Friday, January 11, 2013

Crafting a Credible Narrator--How the Emotional Narrative Arc Works in Memoir

A writer in one of my classes is working on a memoir about a serious event that happened a few years ago.  She's focused in on the months of discovery, treatment, and recovery--and it's a good read.  Very traumatic, written in a tense yet slightly humorous style.   

Anyone who has been through trauma knows that often, during the experience, survival  is the only thing we pay attention to.  Getting through it, as intact as possible.   

This writer did survive, thankfully.   And she wants to share her particular view on what happened.

She wrote me this week with a dilemma.  Although I love her writing style, the humor she weaves into even the most serious event, I've questioned the lack of emotion that I feel as a reader.  Sometimes, her narrator (herself, telling the story) doesn't feel credible to me.  If I were experiencing these things, I would feel scared, at least.  Pissed off, too.  So why doesn't this come through in her chapters?

She's been kind enough to take my concerns seriously and has worked hard to enhance what I call "the inner story," or the emotional meaning behind her event.    

Feedback from her readers in class has encouraged more of this, but she feels she may be changing her story too much.  Maybe not the outer events--she's staying true to these--but the inner meaning she, personally, took away.  What can she do to remain true to herself and still craft a credible narrator? 

Two Narrative Arcs in Memoir--Outer Event and Emotional Meaning  

Every few months, I travel to Minneapolis to teach at the Loft Literary Center.  I stay with good friends when I'm there, and in the evenings after my classes, we watch reality TV.

This isn't something I do much of at home.  But I've come to really look forward to these "vacations."  Our favorite shows are Iron Chef and Project Runway.  I don't follow the entire season for either, but my friends catch me up and I enjoy the drama and the trauma of the food and fashion worlds.

Before you dismiss this out of hand, realize how much a writer can learn from such shows.  They are all about change--and each episode is a mini-memoir for all the players.   

A big challenge is presented:  create an amazing appetizer in twenty minutes with three ingredients, design a new line of clothing on a very limited budget.  That's the outer story, and it's very engaging (to me at least).   

But the inner story--the learning curve, the emotional effect of events-- is present too.  The show producers made sure of it.   

We see this emotional arc in the atmosphere, the way the shots are set up, the facial expressions and movements.  Also, between the mad cooking and cutting, there are short interviews with each performer.  The stars share how they are feeling, how they are processing each challenge.   

Events on Project Runway or Iron Chef are not life or death.  They serve only as entertainment.  I'm not making a parallel of content; I'm trying to show that even reality TV shows changes in the inner story: A new designer comes in confident, dreams of creating the truly unexpected outfit.  The show producers show this beginning confidence, maybe a midpoint change to OMG!  Then a final interview after the designer  makes the cut or not.    

Change is the key here--whether it's silly entertainment or real-life trauma, we want to witness it,  both externally and internally, in the narrator we're watching.

How Much Change Do You Have to Show?  
There's no set rule for this--but usually, the more dramatic the outer story (outer event), the more meaning it will have, the more change will need to be demonstrated by the narrator.

Sometimes there is no change.  People go backwards, even--alcoholics take up drinking again, someone commits suicide, lovers part.  This arc is a tragedy, and it's quite valid in literature.  So first you have to ask yourself:   Am I writing a tragedy or a "success" story?  That will determine how much change you need to show--and what kind. 

If your memoir is a "success" story, showing a good result that we should help you celebrate (you survived the crash, the abuse, the cancer, the relationship challenges, the business bankruptcy), then you'll need to seriously consider having an emotional arc that illustrates the effect of this on you.  How are you different, from going through this experience?  What did you learn?  How did you change your habits, your perspective, your approach to life?

If you don't, we'll find you unbelievable.  Because we, as readers, can't imagine going through something like that, without it having an effect.

Readers in my classes tell me they have two reactions from this kind of n0-change story:

1.  As said above, they don't believe it.  The narrator is not really credible--who could survive such a thing and not be changed?

2.  The story isn't really lived completely.  Perhaps the narrator hasn't finished dealing with the experience.  These things can't be rushed, of course, and some experiences take a long time for their meaning and impact to be absorbed.  More time is required, more freewriting, more exploration of the story.  The real ending is still to come.

How to Show Emotion That You Were Not Feeling at the Time
OK, so you've decided you have to go back and mine your experience for the emotions that you weren't feeling at the time.  This isn't easy.  You've got your trauma on the page, which is great.  The outer story details, the plot, is intact.  But where do you get the emotion?

First, I'd suggest you look at your life now and your life when you began living through this experience.  How are you different?  What changed in you because of the experience, what do you think about yourself now that you might not have back then?  Are your relationships changed at all?  Do you have any new viewpoints about your family, your friends, your coworkers?   

This first exercise is basically a freewrite:  Exploring yourself, past and present.  It may surface the "meaning" element of your story.  

Second, find the outer turning points of your story--use the W storyboard to help you find these (click here to watch my video on the W storyboard).  Imagine, even if you can't recall it, what emotion someone might be feeling in a similar moment.  If you're about to get wheeled in for very serious surgery, might you be scared?  At the time, you may have talked yourself into bravery, but if you read about another person having that procedure, being scared would fit.   

Find these "possible" emotions for your big moments.  Then begin to describe how they might have appeared--even if you weren't aware of them--in two ways:

1.  In your physical body sensations (sweats, trembling, nausea)
2.  In your surroundings (called the "container," this is the atmosphere around the event that echoes its emotion or meaning)

Begin to plug these hints in.  See how it feels to you.  Do you, as a reader, get more of a hit of emotion as you read your own rewrite?  This usually requires a week or so away from it, to get distance, but if you do feel something more, you're doing well.  Add more.

When you're writing about your own growth, there's a funny twist.  We usually don't see it in ourselves.  That's fine, in real life.  But in writing, it comes across as denial, plain and simple, and readers disengage.   

It's Not What We've Gained but What We've Lost
The late Nuala O'Faolin, author of the memoir Almost There, said we read for a surprising reason:  not for what has been gained, but what has been lost.  Memoir requires the narrator to know what they have lost.  How they have changed and grown because of this.

It's the loss that binds reader and writer, writes O'Faolin.  We don't go into a book for this, but it's the reason a story stays with us, years later.  If you want to craft a story that stays with your readers, consider your losses.  Don't dwell on them, but try to make them part of your memoir.

That way, we'll tend to believe in you, as a narrator.


  1. This was exactly the post I needed. My first draft (of my first book) is lacking inner story. I will use these pointers to produce a polished piece for class. I am very excited about your upcoming online class, Your Book Starts Here, Part II. I see a finished book in my future thanks to you. I will also be going to the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat near Seattle the weekend of March 15th. The teacher's that weekend will be Carol Strayed (Wild), Suzanne Finnamore (Split), and Ariel Gore (How to Become a Famous Author Before You're Dead.) Then on to Your Book Starts Here, Part III. How could I go wrong? I am thrilled I'm on my way publication. Thanks for your wisdom.

  2. Thanks, Virginia, look forward to seeing you (and your book) in class in a few weeks!

  3. Mary, I always love your posts. They inspire and really help - thank you!