The “E” Structure for a Memoir

Ghostwriting clients often ask about book structure and about the wisdom of using flashbacks, so my work as a memoir ghostwriter often includes educating clients as to how writers think and work, so that, together, we can make informed decisions for the book. Today’s blog is about just that.

The caper I’m working on now has what some people call an “e” shaped structure, and I thought writers and potential clients out there might like to know what that is. You’ve read this structure a thousand times, I guarantee. It opens in “media res,” toward the end of the story, with a dramatic scene that ends in a cliffhanger, or at least a suspenseful moment.

Then, in chapter two, the story reverts back to the beginning of the story and the scenes move forward consecutively through time until they reach the point where you started. The author skims over the scene you already read in the first chapter, or gives you new information about it, so it seems new again, and then the story continues to the end. You can picture the storyline as a lowercase letter “e”, where it starts at the lefthand side of the cross piece, swirls around, reconnects with where it began, then continues.

A lot of people call this structure a “flashback,” and, while most folks will understand what you’re talking about if you do, that is not technically correct. A flashback occurs when a story takes place in one time frame, then the next section reverts to a completely different time frame, in the past. Then, just as quickly, the story in the original time frame recommences.

Ultimately, if you’re reading a book, who cares? If you like the story, you like it. But, for my readers who are writers or would-be writers, the distinction is important. For my ghostwriting clients, this type of information is especially important. Every profession has its own special lingo, and only those who speak it can really communicate in the field. A surgeon doesn’t call a scalpel a “knife,” and an artist doesn’t call vermillion “that bright colored stuff,” nor does a writer call an e-structure a flashback.

I usually have to spend some time educating my ghostwriting clients as to the vocabulary we need to use to discuss our story, so that we’re using the same words to mean the same things. I’d love to skip this part of the process and say, “Don’t worry! I’ll take care of everything!” and I could do that if the client didn’t want input into the story structure, but, inevitably, ghostwriting clients do.

They have ideas, they want to discuss options, and they want to know which structure lends itself more to drama and suspense. They don’t fully trust me until I’ve explained what I’m doing and thinking, and then they usually let go. This is the funny thing about hiring a ghostwriter. You won’t be writing the book, but you will be discussing the book quite a bit, especially before I begin writing, while we’re in the interview phase. So, you do get to become, to some small degree, a writer.

In the end, you’ll have an amazing to book to brag about, but you’ll also actually know a bit of insider lingo, like “the e structure,” which, at the very least, you can use to impress your friends at cocktail parties. For more details on this structure, see a book called Shimmering Images, by Lisa Dale Norton.

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