To Structure your Memoir, Look for Turning Points

Some memoirs lend themselves to being written as epic tales, while others are best framed as a series of vignettes or short stories. Which style you choose for your memoir depends, in large part, on how you remember the past and how you developed as a person–gradually, or all at once. In my work as a ghostwriter, I listen to people tell the stories of their lives and it becomes apparent pretty quickly which type of memoir the client should write. I had a client a few years ago whose life amounted to a series of big romantic mistakes until he finally realized that there was just one woman for him and he had to do whatever it took (and it took a lot) to get her back. This story was an epic romance structured in such a way that the one big turning point was crucial to the story, and until that turning point, the subject basically floundered through his life. This is the kind of book that doesn’t lend itself to the short-story format. But a lot of memoirs are better written in such a way that they deal with the small revelations and changes people goes through day by day, year by year, as they overcome obstacles and become adults.


When many people tell the stories of their lives, they remember certain incidents in flashes. Often, they don’t fully understand the significance of each event, but the events stick in their minds. These are the kind of stories we work on in a vignette-style memoir. I encourage the client to tell me the details of the story, and we examine it for meaning. Sometimes the meaning is simply that this was one more step along the path to realizing how to handle certain of life’s problems. And that’s enough.String together a few vignettes that each take the subject one step closer to an important revelation, and you’ve got a turning point. Ultimately, we are looking for turning points in memoirs, but, in life, turning points often don’t come all at once. We realize things slowly, over time, and eventually we make those changes that help our outer circumstances match our inner realities.

Finding those turning points is the key to making a memoir work, but when I’m ghostwriting for clients, they are usually so deeply immersed in the complexities of their memories that it’s hard for them to see the stories the way I do. I’m just looking for one thing–how did this event change you? Often, clients don’t know, so I guess, and I often guess right, because looking at a life from the outside simply gives one that perspective. But what it comes down to is: some people change gradually, over many years, and others change quickly, all at once, and it’s my job, as a memoir ghostwriter, to figure out where those transitional moments are and to choose a story structure that highlights those changes most accurately.


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