Memoir Structure: Beginning Doesn’t Always Point to the End

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

This article continues the series inspired by Rachel Pruchno’s Surrounded by Madness about raising her daughter through a maddening cycle of rebellion. For the first article in the series, click here

Well-structured stories start with a character on a mission. The protagonist’s desire generates the momentum that carries the reader through the middle. By the end, the reader expects some graceful conclusion. In a sense, the whole purpose of reading the story is to learn how the mission turned out.

Consider the structure of the Coming of Age subgenre. At the beginning, the child’s mission is to grow up. Through the middle, the child grows biologically and attempts to achieve emotional maturity as well. By the end, the mission has been accomplished.

However, not all memoirs end in the place the beginning pointed. Sometimes the story turns upside down. A dramatic example of such a shift takes place in the movie The Sixth Sense. In the last few moments of the movie, the audience is shocked to realize that one of the characters is really a ghost. Viewers walk out of the theater, replaying the story in their minds, to adjust their understanding of the events to fit in with the ending.

The ending of Rachel Pruchno’s Surrounded by Madness has a similar effect. Throughout the book, the daughter evades her mother’s guidance. Page by page, I wait for things to improve, but instead of getting better, things grow worse. I begin to hope for a miracle and then accept that this miracle might never happen. How is this going to work? I don’t want to read a book that ends in despair.

By the time I finish the book, I accept the fact that the daughter does not live “happily ever after.” Far from it. But the book inspires hope anyway, not because of what happens to the girl but what happens to the story. The ending of the story flips the focus to the survival of the family. Somehow husband and wife hold together to continue to care for each other, and for their son.

Other examples of stories whose missions are thrown off course

Sometimes the shift in forward momentum occurs much closer to the beginning of the story. At the beginning of Lucky by Alice Sebold, a young woman goes off to college to prepare for her life as a writer. However, a violent rape traumatizes her and the rest of the memoir is about her search for peace.

At the beginning of Here if You Need Me by Kate Braestrup a young family wakes up, eats breakfast and the husband goes off to work, where he is killed in a violent accident. For the rest of the story, the protagonist must make peace with the loss, and reconstruct a new reality in which this beloved person is gone.

Madeline Sharple’s memoir Leaving the Hall Light On is about trying to raise a son who suffers from bipolar disorder. After his violent suicide, the focus of the story shifts to her own emotional survival. In a sense, the mission shifts twice. In the first part of the book, her mission is to save her son. In the second part of the book, her mission is to make sense of his death. In the third part of the book, her mission subtly shifts again. Instead of simply making peace with his death, she must continue to grow as a person.

Sometimes a secondary mission evolves gradually through the course of the story

In Freeways to Flipflops by Sonia Marsh, the author’s family moves to Belize, partly as an adventure, and partly to help her son get past his selfish involvement with teen culture in LA. Through the course of the year, Sonia keeps finding new ways to contribute to her family, so that by the end, when they return to LA, not only has she changed her son. She also changed herself.

Writing Prompt
If you are not quite sure of the ending of your memoir, perhaps the structure will become clearer if you take into account the evolution of your goals. How did your goals change from the beginning to the end of the story?

For example, Rachel Pruchno’s original goal was to usher her daughter into adult life. By the end, her goal was to save her family.

Write three scenes, one that reflects your goals at the beginning of the story. One that shows you discovering there is a new goal being revealed by your changes. And one that shows you achieving this secondary goal at the end. a scene that  scene at the end that showed the “success” as something different than you originally conceived.

Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno
Rachel Pruchno’s Website
Sonia Marsh’s website
Madeline Sharple’s website
Essay about Alice Sebold’s Lucky

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

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

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

7 thoughts on “Memoir Structure: Beginning Doesn’t Always Point to the End

  1. Enjoyed reading this post as I am sure that the beginning of my memoir does not point to the end, that is, not to a happily ever after one.. Thank you so much for sharing. Would you mind if I reposted this on my blog?

  2. This is very helpful, and very timely. I’ve been wrestling with how to think about this very stuff. You’ve made my day! I’ll share it with others in my memoir tribe.
    Linda Thomas

  3. I also appreciate your post, especially since life itself is so full of surprises that our stories are often the expression of how we work to adjust and find hope. Thanks to everyone who works to write a memoir! We all benefit from learning from each other. May I share your post as well, Jerry? It directly ties to our upcoming seminar on Oct. 10-11 in Park City, “Writing Meaningful Memoirs.”

  4. Hi Paulette, I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. As you know and advocate in your own work, finding one’s healing story requires the creative effort to develop a narrative arc that carries the energy of life from the beginning to end.

    Good luck with your conference October 10-11 with Nan Phifer, another huge advocate of finding one’s own story. It makes me crazy that the 2,000 miles between us are going to prevent my attendance. The promise of the internet is that we can collaborate across distances, but sometimes you just wish you could be there.

    Of course, please share the post and spread the word.

    Best wishes,

  5. Jerry:

    Your Sept 20 blog is great. As I was writing Surrounded By Madness, I struggled with how to end it. No one wants to read a book with a downer ending, but when mental illness exists there are few happy endings. On the other hand, I got tired of reading mental illness memoirs that did end with a happy ending. Made me wonder whether the diagnosis was really right. I focused the ending of Surrounded By Madness on myself and my family because I wanted people to understand the realities of mental illness and give people realistic hope.

  6. Hi Rachel,

    Thanks so much for these comments. I love to learn about the author’s own search for her story. In fact, in another post, I’m writing about how you shared in your acknowledgements some other neat tips about writing the memoir. This willingness of authors to help other writers is a wonderful aspect of the memoir revolution. I’m guessing that by searching for this ending, and then realizing the story makes more sense when the focus springs back to the family and the ones who survive, it might help you (just as it helps readers) find some peace, in the way only stories seem to be able to do. Best wishes, Jerry

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