Structure is a must if you’re going to write memoir – well, any genre really. Without structure, your memoir will just be a “patchwork” of loosely connected scenes. Structure is the “glue” that holds each scene together making it possible to weave “a takeaway point,” which your memoir must have if it’s going to speak to your reader.
If you want your memoir to read like a story, then you need to work closely with structure, which is many a writer’s enemy because the mere implications conjures up the feeling that you’re killing creativity.
These five pointers will help you turn your dull manuscript into one that will sparkle. Structure isn’t just the beginning-middle-end that holds your story arc; it’s also the little things like transitions that open and close scenes and enliven characters.
The best way to view structure is to incorporate micro-macro elements to support your story arc. Here are five pointers to keep in mind:
1. Make structure your friend even with the littlest things. Start incorporating transitions that glue one part of a scene with the next. Show a character appearing, help your reader see the bus descending. Before your character speaks
2. To see the bigger picture with your story arc, ask yourself, “what’s the purpose of this scene?” “what am I trying to show?” Structure isn’t just helpful for sequencing, but also to paint a picture around the story arc. If it’s just an incident or happening, there won’t be enough “meat” for a takeaway point.
3. Decide which type of memoir you have and this will determine the kind of structure you’ll use. My special guest, Rachel Simon talks at length about structure and its two different types, which is a must-listen to and will teach you a few new and important things about structure which you may not have known. You can listen to our interview over at my global radio show “Giving Voice to Your Story,” which you can listen to here.
4. Plan to use structure for each of your scenes and then decide how the structure of your scenes will support an overarching point.
5. To do an effective job with structure with your overall memoir, you really need to zoom in on the readability of each scene. Scene is the more formulaic expression of what happens “moment-by-moment” and you need to “leverage” this. By leverage, I mean take the content you may have had in previous drafts, and now insert character’s thought and actions, forward-backwards motions, important interactions, and so on.
This too adds for a more colorful dimension of structure. When I first dug into the world of scene writing for my current memoir, “Accidental Soldier: What My Service in the Israel Defense Forces Taught Me about Faith, Courage and Love, I really didn’t have a clue about structure until I hired my editor:
See the difference in the two scenes. Context: I eye the possibility of leaving my current place of work at the dining room at my aunt’s kibbutz, so I can be surrounded by less bossy volunteers like Shawna.
Chapter 3 Escaping Shawna (Before editorial help)
I finally “graduate” from the mindless work of chopping vegetables all morning long and stand on a little stool and stir big pots of chunky and hearty soups. The thing though is that I can’t avoid Shawna since I’m stationary. When I was cutting vegetables, I could grab my stool and bucket and even shop and peel outside on the kitchen exit while breathing in the smell from the nearby garbage. I’d get up to stretch and walk down the road as far as I could to catch a glimpse of the yellow gate wondering how far out it was to the orchards.
Cooking is an act of timeliness. The good thing is that these soups don’t have frozen vegetables from my youth or chemicals from soup powders and mixes. Each morning after breakfast, I sit next to a small worktable and chop vegetables after vegetables – some of which are still yet unnamed in Hebrew. At around 9:30 am, my uncle parks the kibbutz’s white van near the rear end of the kitchen to bring back packed meats and chicken from the factories in the nearby town of Kiriyat Shmona.
Chapter 3 Escaping Shawna (After editorial help)
With Shawna’s erratic behavior, I strategize on getting the hell out of this kitchen. There’s just no other choice. I can continue the mindless work of chopping vegetables, mixing, spicing soups and most recently, making porridge, but I’m constantly worrying whether Shawna will order me around again. I’m afraid I’ll get hurt again by her hot and cold behavior. Each time I hear her whistle or sing, I think, That’s just a cover up for the real Shawna who bosses me around. I consider what other jobs I might take on to get me away from her.
The small-screened windows provide an expanse just wide enough to follow an inconspicuous path of seedlings, forest firs and a ring of wildflowers that meet the apple orchard at the entrance of the kibbutz. It’s there I eye the possibility of peace and quiet from this kitchen drama. I stand on a little stool and stir big pots of chunky and hearty soups, allowing the steam to fog up my glasses and run up and down my nose.
What differences do you notice in the two different scenes?
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