In novels, the protagonist is defined as the character most changed by the dramatic action of the story. In memoirs, the main character is the author herself who is also defined as the character most changed by the dramatic action in the memoir. When I consult with memoirists on the plot and structure of their memoirs, I immediately switch the main character of the memoir from being the writer with whom I’m consulting into a protagonist instead.
I do this for three reasons.
1) Just as the protagonist in a novel or screenplay is transformed by the dramatic action in the story, the memoirist must also show the same sort of transformation in herself due to the external dramatic action of the events of her life portrayed in the memoir. Story is all about the protagonist undergoing a journey and becoming transformed in the process. The journey itself must be built on exciting dramatic action in order to please and entertain the audience.
2) A switch in the focus from the writer to the protagonist gives the memoirist enough distance from her own story to better determine the elements needed to create the greatest impact on the reader. For example, I have found that although most people are quick to identify other people’s flaws and faults, they have difficulty pinpointing their own. Without a flaw, the character arc in a memoir becomes more difficult to manage.
3) When the feedback I give during a plot consultation is focused on the protagonist of the story conveyed in the memoir, the input is not taken as personally as if I were referring to the writer herself. For instance, many writers tend to be introverts, which often translates into a passive main character that often floats from one event to the next. It is easier for both the writer and myself when such a problem is referred to through the guise of the protagonist.
Memoir writing at its best shares the writer’s past with the reader in story form in order to entertain, enlighten, motivate, and/or make sense of life itself.
Anxious to leave a legacy, more and more baby boomers are turning to writing their memoirs. For some, the story reveals itself effortlessly. Others have difficulty raising the veil for clarity. In the second case, I often find the problem lies in having lived a vast and rich life. What to put in and what to leave out becomes the dilemma.
In order to bring a story to fullness, a writer searches for the underlying structure that best demonstrates some sort of meaning. There are three ways to do this.
1) Write what you are drawn to write and see what you end up with.
2) Pre-plot scenes and ideas on a Plot Planner based on the Universal Story, keeping alert for the moments that could constitute a major crisis which in turn creates a jumping off place for the crowning glory of the work ~ the climax.
3) Write what you are drawn to write and, at the same time, plot out scenes and ideas, keeping in mind the form of the Universal Story.
An event written in scene does not warrant staying in a memoir merely because “it happened that way.” Yes, using true events often leads to a richness of authentic details and emotional revelation. However, just because something meaningful and life-changing happened to you in no way guarantees that the event will be meaningful to your audience. And, of course, the true events must contribute to the overall story plot, or these authentic details end up weighing down the story.
The events themselves must build in conflict, tension, and suspense and provide some sort of thematic significance in the end.
A recent plot consultation revealed a tragic story of loss the writer lived through. This is not unusual. Most of us have experienced some sort of trauma in our lives. Writing about it helps bring meaning and closure. If the aftermath that ensues after a trauma and what is lost and what is gained provides excitement, terrific. However, the one event is not always enough to wrap an entire memoir around. If this is the case, then a secondary plot line may be needed to create more page-turnability to the project and show the overall character transformation. Thus, the trauma becomes the back story, that which makes the character who they have become while the secondary plot line becomes the front story, the moment-by-moment pursuit of a specific and tangible goal.
For for a passage or sentence, character, or plot angle to remain in a memoir will not be because of the beauty of the writing or the cleverness in the plotting or the depth of the characters, although these things are critical in captivating the reader. Each line and each element in each and every scene of a memoir belongs there because it has a definite purpose in providing overall meaning to the piece.
The only scenes that belong in a memoir are the ones that best show how a character responds to the challenges, conflicts, tension, and suspense in one’s own life as she moves nearer to transformation and, in the end, contribute to the overall meaning of the story.
Martha Alderson is the Plot Whisperer. Her latest book — The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master has been released by Adams Media. She is the founder of the award-winning blog: The Plot Whisperer, a vlog on YouTube: How Do I Plot a Novel, Memoir, Screenplay? Blockbuster Plots for Writers, and International PlotWriMo. Her books include Blockbuster Plot Pure & Simple and Blockbuster Plots Scene Tracker Kit and several plot dvds and ebooks. Martha takes readers and writers beyond the words and into the very heart of a story. Her clients include best-selling authors, writing teachers, fiction editors, and Hollywood movie directors.