Show Don’t Tell: Difference Between Fiction and Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Why are memoirs so popular? Read my book Memoir Revolution to learn the reasons for this important cultural trend.

The rule “Show don’t tell” can help writers find a strong, clear storytelling voice. However, because it is mainly taught to fiction writers, we memoir writers have to apply our own interpretations in order to adapt it to our genre.

In a previous essay, I explored the fact that we have all been influenced by ideas. Since ideas are important in the journey of our lives, they might authentically enter into our memoirs. Exposition about influential ideas could offer a valuable contribution to your readers.  In this essay, I continue to explore the ways memoirs differ from fiction.

I don’t mean to imply that good memoirs ignore the powerful methods of storytelling. On the contrary, a good memoir converts the bits of our real lives into the shape of a story. When we do a good job, we offer readers an informative, engaging entry into our world.

However, if we adhere too closely to techniques that work in fiction, we miss opportunities to help readers understand our authentic, real-life experience. To develop a strong memoir writing voice, consider the differences between fiction and memoir writing. Here are three areas in which the forms differ.

Fiction writers make stuff up

In fiction, a novelist can show ominous emotions by adding a wolf’s howl or a foul smell, or covering the sky with dark clouds. Need tactile sensation? Blow some snow in your character’s face. Need a gloomy room? Put a layer of grime over everything. The ability to invent actions and descriptions creates a whole palette of experience that can keep a fiction reader engaged.

Memoirs rely on real-world settings. What if the setting doesn’t evoke the right mood? To add emotional depth, memoir writers can simply invite readers inside our interior. As protagonists we know we hate this situation and we know why. To help the reader understand, we can just say it. For example, in Freeways to Flipflops when Sonia Marsh searches for a school in Belize for her younger son, she realizes he would have had better educational opportunities back home. A key aspect of her dramatic tension arises from the worry that perhaps she was hurting her younger son at the same time as she was trying to protect her older one. To convey this fear, she lets us “hear” her thoughts. It is a simple and direct way to share her inner battle. Her fretting “shows” the pain and confusion of the situation, and strengthens the point perfectly.

In my memoir, if I felt bad about myself during the 70s, I could relate it to the way I felt at the end of a day at the foundry when every inch of exposed skin was covered in a film of black grit. These memories are a combination of showing and telling – telling my thoughts in which I show my experiences. Another way thoughts could keep the reader engaged would be to suggest some hypothetical action. “I wanted to scream.” The protagonist shifts from feeling things directly, to becoming a narrator telling the feelings.

Note
This shift into the mind of the narrator at the time of the story is relatively common in memoirs. This is different from the less common technique of shifting into the mind of the present-day narrator. When you comment on the past from the point of view of the present-day narrator, you are asking the reader to jump back and forth between two versions of yourself. Whether or not this is an effective technique for you will depend on the way you want to structure your story.

Novels Condition Us to See Characters from the Outside

We read endless novels written in third person. The statement “he pulls out his gun” focuses our gaze on the character’s external actions. We have grown so accustomed to this external point of view that we might feel confused hearing too much of what the character thinks, relying instead on their actions and speech. This makes sense in fiction when we are not inside anyone’s mind.

By contrast, the first person point of view prevalent in memoirs provides an entirely different vantage point, taking us inside the main character’s mind. From this point of view, we have direct access to the character’s thoughts, not just through external cues but within the reality of being that person.

After I realized I was allowed to reveal my thoughts, my scenes became stronger and my critiquers thanked me. I also pay attention to the memoirs I read, and discover that I enjoy learning what the protagonist of a memoir thinks. In fact when a memoir author relies too heavily on external detail, and too little on his or her own thoughts, the book often feels “fake” to me, as if the author is trying to write a novel, rather than a memoir.

Actors condition us to guess a character’s thoughts from external cues

On the page, a story might describe one character speaking and the other character smirking. On the screen, an actor could squeeze complex subtexts into the smirk. With just the right twist of lips, eyebrows and voice, the actor could imply “I know you didn’t mean what you just said,” or “I love you and I don’t really care what you say. Just keep talking.” or “Yes, yes. Whatever. My mind is a million miles away.” As viewers we have become accustomed to “reading” all this subtext into the actor’s intentions, based on the nonverbal cues. Our verbal minds don’t need to be engaged.

In addition to the nuances of an actor’s face, moviegoers rely on yet another nonverbal channel of communication. Background music lets us know what to feel. After a lifetime of watching shows with soundtracks, we have become accustomed to believing that feelings can and should be expressed without words.

Memoir writers do not have access to the facial nuances of a professional actor or the musical score to set the mood. Instead we employ our own unique tools. When we attempt to portray the subtlety of emotion, we can share what we think.

Share Your Inner World

Woody Allen has become famous for portraying characters who think before, during and after every important action. His career is based mainly on the joke that only weak-minded, obsessive people  think. There is an ironic twist embedded in his send-up. His characters reflect the human condition more accurately than do the characters who populate “Hollywood” movies.

Unlike the external view provided by fiction, memoirs allow us into the interior of human experience. People really do think, and memoirs are taking the mute button off the mind and letting us learn about each other’s thoughts.

Memoirs let us see, hear and experience what it was like for someone else to grow up, struggle to find dignity, and adapt to change. We learn where this person has been and can listen to their thoughts. We see the world through their eyes and we keep turning pages to see how the situation unfolds.

Instead of paying actors to communicate human experience through body language and invented situations, we are paying our neighbors, peers, and other memoir writers who have learned how to express their own thoughts, feelings and observations.

Writing Prompt
Read through your memoir-in-progress and find a spot where you have been struggling to “show” the emotions and thoughts. Since you can’t invent things in the external environment, try revealing something about what’s going inside your mind.

Notes
For an entertaining and informative book about how to live in a culture which celebrates action over thinking, read Quiet, The Power of Introverts by Susan Caine.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

6 thoughts on “Show Don’t Tell: Difference Between Fiction and Memoir

  1. Thanks for the comment, Linda. It makes me really happy to know that I put that into words, to expand your verbal reality. I’m returning the favor to you, since you gave me the gift of putting into words the experience of growing up in pre-war Japan. 🙂

  2. Thank you for your comments. I wish I had read that before I wrote my memoir but thank the good Lord for my daughter who had this same insight. She read my memoir after it was edited and ready for print and told me I had to rewrite it “showing” the emotion rather than telling it. It made a huge difference and was well worth the effort to change it all — which is reflected in sales and reviews,

  3. Jerry … a very useful distinction, but as you note with Woody Allen, fiction does not have to rely on external cues … it’s just easier to write that way most of the time. My challenge, with my upcoming novel, has been to get inside my protagonist head as much, or even more, than I rely on external actions. I think that’s why I have found The Enneagram so useful, as it focuses on motivation rather than on action.

    Keep up the great insights!

  4. Thank you for that explanation. After I finished my memoir and my daughter critiqued it she said “Chapter 8 didn’t make me cry.” I went back and added one paragraph that brought her to tears. Inotherwords, I did not put the emotion into that chapter as I did all the others because the pain was too deep. But changing it made her, the reader, relate on the level that was necessary to express the thought in full.

  5. Mary, Thanks for sharing your experience. Memoirs are a great training ground to help us see characters from inside. Then we can apply those lessons to everything we write, whether creative nonfiction or fiction. I know a little about the Enneagram and am intrigued to hear you have applied tools for personal change to learning about your fictional characters. Nice! Best wishes, Jerry

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