Memoirists — Consider Your Story Structure, Plus Memoir Writing Prompts

by Matilda Butler on January 24, 2017

Writing Prompt LogoPost #233 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompt – Matilda Butler

Another Way to Look at Story Structure

Last summer, we paid a visit to Chicago where museums and meals evoked memories of years past when I lived just north of Chicago in Evanston and later Wilmette. It’s impossible to revisit places without acknowledging the tremendous changes. And yet there is still the lingering sense of what one used to know. A big surprise was the new wing of the Art Institute. Well, it’s not so new — opened in 2009. However, I haven’t been back to Chicago in decades, so I had the pleasure of seeing all the changes while still remembering how it used to be.

memoir story structureAnother point of nostalgia was visiting the Field Museum in Chicago. Although we explored all the galleries, I was most influenced by the time we spent in a special exhibit called Vikings. I came away with an entirely new sense about these people — their culture, their daily lives, their art, even their clothing.

As the exhibit brochure explained:

The popular image of the Vikings—fierce raiders with horned helmets—is being challenged by a more complex picture. Vikings, the exhibition, reveals new insights brought to light through archaeological discoveries. See into the lives of these legendary people through more than 500 artifacts, many never before seen outside of Scandinavia.

memoir writing story structureNear the end of the exhibit was an especially intriguing display. Hanging was a Viking ship shown in a way I never would have considered. The exhibition notes said:

The ship was an ancient symbol in Scandinavian culture and a vital factor in Viking expansion, travel, and trade. Archaeological finds, written sources, and rock carvings (or “Picture Stones”) indicate that the Vikings built many different types of ships.

As you can probably tell from the second photo, only the nails from a ship were hung, each on a thin nylon thread, each hung exactly where it would have been if the exhibit also showed the wood. When you look at my first photo that shows a complete ship, I hope you can look at the second photo and see that same shape.

memoir writing and story structureThere was even a detailed drawing, a type of blueprint, that showed where each nail was used in the ship.

What Does This Exhibit Offer to Memoir Writers?

As soon as I saw the ship defined with just nails, I immediately thought about the challenge memoir writers face. We all need a way to organize our stories. The most obvious is to follow a time-based, linear structure. That approach is sometimes boring and predictable and may not serve the purpose of your storytelling. Some memoirists start with a major event or turning point to grab the reader’s attention and then go back in time to explain how that event happened. And, of course, there are many more approaches to story structure. Here are a few of the articles discussing alternative story structures from this website:

Reflections on Story Structure

More on Story Structure for Memoir Writers

Memoir Lessons Learned from a Birthday Cake (See Lesson #3)

I hope that the image of just the nails of the Viking ship gives you a new way to think about the structure of your story. The structure needs to be there, just as the nails need to be there to hold the ship together. It’s easy to overlook the importance of structure. It’s easy to figure you just need to write your story and that’s it. If you are tempted to ignore story structure, think about how the nails on the Viking ship hold it together. You also need to find what holds the various elements of your memoir together, what structure shapes the story in the most compelling way possible.

Memoir Writing Prompts

1. Before continuing with your memoir, consider what you want the reader to learn by the end of your story. Write this down.

2. What is the best way to present the story elements to your readers? In other words, what is the overall story structure? Consider multiple approaches. Never just think of one way because you may invest a great deal of time pursuing one avenue for writing only to discover that it isn’t the best way to offer your story. The wrong structure actually takes away from your story. Think about several story structures and write at least three.

3. Do you already have an outline for your memoir? Great. Look at different ways to organize the outline. Everything has a structure and it is worth the time and effort to find the most compelling structure for your life story.

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