How to Write a Memoir Outline: 7 Essential Steps

Joe Bunting
November 22, 2020 | 11 mins

How do you write a memoir outline that not only results in a really captivating book about your life, but also saves you hundreds of hours? 

You know that you have a story to tell, but you don’t know how to get started with writing it. 

Hint: It starts with a memoir outline. 

But what should you include in a memoir outline? How do you structure it? What information should you add? 

When I was writing my memoir, Crowdsourcing Paris, these are the questions that occurred to me about six months too late, after I had already finished the first draft. It was only then that I realized what my so-so memoir needed to become a great memoir: an outline.

And so I set out to figure out how to write the perfect memoir outline. In this post, I want to share exactly what I learned, and how you can write a memoir outline that will save you time and increase your story’s quality. 

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Here are the steps to write a memoir outline:

  1. Know when to create a memoir outline
  2. Write your memoir idea as a one-sentence premise
  3. Find the big moments in your memoir
  4. Add the first act to your memoir outline
  5. Build the outline with the second act
  6. Include your memoir’s final act
  7. Structure each scene for your memoir outline

Learning how to write a memoir outline will help you have a better memoir in a fraction of the time. How do I know? Because I tried to write a memoir—a real-life adventure story set in Paris—without an book outline and failed. Then, I began to learn how to outline a memoir, and it changed my entire writing process.

#1 – Know when to create a memoir outline

The biggest mistake I made when I was writing my memoir was in creating my outline too late. 

Honestly, I should have known better. This wasn’t my first book, it was my fifth, and each of those books relied heavily on outlines, so I knew how to write an outline.

But writing a memoir felt different. After all, it was a story about the experience I had in Paris. All I had to do was remember, right? How hard could it be?

And so it wasn’t until after I had written the first draft of my memoir that I finally realized I wouldn’t be able to make it good without writing an outline.

So when is the best time to create a memoir outline? The answer: as early as possible. 

Let me break it down:

If you’re thinking about writing a memoir, start with learning how to write a memoir outline.

If you’re in the middle of your memoir, take a step back and create an outline using the process below. 

And if you’ve already finished your memoir and are thinking about next steps, it’s not too late to create your outline to help finetune your manuscript. 

Outlining your memoir will help you at every stage of the process. 

Even if you identify more with the pantsers on the planner vs pantser spectrum, having some kind of outline using the elements below will help you.

Here’s when to create a memoir outline: 

  1. Before you start writing. If you haven’t started writing your memoir yet, then this is the perfect opportunity to get ahead and create your memoir outline before you start.
  2. If you’ve already started. Even if you’ve started writing your manuscript, you can still draft a memoir outline to use as a roadmap for your writing.
  3. Once you’ve completed your manuscript. Already finished writing your memoir? It’s not too late to create your memoir outline. This can help you identify any gaps in your story, and can help in your editing process. 

Now that you’ve identified when it’s the right time to learn how to write a memoir outline, it’s time to move on to the next part, which is all about what to include in your outline. 

To begin, we’ll start with your idea.

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#2 – Write your memoir idea as a one-sentence premise

Why sum up your whole book idea in one sentence? Because you can’t write about everything. Good memoirs—books like Wild and Eat, Pray, Love—are not about your whole life. No, they’re about a specific season, a particular, very intense period of time. 

One of the biggest mistakes new memoir writers make is to try to do too much in one book, to share too many stories, to talk too much about details the reader doesn’t care about.

That’s why, at the very beginning, you narrow your memoir idea down to a single sentence, because it forces you to focus on only the most important events for your story. 

Then, anything that doesn’t fit in that sentence can go into the next book.

How do you write that sentence? Every premise for a memoir needs to contain three things: a character, a situation, and a lesson. 

Here’s what to include in your memoir’s one-sentence premise:

  1. A character. For memoir, this is going to be you, the author. Fill out a character profile template, so you can look at yourself objectively as a character in a story.
  2. A situation. What is the specific situation you were going through that will make up the core of the story?
  3. A lesson. NY Times bestselling memoirist Marion Roach Smith says, “Memoir is about something you know after something you’ve been through.” What big life lesson did you learn from this situation?

How does this look practically? Here’s an example premise from my memoir, Crowdsourcing Paris:

To raise $600 for his dream Paris trip, a cautious writer accomplishes 12 uncomfortable adventures given by his Internet followers, and through it all learns that the best stories come when you get out of your comfort zone.

Let’s break that down. Character: a cautious writer. Situation: not quite enough money to make it in Paris. Lesson: the best stories come when you get out of your comfort zone.

Got it?

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#3 – Find your memoir’s big moments

Your premise sets the scope of your story. Again, the point of memoir is not to share everything that ever happened to you. The purpose of memoir is to share a compact but powerful story about a specific situation that led to a life-changing realization.

Once you have your premise, then you can start making a list of all of the most important moments that fit into the scope of that premise. 

Look especially for life and death moments, moments of intense romance (or betrayal), or moments of rebellion against society’s expectations.

Important Note: Don’t discount the intensity of these moments. One major realization I had as I wrote Crowdsourcing Paris was how easy it is to look back at our life and downplay the intensity of an event. 

For example, there was this one moment when I experienced sheer terror in Paris. I was in the catacombs, the 170 miles of illegal caves and tunnels below the city, and I was lost and all alone in the pitch black with nothing but a tiny LED flashlight that was all but worthless. I honestly thought I might die there. 

But for years, looking back at that moment, I would minimize the terror I felt. After all, five minutes later I was *spoiler alert* once again perfectly safe and happy. 

But the good memoirist doesn’t diminish her terror or excitement or hurt or bliss. She puts a magnifying glass to it realizing that this is where the best parts of our stories lie.

It took me three years to learn that lesson, but when I did it changed everything for me.

Tips for adding the big moments to your memoir outline: 

  1. Keep it relevant to your memoir’s premise. With your one-sentence premise from the previous step in mind, think about all of the big events or moments that fit into the scope of your story’s premise. 
  2. Think big. Include any milestones, major moments, or memorable experiences that are relevant. Include any life and death moments, and moments of intense feeling or action.
  3. Don’t minimize the moment’s intensity. Try to remember how intense the feeling or experience was for you, and work to authentically re-create the experience for your readers. 

#4 – Add the first act to your memoir outline

Good memoirs contain the best of a novel and a nonfiction self-help book. They should be entertaining and instructive at the same time.

And like a novel outline, good memoirs have a first, second, and third act.

Your job is to slot the events in your life into these three acts so that it feels like a cohesive story.

Here’s a trick to creating your outline: if the average memoir has 60 scenes or moments, your first act should have about 15 scenes, your second act should have about 30 scenes, and your final act should have the final 15 scenes (including your big climactic moment). 

Here are a few tips to keep in mind about your memoir’s first act:

  1. Begin the story as late as possible. For example, my memoir is a travel memoir, and most travel memoirs begin when the author is first arriving in the country. 
  2. Use flashbacks, but carefully. To begin the story as late as possible, you can use flashbacks to give the reader important information that happened earlier in the story. Be careful to only use full scenes, though, and not info-dump.
  3. Start big. Since my memoir is an adventure story, Shawn Coyne, creator of Story Grid, told me that my “very first scene needed to be about one of the biggest life and death moments of the book.” The same is true for your story. For example, if your story is about a romantic relationship, you can begin with a moment of love or rejection. 
  4. End the first act with a major decision. As the main character, it’s your decisions that drive the story. Too often, memoir writers talk about the things that happened to them, not the things that they made happen. Instead, focus on the decisions you made that drove the events of your story forward, and make sure to include one of those important decisions toward the end of your first act.

What moments from your list of big moments that you made in step #2 feel like they would fit here in the first act?

Too often, memoir writers talk about the things that happened to them, not the things that they made happen.

#5 – Insert the second act

The second act is often the hardest part of writing any story, whether a memoir or novel. 

It’s usually twice as long as the first and third acts, and often it can feel slow and disorganized if you don’t handle it right. 

Here are a couple of tips to make your second act sing:

  • Start your subplot here. One thing I learned from Save the Cat is that if you’re story is going to have a subplot, it usually begins in the second act. In fact, it’s often the first scene in the second act. 
  • Center your second act on the all is lost moment. This might be weird, but my favorite thing to write is the all is lost moment, the moment when everything has gone wrong and the main character finally comes to the end of themselves. Why do I like it? Because it’s always this moment when the character finally learns they need to grow if they are going to make things right. Even better, that event happens in the second act, usually about 60 to 70 percent of the way through the story. 

What moments from your list of big moments that you made in step #2 feel like they would fit here in the second act?

#6 – Include the final act of your memoir

The third, or final, act is where all the pieces come together and all the clarity that you’ve fought for in acts one and two finally start to pay off.

For me, the final act is always the most fun to write, the payoff to all the things you’ve been building throughout the book. Have fun with it!

Here are a few tips for your third and final act:

  1. Your final climactic moment comes here. The climax of a novel almost always happens in the third act, and the same is true for your memoir. The climax is when the main character makes a huge, life changing decision, evolving from the smaller person he was in act 1 to the much bigger person he is in act 3.
  2. This is also where you learn, once and for all, the big lesson of the memoir. Remember the lesson you outlined in your premise from step #1? The moment when you finally learn and cement that lesson happens in act three.
  3. End the story with the conclusion of your subplot. If your subplot begins in the second act, the final moment of your subplot works really well as the final scene of your memoir. For example, the subplot of my memoir was about my relationship with my wife, and so the final moment of the book is about holding my wife’s hand as we leave Paris together. Readers are subconsciously expecting this, and when you can deliver on it, it makes them feel like your book is working.

#7 – Structure each scene for your memoir outline

Now that you’ve outlined each act and placed the big moments of your story into each act, you can start thinking about how to structure each scene.

Here I’ve learned so much from Story Grid, which says every scene must contain five things.

The five things to include in each scene for your memoir:

  1. Inciting incident. The conflict that begins the action of the scene.
  2. Progressive complications. A series of events where bad goes to worse.
  3. Crisis. The most important part of the scene, when a character is presented with a choice between either two very bad things or two very good things. (For more on this, check out my article on literary crisis.)
  4. Climax. The payoff when the character makes the decision presented in the crisis.
  5. Resolution. The new world order after the decision is made.

These are traditionally elements for a novel, but when I went through each scene of my memoir and rewrote them to include these five elements, it made the book as a whole much better.

Now, I plan every scene with this structure, and you should too.

Your memoir outline can change your life

It sounds kind of grandiose to say that an outline can change your life, but it’s true. Not only will the outlining process I shared above save you hundreds of hours, it will result in much better memoir.

Take the time to plan your memoir strategically, regardless of where you are in the process. Even if you’re not naturally a planner, spending time in this process will pay off for you.

And don’t forget, writing a memoir should be fun. Happy writing!

How about you? What is your one-sentence memoir premise?

Need A Fiction Book Outline?

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