People will sometimes suppose that only big drama can make an interesting memoir. Of course, there are many readers who require constant titillation if they are to remain reading. Perhaps they are not the readers you should be seeking for your memoir. Nonetheless, nearly all readers require some attention to “interesting.”
No, I do not believe that it is the scope of the drama of your memoir that is the crucial element to creating interest. Some would-be memoir-writers get discouraged by the ordinariness of their lives. Yet, I have found that almost everyone I have had a serious conversation with about memoir writing had enough happen in their lives to fashion an interesting memoir.
An interesting memoir: drama vs. dramatic story development?
Much more important than the inherent drama of an action is the dramatic development of your story.
Let’s say that you want to write into your memoir a scene about your house burning to the ground and your rushing in to get an infant child—your sister, let’s say—and rescuing her from certain death. This is clearly very dramatic. But is it enough to create an interesting memoir?
Perhaps yes perhaps no.
Here’s what someone may have written into a memoir: in the middle of the night, I awoke to find that the house was burning and I rushed out of bed and went into the room where my two-year-old sister was, grabbed her and ran out of the house. The next hours, I spent looking at the house burning to the ground.
If that is your house-burning scene, you will not get much mileage out of it.
Now let’s say you have not only drama but dramatic story development. You have set the reader to expect something. Instead of one mention of the house burning to the ground, you start with a little scene on page 18 in which you see your older brother lighting a fire in the wood stove. He is sloppy and forgets to close the door. Your mother points his neglect out to him and she herself shuts the door. You think about how, one day, he might burn the house down. Then on page 76, you have your mother telling your father that she feels the chimney needs lining as the bricks seem to be disintegrating.
Then on page 121, you have the fire scene. You begin the scene with awakening in the night to flickering lights. You wonder if there is a police car outside with a throbbing light. As you awaken more, you begin to realize that the flickering has no regular pattern as would a police-car light. The flickering is rather irregular. Suddenly, you smell smoke! You shoot out of bed. “Oh my gosh!” you think. The adrenaline is pouring through you. You grab the bathrobe at the foot of your bed and rush down the hall to where your little sister is sleeping. All the while, you are screaming to awaken your parents.
Which treatment will keep you reading?
I doubt you have chosen the first treatment. In treatment two, you have read a more dramatic approach to writing about the fire. It demonstrates how it is not the inherent drama of an action that will create an interesting memoir. It is the development and treatment of the action that makes for interest.
As you become better in your writing, you will find that even the littlest of actions can be made to interest the reader if you develop a scene dramatically, and as a bonus, it can reveal characterization.
The allusions above to fire making and to neglectful actions in earlier pages of your memoir are a literary technique called suspense or foreshadowing. The reader will begin to think of the house being vulnerable, of the family being in danger. You have placed within the reader’s mind a sense that something dire might and will happen. It is that sense—”doom and gloom”—that will follow the reader around as he or she is waiting for the promise of the suspense.
The action need not be big for an interesting memoir.
A conclusion: the action need not be big. It merely needs to be treated as big.
While the example I created for you above is about a fire—and that is dramatic, I could have chosen something rather small like going to a college. Had I done this, I might have had an early conversation on—say—page 22 of your memoir in which a school counselor suggests that she can set you up for interviews at several colleges.
You rebuff her offer by answering, “No, I don’t think so. I can’t afford college and I really don’t see any way I can go to college.” Your counselor replies, “Well, I really want you to think about it. I think you could do well. Perhaps we could find some financial aid.” You walk away, thinking “Sure I could do well but what’s the point if I have to leave for lack of funds?”
Then on page 80, I might have you walking through a college fair at school and you go to a college table and you talk to a representative and you find find out that the college tuition is way beyond any anybody’s means—yours or your parents. The college admission rep tells you they can arrange loans, however, for you and you think, “Yes, loans that will be the cost of a house. I don’t want to be paying back loans until I’m 40 years old.”
So you get the idea that with the above development you are laying the foundation of a quest. Every time, you present an element you increase the tension. “I had begun to really want to go to college but I still could not see how I could.”
You must do this for many elements in your memoir—each keeping the reader reading a bit more. This is called building interest. Each mention, developed dramatically, will pull the reader along to your conclusion.
So remember that it is not the action of the memoir that makes for an interesting memoir; it is how the action is presented, and how the dramatic story is developed.