How to Tell a Great Story in Your Memoir or Narrative Nonfiction Book

memoir narrator nonfiction publishing storytelling suspense writing Aug 09, 2020

Writing a memoir or narrative nonfiction book requires a wide range of skills. You've got to be able to do it all: organize thoughts, structure chapters, report the facts, and, after all the big-picture stuff, you must also pay attention to the smallest of details such as grammar and punctuation. It's a big job, but it's very doable with focus, inspiration, hard work, and stamina. 

That said, in book writing, one skill trumps all. If you want to draw an audience and make a splash in the world, you must tell great stories. 

In today's blog post, I want to share a powerful tool that I use in my writing, which will help you write your very best memoir or nonfiction book. I call this tool  The Magic Formula of Storytelling.

Here's what the Magic Formula looks like: V + C + S = A Great Story.

What in the world is that, you ask?

Let me break down the meaning behind all these letters and symbols.

V stands for vulnerability. More specifically, a vulnerable narrator.

C stands for conflict. Conflict is the fuel in every story. 

S stands for suspense. I think of suspense as "page-turn-ability."

Stories that have these three elements are more likely to be strong and memorable, and such stories will keep your readers interested and involved until the book's final line.

 Let me break down The Magic Formula further.

What is a vulnerable narrator? The answer: A narrator that shares openly about their personality, the good, the bad, and the ugly. It's a lot like life and friendship. Look at your best friends, and ask yourself why they are your friends. I would guess that a significant reason has to do with how vulnerable they are with you in conversations. We tend to gravitate toward people who share their struggles, flaws, and quirks--their humanity! And other people tend to gravitate toward us when we are vulnerable and human. We want our friends to share what they fear, what they love, what makes them feel embarrassed. We want our friends to tell us what they find cool and/or goofy about themselves. We like friends to "keep it real," right? 

The same goes for narrators of memoir and narrative nonfiction.  When a narrator "keeps it real," when they show us that they are human too, with real human feelings, troubles, and dreams, then we begin the trust them. And they feel strong. As readers, we are more likely to stay with them, turning page after page, as they tell their stories and teach their lessons. I know it feels counter-intuitive, but when it comes to both life and writing, being vulnerable is the key to strength. So, V equals a vulnerable, and therefore, strong narrator. 

The second letter in The Magic Formula is C for conflict. In writing and life, there are two types of conflict: external and internal. I think of external conflict as the obstacles --the things and people--in the physical world that get in the narrator's way. For example, if I were riding my bicycle across the United States, I would face many types of external conflict. I would have to cross deserts, climb mountains, pedal around lakes, and ford rivers.

Similarly, I would have to avoid cars and find shelter and food. I'd have to fix flat tires, tape up sprained ankles, and soothe sore muscles. Such obstacles make up the external conflict. Your story must be rich in external conflict. 

Your story must also have plenty of internal conflict. Internal conflict is found in our minds.  It consists of the parts of our psychology that impede us from getting the life we want. Some people struggle with anger or fear. Others must confront lust or vanity. Other people still get hung up on envy or the need for perfection, or we can't let go of the past. We all have our stuff, right? In a good story, the narrator must confront internal issues. In fact, a story gets strongest, when we writers can talk honestly about these internal struggles, and we show the reader how we work with them or through them. And here's the cool thing: when we get to the other side of these issues, we often find a gift.  When you overcome fear, you find courage. When you face your vanity, you find humility. When you overcome stinginess, you find generosity and love. 

External conflict and internal conflict are often closely related. For example, if I am riding my bike over big mountains, I not only face steep hills and rocks in the road, but I must also face my demons: my fear of heights or doubts about my ability. 

Suspense is the final element in The Magic Formula.  As I mentioned, another word for suspense is "page-turn-ability." All writers want their readers to keep reading to get to the end of your book. Suspense is the tool you need to make sure they read the words "The End." I tell my book writing clients, "You've got to turn your book into a mystery!" No, I don't mean a classic with a murder, a missing weapon, and Colonel Mustard in the Library. The primary way you create suspense is by giving your reader the crucial information slowly on a "need to know" basis. You put the reader on a slow drip. Corollary A of suspense: Never spill the beans about how the story ends before the ending.  Instead, you tell the story slowly and methodically, doling out the necessary background information only when the reader needs it.

What about foreshadowing, you ask? Yes! Use it. Foreshadowing, or hinting at the direction you might go with your story, is a powerful tool that INCREASES suspense. But with foreshadowing, be sure to keep it vague and to leave the reader in enough doubt about the future that she cannot predict the ending. 

And there you have it: V + C + S=A Great Story. The Magic Formula.  

When your story contains these three elements--a vulnerable narrator, conflict (external and internal), and suspense, you will hook readers at the beginning and keep them engaged until the end.  

How do I use The Magic Formula in my writing?

I use it most often in Second Draft writing. Or, instead, I use it after I get a few rough pages down on the page. That is, I don't think about The Magic Formula during my inspired, early-draft writing. Early draft writing is the time for messy writing. It's time to write your heart out and get down everything that may or may not be relevant.  The Magic Formula is the right tool for when you are ready to rewrite your draft. After I have roughed-out my story, then I employ The Magic Formula. I ask myself these three questions. How can I make my narrator more vulnerable? I answer the question by sharing more freely about my fears or adding in a few quirks that make me feel embarrassed. 

Next, I ask, How can I add more external and internal conflict? I answer this question by adding more physical or real-world obstacles. I make sure my writing is grounded in hard things, everything from rocks in the road to people getting in my way.  Next, I make sure that the reader can see how my mind stops me in my tracks. I add doubt or fear that must be overcome later in the story.

Next, I ask, How can I add more suspense?  I answer this by going through every anecdote or scene in my book with a fine-toothed comb and eliminate anyplace where I spill the beans or employ too much foreshadowing. 

The next time you write a chapter, try employing The Magic Formula. Your writing will get stronger, and you'll be more likely to attract devoted readers who stay with you to the bitter end. When you keep readers around till the final page, you will grow your audience and sell more books, too.