Knowing what makes the best books in memoir and biography (and autobiography) is crucial to your writing success. Whether you want to write your autobiography or study someone else’s life and craft their biography, there are several key aspects to understand.
When it comes to the best books in memoir and biography, there are several factors that set them apart. There are nearly innumerable sub-genres in nonfiction, but overall, each follow specific storytelling rules.
How can you differentiate what sets apart the best books in memoir and biography from ones that sell, but don’t hit those bestseller lists?
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What Factors Makes The Best Books In Memoir and Biography?
One way to help you write the best books in memoir and biography is by employing fiction techniques in your nonfiction writing. Traditionally, fiction is expected to suspend belief while nonfiction reads as believable.
However, the current trend has shifted away from this normalcy. Today, some of the best fiction feels the most true to life, while the bestselling nonfiction reads as unbelievable. This shock factor—fiction written so realistically it appears true, versus nonfiction so surprising it appears made up—is your key to standing out.
But rather than tell you the current trends, let’s dive into the various key features contributing to the best books in memoir and biography.
Best Books In Memoir and Biography: Key Features
Whether you read copious amounts of nonfiction or are just now starting to branch out into this genre, there are key aspects to note in the various titles you will read. The faster you make yourself aware of these features, the sooner you can use them in your next manuscript.
As usual, writing is subjective, so focus on the features that make sense for your specific writing needs, and ignore or save the rest for another project.
#1 – Follow Classic Story Structure
You likely studied the classic story structure in grade school: inciting incident, climax, resolution. Autobiography and biography specifically follow this structure. Memoir does as well, but at times it pushes the boundaries, choosing to focus more on theme than chronology.
For instance, you may have dove into a memoir and found the storyline jump from present day to years earlier, and then back again. This is a common storytelling technique that follows classic story structure, but pushes its boundaries.
When studying the best books in memoir and biography, be cognizant of traditional writing techniques, but always remember that structure is simply that—structure. Follow what is helpful and push the boundaries on what is not.
#2 – Tap Into Omniscient Point-of-View
Additionally, the best books in memoir and biography boast a unique advantage to other sub-genres. The author has the end of the story in mind, or in the case of an autobiography, already lived it. This insight adds the ability to drop hints throughout the story and share profound takeaways from lived experience.
Be careful to avoid telling the story rather than showing it, but do make use of your omniscient knowledge.
Consider a memoirist starting their story and at the end of the first chapter, sharing something similar to, “If I had known how important that one lesson would be in my life, I may have paid more attention.”
This slight tease uses omniscient point-of-view but does so in a way that hooks the reader and encourages them to read more, rather than telling what happened
#3 – Provide An Intimate Look At Specific Events
Perhaps most importantly, the best books in memoir and biography connect with readers at a deeply personal level. This sub-genre is directly about the protagonist (you or the one you are writing about) and the reader. By default, this sub-genre creates a special type of interpersonal relationship.
It is similar to sharing your life story with an individual and adding the details you would leave out for a crowd. This connection allows readers to see the time period or event written about through a much more empathetic viewpoint.
Studying the Great Depression or learning about what happened on September 11 is one way to learn about both the historical time period and the tragic event. However, reading about someone’s personal experience helps make the event come alive and can teach lessons that facts by themselves simply could not.
Top Best Books In Memoir and Biography
Now that you have three tips on how to create an impactful memoir, autobiography, and biography, it’s time to list several of the top titles in these sub-genres. If you have time, you may want to consider adding several of the following titles to your reading list.
Studying a more recently published work (such as Know My Name) alongside the story of a historical figure can further reveal the key factors that make these books so classic. Below are fourteen of the best books in memoir and biography (and several autobiography titles) to get you started:
- I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
- Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward
- Wild, Cheryle Strayed
- When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi
- Martin Luther, Eric Metaxas
- Greenlights, Matthew McConaughey
- Bonhoeffer, Eric Metaxas
- An Autobiography, Agatha Christie
- The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Franklin
- Chronicles, Bob Dylan
- Know My Name, Chanel Miller
- Made In America, Sam Walton
- Miles: The Autobiography, Miles Davis
- Just As I Am, Billy Graham
You may also want to consider searching out trending bestsellers in these sub-genres. While writing to trends is usually not the best writing strategy, it is helpful to know what’s selling and why before you begin your next manuscript.
Learn Storytelling From Iconic Authors
As you start reading and prepare to write, edit, or finalize your manuscript, here is one parting tip of advice. Undertaking a project in this sub-genre is a tremendous task and requires the following:
- Intimately understanding your own life or the one you write about
- Fact-checking dates, timelines, and a myriad of other factors
- Drawing out the most important lessons and cutting out others
To successfully complete a nonfiction work in this genre is a huge accomplishment. To additionally sell the copy and hit a bestseller list or win an award is an even higher degree of success.
But what makes a bestseller? Marketing plays a substantial role, of course. However, without great storytelling techniques, readers are bound to put the book down and stop recommending it.
So as you open your next book, whether it is a biography or autobiography of an individual you respect, or the memoir of someone you long to emulate, consider the writing style.
What tone and voice does the author use? What do they omit? How can you learn from their technique? What inspiration can you draw from how they condense an entire life to paper without belittling humanity, but rather reinforcing it?
How can your next project show the intricate nuance of an individual, teach life lessons that apply to your target audience, and give the honor due the book’s protagonist?
Ponder these questions as you read your next book. Choose to implement the key factors you studied and feel would best fit with your story. Choose to ignore the ones that do not act as an aid. Simply save them for later.
Then, sit down to write your book. Use your own unique voice and tone, and forget the rules. You prepared, you studied, and you can always edit later. Enjoy this next writing adventure!