Discover the seven essential characteristics of a memoir and what readers expect from this genre.
I spent 2020 writing a memoir about my experiences becoming a dad unexpectedly in my early twenties. I wrote a story-driven memoir or parenting book for new dads in a similar situation.
Writing a memoir was a fun, creative project, which required mining old journal entries, photos, videos, and memories in search of stories. I combined these stories with research and insights to write something entertaining and informative for expectant dads.
As I discovered from a memoir writing coach, a memoir’s characteristics differ somewhat from those of a biography. A memoir focuses on a topic and goes deep into a single topic, like parenting or depression, alcoholism, or spending a summer in France. An autobiography is a chronology or a complete narrative of someone’s life. That said, here are the key characteristics of a memoir.
1. It’s Personal
The best memoir writers tell deep and honest stories from their lives relating to a single concept or theme. The memoirist writes in detail about this concept or a topic and doesn’t hold anything back from readers because of fear of embarrassment or shame. They write honestly and candidly about relevant life events, often writing them up like scenes in a fiction novel, except it’s based on fact.
2. It Focuses on a Snapshot of Time
An autobiography reveals the entire chronology of an event. An autobiography reveals the entire chronology of someone’s life and is a near complete narrative. A memoir, however, is a snapshot of a moment in time.
One popular memoir is Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp. It’s a rather lengthy snapshot of her 20-year battle with alcoholism. However, she writes mostly about alcoholism rather than when she was born and her dreams for the future. Similarly, when I wrote my memoir, I included short scenes or snapshots representing a moment in time from when our son was born to illustrate points
3. It Contains a Character Arc
A memoirist goes deep into a single event or a concept like parenting, a passion like a love of sport, or a personal struggle like alcoholism. They recount their journey for readers. Much like the protagonist of a good novel, they face trials and tribulations, want something for themselves or others, and emerge at the end of the memoir changed.
4. It Conveys an Argument
As a memoir focuses on a single topic, theme or concept. Usually, the memoirist will put forward an argument for readers. They develop a controlling idea that guides and structure the memoir. Memoir coach Marion Roach Smith articulated this memoir characteristic best when I interviewed her. She said:
“It’s about X, as illustrated by Y, to be told in a Z.”
For example, consider Knapp’s book. It’s about overcoming alcoholism, as illustrated by Caroline Knapp’s twenty-year battle with this disease as told in a story-driven book.
5. It’s Memorable
A memoir, like any good piece of writing, is memorable. It leaves an impression on readers long after they’ve reached the last page. The best way to succeed in writing a memorable memoir is by including honest stories from your life related to the topic or theme you’re writing about.
These stories should include vivid and descriptive language, dialogue, and characters, much like scenes in a good novel. Your characters should undergo trials and tribulations and want something for themselves. Essentially, you’re writing a novel, except it’s deeply personal.
6. It’s Entertaining
A memoir isn’t a self-help book. People aren’t buying a memoir to undergo self-discovery or fix a problem in their life, although these are added benefits. A memoir is a diverting read. It’s something they can consume and read on their holidays or free time. It’s a piece of entertainment, much like a hit show on Netflix.
Like any entertainment media, a memoirist employs popular storytelling devices. They find different ways to capture and hold readers’ attention. They use concise language too. A memoir isn’t meant as a piece of academic writing stuffed with research, footnotes, citations, and academic research. The memoirist’s job is to keep readers turning the page, much like the writer of a good thriller novel.
Those are some key characteristics of a good memoir. If you’re considering writing one, check out our guide to the best memoir-writing apps.