Sometimes, the hardest part of writing is getting started.
In a fictional story, it can be difficult to tell when, exactly, to plunk the reader into the action.
When it comes to nonfiction, it can be tricky to look through the huge pool of information and decide how to introduce the topic. What goes first? How should I introduce the reader to this information?
It can be just as tricky when it comes to starting a memoir.
We’ll go over some examples and discuss what these examples do well, show you a few different ways to start your memoir, and walk you through a format to help you see your memoir through to the end!
This guide on how to start a memoir covers:
- Examples of starting a memoir
- How to start a memoir step-by-step
- Start your memoir with a story
- Begin your memoir with stats
- Treat the start of your memoir like a novel
- What is the format of a memoir?
- Get a free class on how to write a memoir
As any fan of memoirs will tell you, memoir is an immensely powerful medium.
Reading compelling, real-life stories about other people can hit home like nothing else, so when you set off to write your own memoir, it can be daunting just to get started. Whichever part of your life you’re focusing on, how do you know where to start?
Examples of starting a memoir
What makes for a compelling start?
Here are four examples of solid openings to memoirs:
“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through the dumpster.”
This opening launches the reader directly into action. The contrast between the narrator wondering if she’s overdressed and Mom rooting through the dumpster is interesting, but honestly, Mom rooting through the dumpster is interesting all on its own. We immediately want to know more.
“The blood is still rolling off my flak jacket from the hole in my shoulder and there are bullets cracking into the sand all around me.”
Here, we’re given an immediate sense of danger. We know that the speaker survives, since he’s writing this memoir, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t worried about him. This opening makes us want to know how he got into this situation, what this situation is, and how he’ll survive.
“The only bread that I knew as a child was store bought, machine made, sliced, plastic wrapped, and white. My mother insisted that my two brothers and I eat a slice of the airy bread smeared with Blue Bonnet margarine as part of our supper. ‘Eat your bread and butter and then you can go play,’ she’d say, as if it were a green vegetable. ‘Crust, too. It’s good for your teeth.’”
The details make this opener outstanding. We have different descriptions of bread and a specific, familiar brand of margarine listed. Additionally, the interaction the mother has with her children is relatable. This opening uses relatability in her anecdote to establish rapport with the reader—we like her, and we want to learn more.
“International baggage claim in the Brussels airport was large and airy, with multiple carousels circling endlessly. I scurried from one to another, desperately trying to find my black suitcase. Because it was stuffed with drug money, I was more concerned than one might normally be about lost luggage.”
This opening sets the scene and cuts straight to a very compelling conflict: there’s drug money in the lost luggage. Again, this raises a million questions, and we expect to figure out what’s going to happen. At the same time, we’re not totally lost in this introduction. We have a guess about what’s going on based on the phrase ‘drug money’ and the fact that Piper’s in Brussels—we know that this is about selling drugs on an international scale.
This is a great example of giving the reader enough information to know what’s going on without giving the game away. We still have a ton of questions, and we’re still going to read to find out what happens to Piper.
How to start a memoir step-by-step
You may have already identified a few common threads in the examples I shared earlier. Compelling openings hook the reader with an interesting fact or conflict that raises questions the memoir promises to answer.
But how do you write a good hook?
Here are three suggestions for how you can start your memoir:
1 – Start with a story
Begin your memoir with an anecdote. It should be something which connects to the rest of the memoir—if you’re writing about your childhood in rural Kentucky, for example, the anecdote should be related to that. It should also connect to the themes you’ll explore throughout your memoir.
Take a look at the opening to Bread: A Memoir of Hunger. Knopp uses specific detail and relatability to make her story pop and draw the reader in. That same story might fall flat without the dialogue and sharp descriptions. You don’t necessarily have to be relatable in your opening anecdote, but it is important to use all the rhetorical tools in your arsenal to hook your reader.
Not sure how to do this? Focus on the senses. What does the scene smell like? Are there any distinctive visuals? What about taste, touch, and sound? Plant your reader in the middle of an interesting story, and they’ll want to see it through.
2 – Start with stats
Let me be clear: you definitely don’t want to open a memoir with an info-dump or an expository paragraph listing statistics and facts. You wouldn’t want to do this in any book, and especially not in a memoir, where readers are looking for a more creative, artistic experience.
This doesn’t mean you can’t use statistics, though. If there’s a statistic about your subject that stands out, try using it to get your reader’s attention. Make sure to tie this statistic to yourself or the memoir’s themes as quickly as possible to keep the information relevant.
3 – Treat it like a novel
Memoir, unlike autobiography, isn’t concerned with minute facts and timelines. It’s more interested in expressing the symbolic truth of an event or period of time in someone’s life. For example, say you’re writing a memoir about the group of friends you had in college. You may gloss over detailed information about, say, your upbringing.
In this respect, a good memoir tends to read more like a novel than like an autobiography. The people in it become characters, and the settings need to pop just like they might in fiction. Similarly, you should use dialogue, description, and supporting characters to your advantage.
What does this mean when it comes to writing your opening? Think of it like you’re opening fiction. Look for tips on writing a good fictional first chapter and apply them to your story.
What is the format of a memoir?
You’ve got all you need to write a fantastic start to your memoir! Now, let’s go over a quick format that will help you write the rest of it. Remember, your memoir should read like a novel—this format is designed with this idea in mind!
1 – Opening
The opening to your memoir should introduce the main ‘characters’ (yourself and other important people), themes, and settings. There may be places or people you won’t introduce quite yet because they don’t appear until later, and that’s fine! But we should definitely know who our narrator is, what their core conflict is, and what kinds of themes we’ll be exploring.
2 – Story
The ‘story’ in a memoir is the driving conflict. This is what made you sit down to write a memoir in the first place—it’s what the book is about. If you’re writing about your friends in college, for example, the story will follow that group, its formation, what you got up to, and how it fell apart.
This may be one single story, told in a straightforward way, or you might play with the formatting. A story can be told through a series of essays, like in John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed, it can move through time linearly, or it can jump around.
Just like writing a fictional novel, you’ll have to figure out what format is the most efficient, effective way of delivering the information you have to share. The bulk of your novel will be this section—think of it as the second act of a movie. This is where the characters respond to conflict, grow, change, and work up to the climax.
3 – Climax
In the climax of your memoir, the themes should come to fruition. This is where the central conflict peaks, leaving the narrator to use the tools they’ve learned so far to overcome this final obstacle.
Obviously, in real life, we don’t really have ‘climaxes.’ Things don’t unfold, usually, in neat little arcs. But for the sake of memoir, you’ll have to sculpt a narrative from real events. If you’re writing about your divorce, for example, and the intense custody battle that ensues, the climax might be the day the judge finally gives her ruling. This is what we’ve been building up to throughout the story.
4 – Resolution
After the climax, a memoir should have a resolution to show how the narrator has changed. This is where you have the chance to really bring your themes home—the way the events of the story impacted your narrator will ultimately decide the message and tone of your memoir as a whole, so it’s important to pay close attention.
For example: Say you’re writing a memoir about a custody battle, and throughout the book, the narrator has used manipulation and scheming to get his way. The judge decides not to give custody to the narrator. The narrator might reflect that this means the system is rigged and stupid, which tells the reader he didn’t learn from these events. Or, the narrator might reflect that this means he needs to change and become a better father—this gives the reader a totally different takeaway.
Staying as true as you can to people and events is important in memoir. Getting at the emotional truth of something often means adhering to the actual truth as closely as possible. The resolution or takeaway, though, is one of those places where you can add some creative liberty. At the time, maybe you didn’t find those events particularly impactful, and you’ve only come to appreciate them in hindsight. Adding the clarification of hindsight can go a long way in creating symbolic meaning that will resonate with your reader.
Do you have any memoir recommendations? Got any tips for writing a good memoir? Let us know in the comments!
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