A book wouldn't be very readable if everything went your hero’s way would it? Imagine a romance where the hero and romantic interest met and BOOM fall in love. It would be short read and not a very good one. It is seldom anyone wants to read about a character who wins, and easily. Particularly if that character is you. Desperate struggles, fights, bad decisions, disagreeable people, wrong turns, red herrings, darn bad luck and thwarted desire. This is the domain of story. Happy times? Hmmmm keep that for the family album.
But how do you plan this in your writing? Doesn’t it just happen? Hell no. You make sure it happens and that is called plotting.
Here’s some ways to do it
You understand all story is driven by conflict
Another word for ‘things go wrong’ is conflict. Heard that one? Well that is how you create it. You make lots of things go wrong – never right.
You roll out situational problems
Make a long list of what is going to go wrong over which your hero has no control. These are things caused by external circumstances – think flat tyre, tornado, wife leaves, gets fired, accused of a crime. Situational problems drive the bigger action of your story. They are great devices because they allow you to really start to build conflict.
Make sure they make wrong choices
You think your character is going to do the right thing. That would be logical and smart. But should they? The right thing would be to report the hit and run. The right thing would be to gracefully resign. But that doesn’t drive story. Story is driven by the hero doing and saying and thinking the wrong thing. So what do they (you) do? Their character flaws drive some of these, others can be unintentional. Tell a lie, choose the wrong path, not get on the plane, accidently go and kill the guy, insult your boss, lose your temper.
You separate events out into scenes
In a memoir (and novel) you have to have a linear plot. You can’t mash it all together like a fruit salad. If a number of things go wrong in one day, you write each one separately into its own dramatic scene. Scenes are the building blocks of story.
10X the tortured thoughts
The biggest feedback I give writers when I edit a manuscript is “put in MORE EMOTION. You may understand what your character is thinking, but does your reader? Have you spelled it out in words? You do this by using interior dialogue. Remember bland thoughts and lukewarm passions are not the domain of story. Characters need to want deeply, feel intensely and fight desperately. That means two things – you need to tell the reader very clearly what you/they are thinking by mixing interior dialogue in at all times, and you need to make it strong and emotive.
Here's a memoir example:
“I don't want to be married anymore.
My husband was sleeping in the other room, in our bed. I equal parts loved him and could not stand him.” – Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert
Make sure your hero actively messes up
Wrong choices don’t just mean thinking about stuff. Characters in book actually go out and DO what seems to be the wrong, worst, dangerous thing. Harry Potter didn’t sit in the library studying potions – he put on his invisibility cloak and crept through the halls.
Reveal the interior confusion
Often the reader knows the solution. But the hero doesn’t. This is critical in memoir. We already know (from your back cover blurb) that you lived through the Tsunami / abuse / capture / kidnapping. But during the story we want to believe you may not. Write it like that.
Remove the support system
Make sure your character gets increasingly isolated and alone in his struggle. This is critical in plotting a novel. As the hero gets more embattled, even more of his allies turn against him. Take the Lee Child Jack Reacher series. Almost many of these novels Reacher is falsely accused himself of a crime. Not only is he operating outside of the law, trying to save the day, trying to solve a crime - but he is also trying to save himself. If this character is you, make enough people try and tear you down.
Make sure you have a story goal
A memoir has to have escalating action, just like a novel. With the exception of celebrity memoir, readers need to start the journey, and understand that there is a struggle, a fight and a journey on the way. That way we can understand when you take the wrong path. That is why addiction / survival / quest memoirs are more straightforward to plot and build. We understand the story goal – the hero needs to get clean / live / find the prize in order for the story to end. You need to find the story goal in your own story and make it clear.
So what does that mean in constructing your story? It means you don’t ‘just tell it”. You construct it in the most dramatic, engaging way full of mistakes and conflict.
Every scene, every chapter needs to have rising action. That means things need to get worse and worse and worse for the hero (you). Sure you can have a scene where you ease off and celebrate (woo hoo, pause in tension), but make sure at the end of the celebration something dreadful or challenging happens to propel your story forward.
Sarah Bullen is a writing coach, literary agent and book editor. She coaches writers on how to become authors and how to write to get published.