Memoir Writing Prompt: A Running Start with Each Chapter

by Matilda Butler on April 4, 2017

Writing Prompt LogoPost #235 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompt – Matilda Butler

Tips for Starting Each Chapter

Memoir OpeningsToday’s inspiration came from a Carrie Underwood quote:

“When the lights go down, and everybody is cheering, and I’m underneath the stage, standing on the lift, I definitely get an adrenaline rush. I like knowing numbers, so I’ll tell myself, ‘16,000 people came out here tonight. They paid their hard-earned money. They’re here, they’re excited, and you’ve got this.’ I talk myself up so that when the lights are on me, I’m off to a running start.”

The reader of your memoir is like one of those 16,000 people. Your first sentence and first paragraph needs to show that you and your story are “off to a running start.” Beginnings are not a time to be complacent or weak. That’s when you need to be strong. And a strong first paragraph, first chapter, and first paragraph of each following chapter needs to be powerful. The reader makes an unconscious and almost immediate decision about a book right at the start. Sure, if the reader perseveres in spite of a less than favorable beginning, she or he may come to love the book. But you want to make sure that the reader doesn’t find you still warming up on the opening page.

And if I were to be honest, your log line, your elevator speech, and your book proposal are also times when the lights are on and you need to be off to a running start. Those are not times for hemming and hawing.

Memoir Writing Prompt

1. Make a list that includes just the first sentence of each of your chapters or vignettes. Critique each of these using these considerations:

– Does the opening sentence place the reader immediately into the scene. This is not the time for a warm-up set of words.

– Does the opening sentence of each chapter move the story forward? (Even a chapter of backstory moves the story forward by providing necessary history for the characters.)

– Does the opening sentence foreshadow what is to come in a way that intrigues the reader?

2. How well written is each first sentence? Once you are satisfied with your openings, add the rest of each paragraph to your list.

– Look at how the remainder of each paragraph is used to enrich its first sentence.

– Is your wording clear? Does it bring the reader along or alienate the reader or, even worse, bore the reader?

3. Now that your opening sentences and paragraph are well-polished and can be used to show the narrative arc of your story, it’s time to move on to the name of each chapter.

– Make a list of the title of each chapter. What do they offer the reader in terms of insights? Often readers pick up a book and flip quickly to the table of contents. (Or, use the Amazon “Look Inside” feature to accomplish the same task.)

– Try writing four titles for each chapter. Then ask your writing group, or even friends, to tell you which one they like the most and why. Even if you don’t take their advice or suggestions, you will learn a lot about how readers of your memoir may react to your titles.

And don’t forget…each opening is vitally important and should be balanced by the final flourish of each chapter.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Linda Thomas June 13, 2017 at

Thanks for this very helpful info! I’ll share it with others.

Matilda Butler June 13, 2017 at

Hi Linda:
Thanks for your comment. Please do share. I’d love that.
Best wishes with your writing.
-Matilda

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