Memoir groups on social media debate regularly about how to structure a memoir. As a memoir writing coach, I take what I assume is a conventional approach to memoir structure, one in which the stories are divided into three acts, like a play. I coach novice memoirists in this approach because I think it gives the writer the greatest chance of producing a coherent and engaging memoir.
This three-act structure is not for pantsers—those who write when and how the urge hits, who don’t follow a roadmap on their journey, but just start off and go wherever the storytelling wind takes them. No, developing and following a three-act structure for a memoir forces you, within reason, to follow an outline that moves you in a predictable way—from the introduction of your circumstance to its resolution. To do this, the writer must be a planner.
So, what is the three-act structure for memoir and is it for you?
The Classic Three-act Structure
The three-act structure is the basis of narrative fiction, creative nonfiction, and plays. It is not specific to memoir writing, it is just where I apply it in my coaching since I don’t work with fiction. My Google search for the phrase three-act structure came back with more than five billion results. Five billion. So, if you want to read more about this method, you won’t have any trouble finding information! And that’s good, because I’m not going to spend time describing it here.
My search results also came back with scores upon scores of images that illustrate this structure. They were all informative and showed the same information as this one:
Here’s another, with slight adjustments to the climax of Act Two and what’s included in Act Three:
But, as you can see, they are effectively the same structure.
I’m not going to explain which stories go into which act; as a writing coach, I will be happy to guide you through that process for your memoir. What I am going to do is explain why I believe that following this structure is the best (though not necessarily the easiest) way to produce a memoir that accomplishes everything a memoir is supposed to accomplish:
Presents a clear theme (the author’s argument)
Shows what is at stake for the author (the problem to be fixed in this memoir)
Describes what challenges are encountered
Shows how the author fails to overcome those challenges
Identifies the disaster (biggest challenge, final straw), the point at which the author knows the situation cannot go on and must change
Offers the resolution to the problems faced throughout the memoir
Concludes when the author has become the person they want to be
To follow the three-act structure, you will have to really work as a writer. It is for those you dare take on the challenge of becoming an author.
The #1 Mistake in Memoir Writing
If you read my other blog articles on memoir, you will see that I can’t say enough about what the purpose of memoir is. And I can’t say it any more clearly than I did in Memoir is a Journey Story. If you haven’t read that one, stop and do so now. I’ll wait. . . .
So what is the #1 mistake that first-time memoir writers make? I’ve talked about the four most common memoir writing mistakes in this article. But since writing that, I have found that the most common mistake is not having a clear point or reason for the memoir—a clear, concise answer to the question, “Why are you writing this?” Related to that, I ask, “What lesson have you learned that you are going to share with the reader?” As I’ve said before:
No meaning, no memoir. No transcendence, no memoir. No takeaway for the reader, no memoir.
Frankly, I’ve lost potential memoir coaching clients over this. But that’s OK. Let me be clear about how deeply I want to help someone write a truly good memoir! Maybe even a great one. If I’m coaching you, we agreed that you, the writer, are serious about producing a memoir that has an interesting point, a clearly defined audience, and a strong, satisfying conclusion.
And by satisfying, I don’t mean where all problems have disappeared and everything is rainbows and butterflies. As I tell my coaching clients, your memoir will end when you reach the point where you have risen to your challenges to the best of your ability. If yours is a story of a marriage in decline, you might ultimately get divorced. You did all you could and, yet, the marriage dissolved. And you accept this reality and the change this journey has resulted in. You don’t need a happily ever after but you need to show your transformation and the lessons you learned from it.
Finally. . .
Writing is hard. Writing memoir is really hard. And yes, you can quote me on that! It’s hard mentally, physically, and, maybe most of all, emotionally. I gave my advice for working through the challenges of writing your memoir in this article about cutting yourself some slack. And I’ve suggested stepping stones for building up to tackling a memoir in this article about journaling.
If you are ready to tell your journey story, I’m ready to guide you. Please let me know how you feel about applying the three-act structure to memoir writing in the comments below.
In addition to working as a nonfiction and creative nonfiction editor and writing coach, I am co-author, with Dr. Terri Lyon, of the book Make a Difference with Mental Health Activism: No activism degree required—use your unique skills to change the world. Visit my website page Make a Difference and Dr. Lyon’s activism website Life At The Intersection to learn more about Make a Difference, including how to place bulk orders.