How do you decide what goes in a book or essay?
You’ve been writing, but now it’s time to impose some sort of order on your personal stories. Narrative frames and structures help us choose which sections of our drafts we should include in our final polished story.
In the drafting stage, you should write about whatever you find interesting. Exploratory writing is a great way to get to know yourself better. You’ll uncover the themes and topics that are resonating with you right now.
But if you’re interested in publishing your stories as a book, I invite you to apply some structure. Our creativity increases if we give it a clear path to follow.
Familiar (or at least identifiable) narrative frames help the reader trust you. Structure reassures the reader that your stories add up to something more than a bunch of anecdotes. That they are a path to a destination. You as a character are going somewhere, and you’re taking them on the journey.
Here are six narrative structures to consider as rough outlines for memoir and personal essays.
My Story in Five Items
Five men dead in five years. Why? A brother and four friends show us how poverty and racism destroy the lives of Black men in America.Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
Familiar objects and cultural touchpoints can serve as a doorway into the community that created them and assigned them value. The reader will begin to understand your relationship to those items as a reflection of your relationship to that world.
This structure is so approachable! Put your personal spin on the examples below:
- The five things you chose to keep when your family cleaned out your grandmother’s house
- Three foods your mom used to cook that show how you lived between several cultures
- What you got for Christmas for several years, and how that reflects the way your family was changing
This is a great structure to explore as a writing prompt. When you’re ready to share with readers, your work will probably be stronger if the selected items lead you toward an organizing theme or insight. This structure could get a little unwieldy if you are working with a large number of items.
Flash fiction example: “The Voice of Things” by Sven Birkerts in Brevity
Learning About Your Family to Learn About Yourself
All four of Nora’s grandparents lived through the Second World War, but they never spoke of it. She visits archives, conducts research, and interviews family members, uncovering their stories and how they informed her own.Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home by Nora Krug
The internet has opened up incredible opportunities to unearth family history through genealogical research. Who knows what you’ll discover? But in addition, you’ll also write about who you are and what makes you curious about your family. Families often have a large cast of characters. Keep the focus limited by investigating a specific relationship or moment in your family history.
I have a soft spot for this kind of narrative exploration. In the rural farming family I grew up in, people weren’t big on sharing their feelings. I like to see writers creating a skillful practice of listening to and honoring family stories.
Stories about family have a built-in audience: your own family. To find a wider readership, make the connection between your stories and wider trends or historical moments.
It can be a lot of work to do this kind of project right, and it may require you to develop new skills as a researcher. There are great resources available for family historians. Your local reference librarian, classes on genealogical research, or sites like ancestry.com can all help you uncover interesting leads. In addition, you might want to read about the historical time period that influenced your family. All of this research will add to the depth of your book. Just be careful not to stall in research mode—at some point, you need to start writing.
Kai Minosh Pyle’s “Autobiography of an Iceheart” weaves together the Anishinaabe legend of the cannibalistic windigo monster with the author’s own experiences as a Native American struggling with isolation, abuse, and severe mental illness. You can read this work in the book Best American Essays 2019 edited by Robert Atwan and guest editor Rebecca Solnit.
Start from two or more seemingly unrelated topics, and gradually reveal to the reader how they are intertwined. Early in the essay you may seem to be dropping a thread sometimes to pick up a new theme. But as you circle back to each strand, the themes will converge, and the structure will form a tight and unified cord.
Some of our stories don’t really work as a chronological list of events. They cover too much life experience and personal growth. Or they require some setup. You need to bring the reader up to speed in an unfamiliar context, to do some world-building. Braided essays are useful for big-picture, thematic topics.
This could also be a great structure for you if you are asking your reader to explore heavy themes. Handing your readers a book full of nonstop scenes of your most difficult experiences may overwhelm them. In a braided structure, you touch on those pivotal moments, but also find other interesting entry points to your topic. Common ground, safe ground, will help you hook readers and pull them in.
Potential weaknesses of this structure:
Finding those entry points will require creativity, and weaving your strands together takes some skill. It may take many drafts to get your story right.
I Survived _______
Tara grows up without going to school. Her deeply fearful parents control her access to knowledge about the world outside her rural homestead. When she manages to attend college without their help, her professors and fellow students misinterpret her extensive ignorance about world events and mainstream culture as intentional provocation—and she begins to realize that her journey from outsider to educated will take much longer than she expected. She goes on to graduate with a PhD from Harvard.Educated, by Tara Westover
My niece is obsessed with the I Survived series for young readers. I think there’s an enduring market for memoirs and personal essays along the same lines.
Surviving cancer, surviving trauma, surviving natural disasters, surviving fame. Many of us wonder how we would cope in similar difficulties, and we read these stories with deep curiosity. You may be able to help someone who is going through the same thing. This type of story follows a classic hero’s journey through challenge to victory, with setbacks along the way.
You’re going to have to bare all with this narrative structure. It won’t serve the reader to sugarcoat what happened. The worse the thing that happened to you, and the more powerful your resilience, the greater your potential readership. People involved in your story may dispute how you tell it. (Westover’s mother disliked how she was portrayed so much that she published a memoir rebuttal called Educating.) Publishing an “I survived” memoir can also permanently attach that survivor identity to you in the public consciousness, which could come to feel limiting.
I Was Blind but Now I See
A newfound belief supported William Lobdell through divorce in his late twenties. He became born-again and prayed for opportunities to practice his faith and values in his journalism work. A position writing about religion for the LA Times seemed like an answer to prayer—but it was the beginning of an eight-year journey through doubt.Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America—and Found Unexpected Peace by William Lobdell
A conversion story is a tale of a complete change of heart in your faith, politics, gender, relationships, or professional life. Set the stage with scenes of your life “before.” Include a scene of that pivotal conversion moment when you knew your ideas and practices would need to change. Then contrast scenes of life “after” to help the reader understand the new you.
Keep in mind that comprehensive identities like faith are multi-layered, combining beliefs, practices, private and public expressions, and social relationships. Because of that, your conversion story may have many small moments of change or insight instead of one big one. You may need some internal organization in the story to move the reader through these moments. Here are some possible organizations:
- From the personal to the political (or communal): Show the impact of your realization on how you felt about and behaved toward yourself, on your most important relationships, and then finally on your relationship to the community
- Thematic: Because conversion is often framed as new beliefs changing behavior, you can emphasize the teachings of the belief you are moving toward or away from. Here are some examples: a chapter for each of the beatitudes that speak to you, a chapter for each step of the 12-step program, a chapter for each rule of the diet you follow that helped you get fit
- Chronological: This structure probably works best if you made a lot of changes in a short time
I enjoy seeing this narrative form deployed in interesting new ways (for example, by those who are deconstructing their faith). The more dramatic the change in your life before and after, the better this structure will work.
Possible weaknesses of this frame:
We continue to grow and change as long as we are alive. We can’t know for sure that we won’t learn to see things with more nuance, deconvert, or convert again to a new religion. Like the author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye (now divorced and presumably hoping people will date him in spite of his book), we may come to view our book and the conversion framing as a snapshot of how we felt at a particular place in our life. That said, it can be so helpful to process big identity questions in writing. Writing about your experience may continue to be meaningful to you and others even if you outgrow your statement.
Look at Me Struggling to Wrestle Meaning out of My Experiences
In her essay “Here is My Heart,” Megan dissects deer hearts in an attempt to interrogate her own feelings about mortality and her protective love for her father—who insists on climbing mountains after a series of heart attacks.The Wrong Way to Save Your Life: Essays by Megan Stielstra
Maybe your process is your story. You want to take the reader on a journey as you try to figure something out. The reader will emerge with a clear picture of your very human struggle to make sense of life.
Your goal will be to pull your readers along through your dead ends and detours. In the end, we will probably arrive someplace completely unexpected, or perhaps nowhere at all.
I find it humble and honest when writers admit that they don’t have all the answers yet. Writing about the search for meaning can be a great place to start. Maybe you don’t know yet why you are compelled to write about your experiences, or you are a new writer who is still discovering their identities. To me, this approach works for writers who are ready to be vulnerable about the messiness of life and the fact that meaning is a moving target.
The process of exploratory writing can be very important for personal development. But making that exploratory writing interesting for readers can be tough.
Take it from me, someone who managed to fall asleep watching Patrick Stewart perform live in Waiting for Godot: you’ll have to write extremely compelling prose to engage the reader. They might be as frustrated by your meandering journey and dead ends as you were! And they might tune out. Having a distinctive voice is important in this style.
You’ll need to include some action to keep things interesting, but you’ll want that action to be believable. Are you really the type of person to purchase animal hearts and dissect them on your kitchen table, over and over (like the author of the example essay above)? The action needs to be motivated by who you are as a character.
It’s hard work to write a satisfying ending without showing some type of transformation or insight, but the whole point of this posture is that you shouldn’t know what that ending is when you begin to write. Finally, there’s a risk of the narrative feeling performative. From start to finish, this is a challenging narrative frame to work with.
This type of narrative might have limited appeal to readers who aren’t writers and other creative, literary types.
Consider the narrative frames that other writers have used as a source of inspiration, and possibly a hint about what might interest your readers. They aren’t rules. You can pick and choose what works for your story, or try something new.
This blog post is not an exhaustive list by any means. Explore other examples of narrative structures from the Further Reading list below. Or leave a comment! I’d love to hear about narrative frames that you’ve noticed and appreciated in your own reading.
A bucket trip as a time to reflect on the past and grow toward the future | Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert
A collage of self-contained pieces that add up to something bigger | Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly
Telling the same story in different modes to reveal new facets | In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
Finding the shaping structure in the process of writing a memoir | From Driven: A White-Knuckled Ride to Heartbreak and Back by Melissa Stephenson