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Pacing to Thrill with a Memoir?

Learn how to pace your memoir to be the next bestseller.

You are writing a memoir, and the story is molasses. But how can you speed up a person’s life? AJ Jepperson, a senior developmental editor with Eschler Editing, revealed the secret for success to listeners at this year’s Latter-day Saint Publishing and Media Association conference: find the plot. Even if the plot is subtly spaced out in real life, that doesn’t mean your novel has to match. Jepperson promised the crowd that great pacing will “get you a best seller.”

Person editing a document
Photo by Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

In fiction, you are creating a story, but in a memoir, you are telling a story. The events, characters, plot, and setting already exist. The challenge is in deciding what part of the story you want to tell. To start, Jepperson recommended deciding on the main struggle you want to focus on. Many people have many struggles throughout life, but for a memoir, it is important to keep one interesting conflict at the center of the book. Once you have a central challenge, leave out anything that does not directly relate to that chosen theme, story, or conflict, said Jepperson.

Once you’ve chosen the story you want to tell, the next step is to work out the pacing. To understand pacing is to understand the milestones readers expect to hit when reading your book. These milestones are the same ones you’ve known your whole life: hook, conflict, rising action, climax, and denouement. These concepts, while normally employed for fiction, can engage audiences of any medium—even memoirs.

The First Chapter. To Jepperson, the most important chapter in your book is the first. In the first chapter, authors must exude confidence in their story and pique readers’ curiosity. “You have one chapter to convince readers that the rest of the book is worth reading,” warned Jepperson. She then recommended using the five W’s, Who, What, Where, Why, and hoW, to give readers the bare minimum of information and pull them into chapter two.

There is a lot going on in real life, but if you have chosen your main conflict, then focus on simply introducing the story and setting up for the conflict. Jepperson recommended leaving out “anything readers don’t need to know to be confident” in the story. This means specifically not adding in the entire family tree of your subject, or detailing every meal they had a week before, only hinting at the deeper plot points to come such as a love story, a great journey, or the downfall of a villain.

The Inciting Incident. Soon after or even during the first chapter, find the event in the person’s life where everything changes. Here the subject should reach a conflict, or as Jepperson explained it, “the inciting incident that will bring [them] into a new world.” This inciting incident needs to be an event where the person’s life is so completely changed that they cannot escape and must continue on through the rest of the events. The event can be as large as a move across the world, or as small as a pivotal change of thinking. In memoirs, the characters must continue to move through life because they are real people, but the author should still pace the life-changing moment near the beginning of the story to keep readers engaged.

The Rising Action. From here, about 70% of the story should be rising action, Jepperson said. Within the overall rise of conflict, Jepperson mapped out three smaller climaxes for the subject to go through. First, “the pot boils.” This climax brings about a complication such as a moral quandary, a sacrifice, or the introduction of a tough villain. Here readers need to recognize that your subject “is the champiest champ who ever champed,” Jepperson said. “When they overcome this conflict, it should be a big accomplishment.”

The second smaller climax should be a turning point for the subject. Is there a moment where the subject learned something, developed a skill, or progressed in some way? Use that here. Jepperson reminded the audience that “mushy middles happen when we are not doing enough to keep hooks in our readers’ mouths.” In a memoir, that means not diving into the mundane bits of the subject's life, but instead skipping to the exciting parts that affect the eventual end of their story.

Jepperson’s third climax is the “darkest moment.” Here, the audience feels all hope is lost. The bad guy has taken all control, and the subject seems to have no other options. While your subject may have many “dark moments” make sure this one is the darkest to really amp up the stakes for readers. It is during this moment where Jepperson suggested that authors bring in another defining moment of clarity that their subject had. This can be a moment of spiritual awakening, the final understanding of a lie, or finally making that difficult decision. During this climax, the subject should overcome the darkest moment and find what they need to triumph. It is important to finally give the audience hope for the subject’s success.

The Climax. Finally, your memoir has reached the climax, the final battle, the one for all the marbles. Until this point, the subject has persevered through several trials and readers have watched them grow into a new person, but this moment needs to be the greatest struggle with the highest stakes and the biggest transformation yet. That is a lot to ask out of someone’s life, but really, this moment should be the reason why you started the memoir in the first place. What is the moment in your subject's life that made them who they are? What is the moment that surpassed all others when you heard their story for the first time? What is the moment that made them into someone you wanted to write about? That is your life-changing, high-stakes climax moment. While there may be a lot to pack into this moment, Jepperson reminded listeners that this moment is a “peak, not a plateau.” Keep the climax fast, with a permanent reversal from the hook that ends with a sensible and satisfying resolution. This is not your happily-ever-after moment, but there needs to be something to put readers at ease, so they know the story is coming to an end.

The Denouement. To end your memoir successfully, keep it short. Describe the aftermath of the climax, the subject’s feelings, their success or failure, and tie up all loose ends so no more questions need to be answered. A lot just happened to the subject, their life will never be the same again. Let readers experience that feeling as you wind the story down, then take a moment to explain how the events of the story have changed the subject's life before finally leaving the story at a place of peace and level ground.