Writing Your Memoir: So What Is a “Narrative Arc” and Why Would I Want One?

Daddy's Paternal Grandparents - Mary and John Hayek
My father’s paternal grandparents, Mary and John Hayek (from Growing to 80, by Mason Hayek)

Perhaps the most vaunted phrase in memoir writing is narrative arc.  If you have read books about writing memoirs or attended a conference focusing on creative nonfiction, you have almost certainly been told that the narrative arc is a sacred thou shalt for memoir authors.  (Creative nonfiction is nonfiction such as a memoir that is written using the tools of effective fiction writing, including strong character development, dialogue, and memorable settings and imagery.)

The term narrative arc refers to the storyline in creative nonfiction;
the narrative arc corresponds to the plot in a novel or short story.

Having a narrative arc in a memoir means telling a true story that builds to a climax and then, at the end, comes to a resolution.  It includes:

  • Setting the scene
  • Introducing the problem or conflict on which the story will focus
  • Putting in motion the events of the story
  • Building to a climax
  • Bringing the story to a conclusion that resolves the central problem or conflict in some way (although not necessarily through a happy ending)

If you are hoping to interest an agent or a traditional publisher in your book-length memoir, you will likely be expected to have included a fully established narrative arc that spans the entire book.  In other words, your memoir can’t simply be a collection of discrete episodes and descriptions.  Your book will be asked to depict the progression in your life (and that of others involved) as you meet and wrestle with challenges, reach a climax in your efforts, and then end up changing in some way.

For instance, instead of telling pretty much everything that happened to you while you were in high school, you would need to focus on a central and especially meaningful aspect of your experience.  Perhaps you were painfully shy and discouraged when you were fourteen, but through a series of notable experiences (belonging to a theater group? having a boyfriend or girlfriend? suffering a terrible loss? working with a memorable teacher?), you gained the confidence that has helped you to go on to a satisfying adult life.  If the story of your growth from painfully withdrawn to impressively confident is the focus of your memoir, you have met the goal of having a narrative arc.

mother-and-me-in-hats.jpg

The beginning of your book will set the scene—providing the background and context for your memoir.  You will also set the book’s events in motion.  For example, maybe the first event to be included will depict your running to hide in your room when the popular girl or boy from across the street appears at your door.  The story will build and build until you reach a turning point—the moment that your transformation from awkward to outgoing becomes fully evident to you and others.  By the end of the book, we will have the satisfaction of knowing the strong person that you have become—that you have become in spite of and also because of your many painful challenges.

If you are planning to self-publish your book-length memoir or are writing it for your family and friends, you can, if you wish, thumb your nose at the need for a narrative arc that spans your entire memoir.  But even then, making sure that each scene or chapter has a narrative arc can add significantly to the impact of your writing.  If a scene, chapter, or essay has a clear narrative arc, you can feel confident that your writing is focused and that the point you are making (your theme) will be clear to your readers.  After all, the narrative arc is fundamental to good storytelling, from sharing a funny or infuriating experience that happened at work to composing the next Angela’s Ashes, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, or Tuesdays with Morrie.

Here—from my mother’s memoir, Paint Lick—is an example of a short memoir chapter that has an evident narrative arc.  The first paragraph sets the scene; subsequent passages let us know more about the setting and people involved.  In paragraph two, we are introduced to the central problem of the story—robbers are planning to rob the village bank—and the action of the story begins.  Each detail, including the false conclusion that the threat is over, leads us toward the climax: “The bank had been robbed. The men in the big black car were the robbers, and Mr. Roop and two other men were locked in the vault.”  We learn additional information about that climactic event, and then the story moves toward its resolution as two of the robbers are caught, sent to prison, and eventually released.

The Bank Robbery
By Doris Burgess Hayek

Paint Lick life was not without adventure. This is the story of some amateur desperadoes who outwitted some village vigilantes but, in the end, fell into the hands of the sheriff and one of Paint Lick’s little ladies.

In those days, it wasn’t uncommon for someone to pick up the phone receiver planning to make a call and hear a conversation on another line. This we called “crosstalk.” One such time, a Paint Lick resident heard over crosstalk a conversation between two men planning to rob a bank. One man told the other that Paint Lick was unincorporated and the bank was strong. They set a date. The news from the crosstalk spread in the community, and several men planned a warm welcome for the robbers.

On the morning of the day the robbers were supposed to come, the Paint Lick men, each with a shotgun, assembled at second-floor windows across from the bank. They planned to shoot out the tires on the robbers’ car. The men waited and waited, and the robbers didn’t come. This time crosstalk had helped the robbers. They had been tipped off that the Paint Lick men were waiting for them.

Time passed, and everyone assumed the threat was over.

One morning when I was playing croquet in our front yard with my sister, her girlfriend Polly, and Joe, a young neighbor boy, we looked up to see a big black car pass by. We wondered why the occupants were moving around. Polly said, “Ooh, those mean-looking men,” and she danced around, swinging her mallet and singing, “I’ll be glad when you’re dead, you rascal you.”  Shortly, Mrs. Roop, Joe’s mother, called, “Joe-oh, come home.”

Word spread quickly: The bank had been robbed. The men in the big black car were the robbers, and Mr. Roop and two other men were locked in the vault.

Soon, we heard Mrs. Logsdon’s account. She was standing in the doorway of her general store, next to the bank, when the robbers arrived. While three of the men entered the bank, a fourth stood outside holding his gun. In Mrs. Logsdon’s words, “I knew I was covered.” She stood motionless until the car had pulled away, and then she went straight to the phone.

The robbers abandoned their stolen car on the Cartersville Road, a few miles from Paint Lick, but two of them weren’t able to elude the sheriff and his men for long. They were caught, and they went to prison on Mrs. Logsdon’s testimony.

Eventually the two robbers were out of prison. One day, Mrs. Logsdon was visiting with Mrs. Goodman in Dr. Goodman’s waiting room when who should walk in but one of the robbers. Mrs. Logsdon recognized him at once. While the three waited for the doctor to come in, Mrs. Logsdon cringed every time Mrs. Goodman said “Mrs. Logsdon,” but there was no obvious recognition by the robber.

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Paint Lick Bank (on the right) in recent years, with the building that housed Mrs. Logsdon’s general store on the left

Notice that “The Bank Robbery” does not get sidetracked with details about the Paint Lick telephone exchange, about who among the friends was the best croquet player, and about what the various village businesses looked like.  Other chapters in my mother’s memoir touch on those topics and tell readers about Mrs. Logsdon and Mrs. Goodman.  But in this chapter, all the details support the specific focus my mother chose for the scene.  The account is more than a series of facts and descriptions; it has a plot just as if it were a fictional story.  And so “The Bank Robbery” reflects beneficial use of a narrative arc.

Will incorporating a narrative arc help you to tell your story?  It’s worth considering.

Next: Nontraditional memoirs—letters

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