How To Write Your Memoir Outline

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Writers often sit around and debate whether it’s better to plot out a book first, or fly by the seat of your pants. The truth is, there is no one correct answer, except to say, most writers do what works for them. If you are a new memoir writer, however, you’re probably wondering how to write your memoir outline.

In the age old “plotter versus pantser” debate, I find that I am definitely a plotter. Plotting is far more practical. I have tried to write too many books over the years that have fallen flat to believe I can just wing my way through a solid draft.

If I’m going to write a book, my first step is to write a solid outline. 

Most people are familiar with outlines from school. In memoir writing terms, an outline is a document highlighting the chapters and scenes that ultimately form the manuscript. 

How to write a memoir outline is not as easy as it sounds. Coming up with a cohesive and entertaining manuscript is not just a matter of sitting down and starting with the beginning. There are many things a writer must consider. 

How To Write Your Memoir Outline: The Beginning

erick mertzOne of the first things a memoir writer must first decide on is the story’s overall breadth scope. In other words, how much of the subject’s life story are you going to include in the manuscript?

Some books begin with the subject’s birth and proceed through the family story. In many instances, this approach makes sense, but if the memoir seeks to focus on a narrower period in the person’s life, you may want to skip over those early years.

Maybe the key element of the memoir is the subject’s childhood. Why write past the most important parts?

When I write a client’s memoir outline, I often interview them thoroughly. For most clients, we interview in the range of twelve to fifteen total hours. Even if I know we’re going to cover a short period of the person’s life, I like to get the whole story. 

Who are they? What makes them tick? What are some of the formative events? When I’m done with that interview process, I usually have a deep understanding of my subject. 

If you’re writing your own memoir, instead of interviewing, you may brainstorm. You could talk to people who know the critical portions of your life. Whatever the path, the whole story must be understood. 

What Goes In? What To Leave Out?

So, what do you do with all of that information? Twelve to fifteen hours of interviewing amounts to a lot more than can fit into a standard sized manuscript. 

The modern memoir reader doesn’t necessarily want the “birth to death” story. They want to read about the important times and periods in the subject’s life. The next step, after you’ve gathered all the information, is to start paring down what goes in and  ultimately, what gets left out.

I offer this advice with a bit of caution: just because your memoir focuses on a subject’s professional life, for example, does not mean the story excludes everything else. The periods in a subject’s life that end up omitted from the book’s scope and timeline may be valuable context for the story.

What does that actually mean though?

Say you’re writing a memoir about a successful business person. Starting in college they developed an innovative technology and worked a lifetime to build their fortune. You would be wise to focus the manuscript on the years between the genesis of that idea in college to the sale of their company.

On first glance, it may seem like you’re leaving out their childhood, but think again. Those formative years are full of lessons. You may use those for reflective anecdotes throughout the book, showing the subject’s connection to the past.

The point is this: you will need to cut and focus your storyline, but keep in mind there could value there.

People putting large puzzle pieces together

How To Write Your Memoir Outline: The End

Once you’ve decided on your memoir’s focused scope, it’s finally time to lay out the outline. Here are a few key pointers for you to consider before putting pen to paper.

I like to start by ordering the events in my memoir outline chronologically. Start the sequence of events in the very beginning and proceed all the way to the end. 

Remember this though: a story is not a sequence of events. Once you have assembled your timeline, it is time to look at what happened to the subject with a slightly different eye. The eye for story.

What are the most impactful and dramatic moments? 

Many memoirs begin in the middle. Usually this approach capitalizes on a formative and exciting event. This kind of telling sets a tone readers love. Other memoirs start at the end then reel back to the beginning. Readers love this approach because it creates a dramatic. 

When I write a memoir outline, I often go through a few versions before I settle on the one I use. Remember, story takes time. Creating a book people want to read is a process. When you’re finally done with your memoir outline, the result should be the map to a dramatic, interesting and cohesive story.

I hope this addressed some of your interest in how to write your memoir outline. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below. 

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