“Now comes the hard part: how to organize the … thing,” says William Zinsser.
Perhaps that’s where you find yourself today, wondering how to structure—how to arrange—your vignettes into a pleasing order.
Vignettes: Assorted memories written as stand-alone accounts. Essays, each related to your memoir’s theme .
When structured well, your collection of vignettes will tell a complete and satisfying story.
“Most people embarking upon a memoir,” Zinsser continues, “are paralyzed by the size of the task. What to put in? What to leave out? Where to start? Where to stop? How to shape the story? The past looms over them in a thousand fragments, defying them to impose on it some kind of order. Because of that anxiety, many memoirs linger for years half written, or never written at all.” (William Zinsser, How to Write a Memoir; emphasis mine)
Zinsser nailed it. My pile of vignettes has been lingering for too many years. Recently I’ve worked on several old pieces, revising, polishing, and trying to organize them, but stringing them together—finding just the right arrangement for them—is puzzling. Zinsser nailed it again: So far, my vignettes are defying me to impose on them some kind of order. How about you?
Let’s take a closer look at structuring. (Don’t miss Your memoir’s structure: think of it as your helper.)
Structuring is creating a framework for telling your story so it will have maximum impact on your readers.
"Structure is a selection of events from the character's life stories that is composed into a strategic sequence to arouse specific emotions and to express a specific view of life." (Robert McKee, Story; emphasis mine)
Finding that strategic sequence—that’s my quest. Yours too.
OK then, what are your choices for assembling your vignettes into a strategic sequence?
Perhaps the most obvious choice would be arranging them chronologically. See my previous blog post, “Where are you from” and your memoir’s structure.
Assembling your vignettes chronologically, however, might not be the best way to tell your story. For example, you could organize them by themes. If you choose a non-chronological structure, be sure to read Your personal timeline will help your memoir’s readers.
I found a helpful blog post written by PJ Reece entitled How to Create a Story Structure to Die For.
PJ writes fiction and screenplays, but her technique works for memoir, too. Jon Franklin presents a similar structure idea in Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction by a Two-Time Pulitzer Prize Winner.
Over the past twenty years, PJ has discovered that “a conventional story is actually Two Stories. In the gap between the two lies the Heart of the Story.” And “in that dark heart of the story, the hero will experience a death.”
“Death” can be defined in various ways: failure, despair, loss, disappointment, betrayal, or an obstacle, among others. “…Failure and disappointment are integral” to stories, PJ says. “Loss and disenchantment are central to a good story.”
“Story One comprises all the action leading to the hero’s disillusionment,” she explains.
Story One is about a person’s desire for something: a life-long dream, an expectation, a goal—but a complication throws up a roadblock. It can be something internal or external, and it makes fulfilling the dream seem impossible. It’s an obstacle that threatens the hope of achieving the goal. PJ describes it as “.… the chain of events that brings a hero to his knees.” (This unresolved problem supplies the all-important tension and suspense that keep readers reading to discover the problem’s resolution.)
The Heart of the Story comes next. It lies “between the failure and redemption.…” PJ describes it as the “death of the old belief system accompanied by insights into one’s higher nature.” This is where the person recognizes his hopes and expectations were unrealistic. Maybe his dreams were misguided. The time has come to challenge his assumptions. It’s where, PJ says, “most protagonists would straightaway fall into the dark heart of the story and wake-up to the facts of life.”
Story Two is about the resolution. Story Two is the new person that emerges on the other side. He has recognized his delusions and misconceptions and has made corrections. He has dealt with his failure or loss. He knows himself better. He sees his life and his place the world more accurately than before. The process was painful, but he has come out a better man, a stronger, more mature man. He now pursues the right dreams and goals in the right way.
Jon Franklin calls that progression “the odyssey from complication to resolution.”
A story that works, says Franklin, “will consist of a real person who is confronted with a significant problem, who struggles diligently to solve that problem, and who ultimately succeeds—and in doing so becomes a different character.” (Writing for Story)
So, PJ and Franklin have shed light on the bigger picture when it comes to structuring our memoirs, but the day comes when you must pin down a specific order for your vignettes.
If you want to arrange them according to theme (rather than chronologically), William Zinsser suggests that once you’ve written a number of vignettes, “spread them on the floor. (The floor is often a writer’s best friend.) Read them through and see what they tell you and what patterns emerge. They will tell you what your memoir is about and what it’s not about. They will tell you what’s primary and what’s secondary, what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s emotional, what’s important, what’s funny, what’s unusual, what’s worth pursuing and expanding. You’ll begin to glimpse your story’s narrative shape and the road you want to take. Then all you have to do is put the pieces together.” (How to Write a Memoir)
You might be saying, “Yeah, right, all I have to do it put the pieces together. Easier said than done.”
If you struggle to find the structure, “you must rely on blind faith that sooner or later it will appear,” says Judith Barrington. “You may need and enjoy the freedom of relative formlessness for a while—but not forever.”
And even when you think you’ve discovered the right structure, “You must be willing to adapt it, revise it, tinker with it, or entirely rethink it.” (Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir)
“Entirely rethink it.” That’s a good point. Maybe you’re like me: My vignettes don’t fit into just one memoir. I am dividing my stories into two or three memoirs, each with its own theme and message.