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  • [TIPS OF THE TRADE]: What makes a winning memoir? Hint: Try a logline.
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[TIPS OF THE TRADE]: What makes a winning memoir? Hint: Try a logline.
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
July 2014
Written by
Ellen Cassedy
July 2014

Once upon a time, my favorite books were novels. All novels, all the time. In recent years, though, I’ve switched my allegiance to memoirs. 


Why, I’m not sure. Because memoirs have magnificently come into their own in our culture? Because I’ve passed the midpoint of my life, so I enjoy writers who are looking back over the span of their own lives? Because I’ve become too ridiculously busy to waste a minute reading anything that isn’t true? 


Whatever the reason, I love memoirs. 


But to win my heart, a memoir must offer all the pleasures of my former love, the novel. 


“It doesn’t matter whether you write fiction or nonfiction,” says Ursula Le Guin, the master of fantasy. “All storytellers work with the same box of tools.”


A memoir must have a plot. Can you imagine a novel without a plot? I can’t. A memoir, too, must tell a story. It must contain suspense. It must contain a narrative arc.


TV and film writers use a technique called a “logline” to help them keep their focus. A logline conveys the gist of a script in just a sentence or two. In a couple of sentences, they convey who the main character is, what he or she is trying to achieve, what or who is in the way, and what will happen if he or she fails. 


In other words, as the logline writers put it: When (inciting incident) occurs, (protagonist) must (objective), or else (stakes).


Stage and screen writers swear by the logline. It helps them stay true to the essence of their story, they say. It keeps every page on track. 


I have a hunch that spending the time to construct a good logline could help many a memoirist. 


So could another technique that one memoirist shared with me: Pretend your memoir is not about you. Pretend you’re writing about someone else. Who is this Ellen Cassedy who goes off on a Jewish family roots trip? What is she after? What happens to her? How does she change? 


Vivid characters are also important if I’m going to keep turning the pages of a memoir. How often do you lose track of who’s who in a novel? Not very often. But with family story, it’s all too common for a reader to confuse Uncle Eddie with Uncle Freddie.


Just like fiction writers, those of us who write from life must take special care to distinguish one character from the next. That’s true even when the character we’re drawing is ourselves. In a first person narrative, the “I” has to be just as vivid a character as everyone other character. 


Can you make a character sketch of each of your main characters – the mother, the father, yourself? Who are your supporting characters? What’s unique about each? Why is each one essential to the story?


And finally, for me, a memoir, like a novel, must contain vivid scenes, when the action slows down and the writer draws me close, with plenty of sensory details. 


As a memoirist myself, I know that the impulse to write a memoir may feel quite different from the desire to spin a yarn. In fact, the memoirist may feel like forgetting about all the tricks of the trade and just telling the truth – honestly, baldly, quirkily. Letting it all hang out.


That raw reality is what gives memoirs their special power. That’s what I love in them. But if, in the process of writing, you don’t shape her material into a story, you’re letting me down as a reader. If you don’t select every incident, every character, with an eye toward moving the story forward, you’re selling me short as a reader. 


If, on the other hand, you put the novelist’s tools to use and tell me a story – a true story, no less! – then I’m yours.



Do you have wisdom to share about writing – or reading – memoirs? Join the conversation.



Ellen Cassedy’s book is We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2012), which has won four national awards, including the Grub Street National Book Prize, and the Towson Prize for Literature awarded annually to a resident of Maryland. It has just been shortlisted for the Saroyan Prize. Ellen’s first post for SheWrites was “Who Cares about Your Family Story? Ten Tips to Ensure Readers Will ...” Her [TIPS OF THE TRADE] series appears monthly. See all of Ellen's Tips for Writers.


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  • RYCJ Revising

    I agree with Joanne S. Frye... regarding plots, and those commenting about having an 'arc' (as in story) versus a plot, or even focusing on the characters and scenery. When the story is working, doing its job, all else will fall in line.

  • Ellen, how have you "married" your personal story with those you are reporting about?  And how have you created a narrative arc within your journalism?

    Tricky stuff!  I'm curious how others reading this thread have accomplished this, as well...

    Kelly Hayes-Raitt

    Mosey on over to my web site and sign in for your free gift -- an mp3 of me reading my book's first chapter about a beggar in Iraq!
  • Ellen Cassedy

    Kelly -- Thanks so much for this description of your journalistic-memoiristic mode.  All fascinating.  I think it's a very promising combination.  I've found that my background in journalism helpful in many, many ways.  Since journalists approach their subject as "educated outsiders," speaking to other outsiders, I'm especially aware of the need to keep in mind what readers know  and don't know.  And journalists have a lot of practice with compression.  And with interviewing.  You're right, adding in our own emotional terrain is new and different -- and very welcome!  Let's keep talking about this subject.

  • <<Can you tell us how being a journalist helps and hurts as you work on your memoir?  That's my background, too. >>

    Ellen, I'm interested in your experience with this.  You are very clear about how memoir "works"! 

    My book is a hybrid:  I call it a "journalistic memoir."  I make up nothing (no quotes unless they are in my notes taken at the time of the conversation, no embellished scenery, no composite "characters," etc.).  That's restrictive, but I chose that route because my book is highly political and I want it to be beyond reproach in its recitation of the "facts" as I experienced them.

    That's also a plus, I think, because it does mean I'm creating a book with impeccable integrity that could be used in classrooms.  It's more in the style of "new journalism" where the reporter and her reactions are reflected honestly in the story -- as opposed to "old school journalism" where the reporter is out of the story and appears to be unbiased.

    Journalists are taught to be objective, but a memoir is anything but objective!  So this style gives me freedom to be clear about my own biases, which, I believe, is a more honest experience for the reader.  It has not been a challenge to toss that "objectivity" away!  Yet, I can't fully ignore other viewpoints, and that creates a dramatic tension in some of the chapters (she said, hopefully....).

    My book has several stand-alone essays that are the length of a newspaper feature (about 2500 wds).  That's a positive, in that the essays can (and do) appear in anthologies and literary journals on their own.  The negative is that there's little "through-thread" that forms a narrative arc, as a solid memoir should.  I'm working on that now -- very challenging!  One writing coach gave me this terrific advice:  I'm being a journalist of my own inner-life.  I'm taking readers not only into actual war zones, but into my own emotional war zone.  That's often more painful and vulnerable than I care to be -- with either readers or myself.

    But, journalists are trained to report as they see it, and that's what I'm trying to do with my own journey after facing a mid-life loss.  We'll see if I'm successful!

    Thanks for asking, Ellen, and I hope this wasn't too esoteric for other SheWriters!

    Kelly Hayes-Raitt

    Mosey on over to my web site and sign in for your free gift -- an mp3 of me reading my book's first chapter about a beggar in Iraq!

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Joanne S. Frye says no, a novel doesn't need a plot, exactly, but does need a focus, theme, arc.  I love what you say about Virginia Woolf conveying the shapelessness of life through careful shaping of her narrative.  Much to think about!

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Kelly Hayes-Raitt:  Can you tell us how being a journalist helps and hurts as you work on your memoir?  That's my background, too. 

  • Joanne S Frye

    To follow up--I don't quite think a memoir does need a plot. But I do think it needs to have a focus, a narrative arc, and a question that it is pursuing. And, of course, it needs to select from experience, not pretend that it can tell the whole story. The trick for Woolf (and for memoirists, I think) is how to convey the shapelessness of life and still compel readers. Woolf for sure showed that it could be done--To the Lighthouse is beautifully compelling and carefully structured without being plotted.  http://joannefrye.com

  • Brilliant blog!  I approach my memoir from the perspective of a journalist.  (I'm writing about my experiences in the Middle East with Iraqi and Palestinian refugees.)  Powerful scenes and people, but I know my weakness is in my "character/narrative arc."  Reworking my chapter outline has helped, but I love, love, love your novelist's perspective, Ellen.  Will work on my logline today!

    Kelly Hayes-Raitt

    Mosey on over to my web site and sign in for your free gift -- an mp3 of me reading my book's first chapter about a beggar in Iraq!
  • Ellen Cassedy

    "It's the story," in a memoir as in a novel, "that must hit the ball out of the park," says RYCJ.  I agree. 

  • Ellen Cassedy

    "I started writing a memoir, and it became a novel," Rossandra White says.  Has anyone else had this experience?  Or the other way around?  Does a memoir require more "telling," and a novel more "showing"?

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Joanne S. Frye reminds us that Virginia Woolf said "life has no plot."  Must a memoir have a plot?  I think so.  Do you agree? 

  • Ellen Cassedy

    Fascinating comments about what makes a memoir work.  Nan Gefen tells us about a woman hit by lightning, who wrote a powerful memoir organized around this theme.  It seems to me that many good memoirs include some form of being struck by lightning.  Agree?

  • RYCJ Revising

    Ellen, you've described it perfectly. The story, and I call it the premise of the story, is so pivotal to working the characters 'up' off the page. Getting over something, or falling in love generally are not strong premises... even if I shall never forget one 'indie' writer who blew me away with her love story. That story just creeped up on me. Before I knew I couldn't put the book down!

    So yes, I have to agree. No matter what the genre, it's the story that must hit the ball out of the park. Do that, and that's a home run. And oh, as if I need include this...I love memoirs too. 

  • Rossandra White

    My writing journey before my memoir Loveyoubye (released April '14), began back in the 90s when I wrote a giant rambling memoir with a billion flashbacks about my childhood back home in Africa. In trying to shape the story, I found myself turning my memoir into a novel with two protagonists. I then wrote a sequel. So by the time I started writing Loveyoubye, I had a hard time "telling" more, reflecting upon events. I was so used to showing not telling. But everything else I'd learned writing fiction served me well.

  • Joanne S Frye

    Nicely put. I, too, have added my love of memoir to my lifelong love of novels. For me I think it's trying to figure out how people make sense of life that draws me to both. When I finally wrote my memoir--Biting the Moon: A Memoir of Feminism and Motherhood--I even found myself using parallels from novels to explore how I thought about my own life. I have been deeply influenced by Virginia Woolf and her notion that life has no plot, but I completely agree with you that even a memoir must have narrative pull, a question to be answered--as well as convincing character and vivid scene and compelling language. 

    Thanks for a terrific post.

  • Nan Gefen

    Excellent post, Ellen--thanks for being so clear about what's needed in writing a memoir. I agree, a story line and well-developed characters really make it zing. I especially like memoirs that are organized around a central theme. I remember one written by a woman who was hit by lightening and survived--I learned not only about her but also how people responded, how this happens to others, etc.  It was not the telling of her life from beginning to end but the telling as related to this experience.