Story Structure and Memoir Writing

by Matilda Butler on May 12, 2015

catnav-alchemy-activePost #82 – Memoir and Fiction, Writing Alchemy – Matilda Butler

What a Memoir Writer Can Learn About Story Structure from a Tree

Yes, you read that right. While in Hawaii, I take daily walks. Sometimes I go north. Sometimes I head south. Since the ocean blocks my way west and lava fields block my way east, those are my two options. But within those options, I can still change around the walk so that I have a lot of variation.

Memoir Story Structure - Tree 1There is a circle of trees that I sometimes pass. The more I looked at them, the more I began to see. See their relevance to story structure, that is. Although my photo only captures three of the trees, they continue in a circle. I like to think that each tree is a piece of a life, a memoir. One tree doesn’t tell everything, but it is worthy of its own focus.

Memoir story structure - Tree 2Over the years, the roots of the various trees have grown together. Sometimes, it seems impossible to untangle them.

Similarly, our stories have grown together. We may begin telling one tale and end up talking about something completely different. Only you, as the storyteller, can understand the relationships. If the listener ends up with a puzzle on her face, you may find yourself having to explain the connection.

Memoir writing - structureSo when you decide to write your memoir, you have to decide which tree to include. And just as importantly, you have to examine the roots of that particular tree. You have to ignore, and in some cases, cut out roots that don’t belong in this particular memoir. They might be relevant to a second or a third memoir, but they may just confuse the reader.

An important aspect of memoir writing is to determine what belongs in the book and what doesn’t.

Memoir writing and story structureSo now, instead of heavily overlapping sets of roots, you have a single tree with its own roots. Oh sure, sometimes you need to explain how one set of roots is related to something else, but you need to maintain discipline. Sometimes I think I need to repeat that sentence: You need to maintain discipline. That’s why writing a synopsis when you begin your memoir is so important. Sure the outline of your story will change as you write. But you need to know the shape of your tree before you begin. And you have to be willing to leave out parts of the story that don’t contribute. Or even more difficult, you have to be willing to cut out parts that may be interesting but don’t move the theme and message forward.

Of course, there are more aspects to story structure. But you need to get this first part right before you can proceed. You need to know the shape of your story before you can decide the way to present it.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Naomi Pauls June 2, 2015 at

Thoughtful and useful words. Thank you! Also I enjoyed your photos of the roots and trees. Made me wonder who planted that circle. Do you know what kind of trees they are?

Matilda Butler June 2, 2015 at

Hi Naomi:
Thanks for your comment. As you can tell, these trees and their roots made a strong impression on me.
I can’t state for sure the name of the tree. But I can say that they look like outdoor, grown-up versions of a rubber tree plant. The leaves are the same and they emerge in the same way. Since it’s Hawaii, all kinds of plants that I have known in small versions as houseplants grow vigorously outside.
PS Just checked. These are indeed rubber tree plants…or officially Ficus elastica.

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