How to Use Story Grid to Write a Memoir

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Story Grid is a powerful tool to craft a story that works. But what if your story isn’t fiction? What if it’s actually your story, your life story, your memoir? How do you write a book about your life?

When you can’t invent the plot points you need to make a story work, but instead must write the real-life events that actually happened, how do you use Story Grid to craft it?

Let’s look at how to use Story Grid to write a memoir.

8 Steps to Write a Memoir Using Story Grid

For the last three years, I’ve worked with author Joe Bunting to edit his memoir, Crowdsourcing Paris. Through this process, I’ve learned a lot about how to apply Story Grid principles to memoir writing.

Memoir shares the same narrative structure as fiction, and if you’ve written a novel using Story Grid, much of this process will be familiar. But memoir poses a few unique storytelling challenges, and so there are some tweaks to the way I approach Story Grid in terms of memoir specifically. I’ll walk you through how we handled them in Crowdsourcing Paris here.

Want to write a memoir using everything you’ve learned from Story Grid? Here’s what to do.

1. Decide what your book is about.

A memoir is about your life story, yes. But it isn’t about all of your life story. It’s about one specific story arc, one piece of your life.

What story do you want to tell with this book?

Maybe it’s what you learned through a relationship. Maybe it’s about a hard year of your life battling an illness. Maybe it’s about the time you went on an adventure to travel the world.

Another way to think about this is in terms of the message you want to share with your readers. How have you changed as a person? How are you different now than you were at some point before? And what circumstances and events created that change?

As you decide what your story is about, remember to keep it focused to just one set of events, one aspect or area of your life. It’s tough to narrow your focus down to just one topic and cut everything else, but it will help your reader stay focused and help you navigate the writing process a little more easily.

The good news is, this doesn’t have to be your last book. You can write several memoirs with different themes and messages, even about overlapping events.

So don’t worry about cutting events that don’t fit out of this book. Save them for the next one!

2. Choose your internal genre.

In other words, decide what your book is really about.

At the heart of memoir is an internal change in the protagonist/author. Marion Roach Smith, author of The Memoir Project, defines memoir like this:

“Memoir is about something you know after something you’ve been through.”

That “something you know” is the internal shift, the internal transformation. In Story Grid terms, it’s the internal genre.

Notice how Marion puts the internal genre first, at the beginning of her definition. Your internal genre will most likely be your memoir’s global genre, the primary arc of your story.

For a deep dive into the Story Grid internal genres, take a look at Kim Kessler and Leslie Watts’s internal genre articles: part one, part two, and part three.

How do you know which internal genre is the right one for your memoir? As you study the internal genres, ask yourself questions like these:

  • What did you learn through this experience?
  • What message is really important to you, that you just have to share?
  • At your lowest point, what did you struggle with? What decision did you have to make?
  • How are you different now than you were before?

Then, choose which internal genre best fits the story you want to tell.

3. Choose your external genre.

Your memoir’s core is its internal genre. But an internal genre alone won’t make for a very good story.

In order to communicate your internal change to your readers, you’ll need to frame it in an external experience. Marion Roach Smith calls this “something you’ve been through.” Story Grid calls it your external genre.

Of course, memoirists face a unique challenge that fiction writers don’t have to worry about. In fiction, you can make up events exactly as you like them, designing plot points to fit the genre you want to write.

In memoir, though, you’re limited by reality. You don’t get to choose the hurdles you’ve faced or the order of events. Your challenge is to tell the story of what actually happened.

How can you tell which external genre best fits your memoir? I recommend two approaches:

First, look for the high points in the story you want to tell. What are the big moments, the most exciting, most thrilling, most emotional, most harrowing scenes?

If it’s a reunion—or a breakup—you’re probably writing a love story. If it’s a fall off a cliff or a near-death experience, you might be writing an action story. If it’s your theatrical debut, you might be writing a performance story.

If you’re still not sure, look for the value shift in your story. What life value is at stake? Is it love/hate (love)? Life/death (action)? Honor/shame (performance)? Justice/injustice (crime)?

It might also help to take a look at some common external genres for memoir:

  • Love: Eat, Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.
  • Action: Travel memoirs are often Action Adventure stories, like Wild by Cheryl Strayed and Crowdsourcing Paris by Joe Bunting.
  • Performance: Julie and Julia by Julie Powell.
  • Thriller: Memoirs about abuse could fall in the crime, horror, or thriller arena.

Your external genre will shape the choices you make about which events to include in your story and which to cut, so take this chance to think through what kind of story you want to tell.

4. Create your Foolscap Global Story Grid.

Choosing your internal and external genres is like picking your destination for a long trip. Your Foolscap Global Story Grid is the map that will help you get there.

In your Foolscap Global Story Grid, you’ll answer the Editor’s Six Core Questions. These questions will help you apply your chosen genres to your personal story. I recommend Rachelle Ramirez’s guide for more details on how to answer the Six Core Questions for memoir.

Then, you’ll use the Five Commandments to create a loose outline of your beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff. This will create a basic framework for your memoir. It’ll help you narrow your focus from all the events in your life to the most important events for this story.

For more tips on how to think through your Foolscap, I recommend Julie Blair’s guide.

5. Write your first draft.

With your genres in mind and your Foolscap Global Story Grid in hand, you’re ready to write.

Your goal here is to get the entire story on the page. Don’t worry about getting it perfect. Don’t even worry too much if you might be writing scenes that won’t fit in the book. You’ll fix all that later.

For now, just write.

When you get stuck, think back to your internal and external genres. What elements do stories like yours require? What big moments in your genre will happen next? How can you write your way to those?

Write your way all the way to the end.

And when you finish your book, take a deep breath. Eat a cupcake to celebrate. Throw a party! And take a break for a couple weeks.

You did it. You wrote a book!

6. Check your work.

You began your memoir with your idea, your genres, and your Foolscap Global Story Grid. In a sense, you began with a hypothesis of what your story would be.

Now, it’s time to find out what your story actually is.

You’ll do this in a few ways:

Read your book. Your goal here is to get a sense of the entire book as a whole. Don’t make changes as you read; just make notes on a list of any changes that come to mind.

Revisit your Foolscap. Are the genres you chose actually the genres present in your manuscript? Or did you discover something new along the way? Review your Six Core Questions and the core scenes of your beginning, middle, and end to see whether they match. Adjust your Foolscap to fit your book, or make notes about changes you’ll need to make in your book in order to fit the Foolscap. Most likely, you’ll adjust your Foolscap and your book.

Review your conventions and obligatory scenes. This is technically part of your Foolscap, but it’s important enough to merit a note of its own. What conventions and scenes must be in your book, based on the genres you chose? Can you find them? Are any missing or unclear?

Spreadsheet your book. For the most thorough and intensive exploration of your book, break it down using the Story Grid Spreadsheet. This will give you a scene-by-scene view of where it’s working so far, where it’s not, and exactly what you’ll need to do to fix it. Here’s Anne Hawley’s advice on how to get the most out of your spreadsheet.

Together, your Foolscap and spreadsheet will help you pinpoint the most important changes you’ll need to make as you edit.

7. Write your second draft.

If your first draft was about getting your ideas on the page, your second draft is about structure.

In Story Grid terms, that means it’s about making sure all your genre elements are present and working.

Are you telling the story you set out to tell? Or did you discover a different story you actually want to tell as you drafted, and now you can reshape your book around that?

Are your conventions and obligatory scenes of your global genre present? Which ones are obvious in your life story, and which ones do you need to get creative to include?

Note that I called this step “write your second draft,” but it’s okay (and totally normal!) if it takes you a few drafts to work out all the structural kinks.

When you finish your draft, go back to step six and check your work again. You’re getting closer to a powerful memoir!

8. Write your third draft.

Or your fourth, or your fifth—in other words, the draft after you finish your structural edits.

Now you’re into the polishing phase. Your focus in this stage is on the Five Commandments, particularly of each scene.

Of course, your story has been built around the Five Commandments from the beginning; this isn’t something new you’re adding. Rather, this is your chance to refine each scene, to make the highs higher and the lows lower.

As you edit this draft, double check to make sure each scene has all five commandments. If any are missing, add them! Or ask yourself whether that scene is truly necessary after all.

And for the scenes that do contain all five commandments, look for ways to refine them.

Where can you heighten the drama? Where can you make your inciting incidents punchier, your progressive complications weightier, your crises more tense, your climaxes more exciting, your resolutions more satisfying?

This may mean changing the action, or it may mean moving around sentences, adding and subtracting just the right details to ensure your reader feels the build all the way through the scene.

Again, it’s perfectly fine if you do this several times, polishing for more than one draft. Writing is an iterative process.

And when your polish is done, you’ll have finished writing an amazing memoir.

Story Grid Your Memoir . . . Or Your Life

Do these steps work? Absolutely.

I’ve worked with Joe on Crowdsourcing Paris for three years now, and these are the core steps I walked him through to finish his book. We’re both pretty proud of the result. If you’re curious what a memoir written using this process looks like, I invite you to take a look (and maybe even pick up a copy for yourself).

And if you’re thinking of writing a memoir yourself, I encourage you to pick up your pen and give it a try. I think you’ll find it a rewarding process.

One of my favorite parts of using Story Grid to plan, write, and edit memoir is how it illustrates that our lives are really stories, and the genre conventions we talk about here are actually reflections of our lived realities.

Writing memoir challenges you to think through your own life in terms of story principles. And once you’ve done that for one memoir-worthy aspect of your life, you might start to see Story Grid patterns playing out all around you.

What have you learned that you want to share with others? What great story have you lived?

And will you share it as your memoir?

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Alice Sudlow