At a time when you might be struggling to stay focused and make progress on your memoir, visual techniques might be helpful to see your timeline visually without forcing yourself to write your way through a scene.
Memoirs time travel. As a memoir writer, a memory you’ve struggled with thematically might also struggle chronologically. On the page, you have to ground your reader in time. This means figuring out structure in relation to your own sequence of life events.
Everybody has a story to tell. When writing a memoir, we need to find that compelling story that will hook a reader. Then we need to figure out how to structure our material. Mapping your material visually is the easiest way to prevent overwhelm and to also see the story arc unfold, which ultimately helps with the writing.
- Your memoir will be hard to follow
- Editors and agents will know something is wrong, but they won’t always know what
- You can have more confidence in your narration
- Your story holds together better
- You will have a more cohesive narrative
Regardless of your publishing goals, nailing structure will help you deliver a clear message about your memoir’s themes and takeaways.
These four visual mapping techniques will help you keep track of your narrative structure so ultimately your reader will follow the timeline of your story.
Technique #1: Map turning points on a timeline
Mapping your turning points or defining moments are the seeds of change and transformation that you’ll later turn into scenes. A scene is a moment of action—one bead of the necklace that moves the hero along the journey of transformation.
Start by mapping out a timeline where you plot out ten to twelve defining moments—events where life took a turn. Write vignettes about this event. As you write these vignettes, you may find a pattern and start looking for your main themes. Once you start writing, you’ll need to find the structure that will allow your story to make sense. A chronological format might work best for this linear progression, but you might want to start the action from the middle instead of going back and forth in the timeline.
You might find that after writing a short scene, the action does not support your theme and the narrative arc. Be prepared to do some creative experimentation.
Here are examples of turning points from my memoir Just the Way He Walked: A Mother’s Story of Hope and Healing:
- the moment I realized my husband was an alcoholic
- the day I left my drunken husband with two toddlers in tow
- the day I saw my teenage son drunk for the first time
- the day I realized I was enabling my son
Another way to map your timeline is by thinking through a theme, which will create the spine for your memoir.
Example of a theme: recovering from a breakup, or a divorce
Some of those turning point moments will focus on the breakup, but other turning points will be flashbacks about how you fell in love, how you wanted this person to be in your life, and what happened when you changed, for example.
Technique #2: The storyboard technique
A memoir needs to address character arc. The storyboarding technique is especially helpful with addressing a character arc in three parts.
You’ll need tri-folded cardboard poster, colored post-it notes and felt markers. On yellow post-it-notes, write each chapter and year. On a different colored post-it-note, write the purpose for each of the three acts that will organize the plot. Think of these three acts as a narrative arc with a beginning, middle, and end. On a different colored post-it-note, write the purpose for each of the three acts that will organize the plot. You’ll probably need to rearrange it a few times. The trifold cardboard will facilitate your thinking of the three-act structure:
Act I: Departure
Act 2 Initiation
Act 3 Return
For example, in Act 1, your protagonist might have a struggle and enter a low point or dark night of the soul. Then in Act 2, she’ll find a way to confront or learn from the struggle, which leads to a new path in life in Act 3.
Technique #3: Create chapter titles and a table of contents
A book by nature is linear. We read it from beginning to end. The memories we’re remembering are the experience, so we need a timeline to help us think through the plot linearly. Create a table of contents, even if it’s a working draft.
- Identify chapters and give them chapter titles
- Start labelling your chapters as chapters, and with titles if you have them
- Let your work-in-progress take the form of a real book
Technique #4: Tree of me
More like a creative exercise or tool, “the tree of me” stimulates your memory of the people and events that shaped you into the person you are today.
By having this visual tool to brainstorm your story, you can generate many story ideas that may or may not fit into your structure. When you have a solid structure, you can focus on what vignettes will keep moving the story along. As much as you may love a vignette, it may not have anything to do with the main theme and will serve to distract the reader. Always remember, a memoir is not just about you and all the events in your life. It’s about how these events changed you. It’s about something universal—love, forgiveness, loneliness—that will give your memoir a clear takeaway for the reader. If you have a strong structure, the reader will stay engaged and perhaps even find herself changed in the process.
Structure creates the spine of your memoir. These four visual mapping tools will help you organize the way you think about your story instead of allowing the material to control you. Over time, you’ll begin to see the connection between turning points and the larger narrative arc. The key is to remember that your story matters. Keep writing and, eventually, you’ll find the heart of your story.
Kathleen Pooler, the creator of A Memoir Writer’s Journey, uses hope, faith, and writing to transform, heal, and transcend life’s obstacles and disappointments. Just the Way He Walked is Pooler’s second memoir of overcoming alcoholic enabling symptoms. Her debut memoir addresses one woman’s life lessons from family abuse towards her journey of empowerment. To learn more about Kathleen and her books, visit her website.