than-stellar circumstances with which she’s faced. What are her concerns, her fears, her solutions to her problems as seen through the lens of her concern for her family? How do the events and circumstances change the way she views her children and what is safe for them? And what is the result for her as a mother from her time in the third-world country? How did she change and grow from her experiences?
Other additional themes for the personal journey of such a memoir could be her view of the people and culture around her – how does it change over time? Does it live up to her initial expectations? Does she do anything that effects the lives of the people, and how does she feel about the results or lack of them? Themes like these link the events of a life on a deeper level than them just being events someone lived through.
The mode of writing.
The use of fiction-writing mode is the key point for writing a narrative memoir. Such modes include action scenes, dialogue, thoughts and self-reflection, writing in scenes, use of description, inclusion of relevant background information, and the inclusion of transitions from one scene to the next. Showing rather than telling is only one aspect of the fiction-writing mode.
Narrative is a highly aesthetic art. Thoughtfully composed stories have a number of aesthetic elements. Such elements include the idea of narrative structure, with identifiable beginnings, middles and ends, or exposition-development-climax-denouement, with coherent plot lines; a strong focus on temporality including retention of the past, attention to present action and protention/future anticipation; a substantial focus on character and characterization.https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narrative
This is why novelists write the most readable memoirs! So the more you can learn about writing fiction, the easier it will be to write a narrative memoir rather than a report.
The importance of the inner journey.
The easiest way to think of the difference between a narrative and non-narrative memoir or report is that a narrative memoir shares the inner journey not just the outer one. By sharing the inner dimension – thoughts, feelings, beliefs and personal challenges – the reader sees how the outer events contribute to the growth of the person. The inner journey structure is ‘this is how I was at the start’; ‘this is the journey, both inner and outer that I went through’; these are my most challenging experiences’; and ‘this is how that experience changed me/what I learned/how I grew.’
Scenes should be described in such a way that the reader feels as if they’re there with the narrator (showing rather than telling), but sharing not only how those events happened and appeared to the narrator but also how they affected them – what they thought, felt and believed about what happened.
Why does it matter?
If all you want to do is describe a certain series of events for a readership with an established interest in your subject matter – for instance family, social group or academic interest – then a report is quite adequate, but if your aim is to get the widest possible readership, then how you approach your memoir can make a huge difference to achieving that aim.
I wrote this clarification because my publishing business, AIA Publishing, only publishes fiction and narrative memoirs, so it’s important that those making submissions know the difference in memoir writing approaches. I have an imprint, Escarpment Publishing, that publishes non-narrative memoirs if they’re worthy of publication, but I select quality narrative memoirs for AIA Publishing because they engender the same kind of reader engagement as our fictional titles.
This is part of a series of blog posts on how to write a novel. It doesn’t just cover the technical details, but also the emotional journey we take and the personal challenges we meet on the road from potential author to author. Join the journey now, and don’t miss a post, click here to sign up to get my Novel Revision Checklist and links to the articles sent to your inbox.
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