4 Mistakes Every Memoirist Should Avoid

Cristen Iris

There are some storytelling and execution problems that leave literary agents and readers cold and scratching their heads. Here are several that I see often and tips to help you write a more commercially viable--i.e. reader-pleasing--book.

Memoir Mistake #1: Not Understanding the Difference Between Situation and Story

A situation is what happens to you. A story is what happens in you.

A nasty divorce with many dramatic moments isn't a story. It's a situation.

A scary diagnosis and course of treatment isn't a story. It's a situation.

A story is a journey from one way of thinking and being to another way of thinking and being.

A nasty divorce that forced a person to realize their co-dependent tendencies and move through a series of difficult and deliberate choices that led them from dependent to independent is a story.

A scary diagnosis that allowed a person to face a fear and embrace something within themselves that they'd always kept pushed down is a story.

All good books have an emotionally engaging story that happends within a high-stakes situation.

The story dictates the narrative arc of a book. Excellent writers select scenes that allow them to highlight the narrative arc they wish to show.

Memoir Mistake #2: Not Understanding What a Scene Is

A scene is a mini story that has a beginning, middle, and end.

A scene happens in a place. It can be recreated for stage or screen.

A scene is not a flow of ideas or monologue.

Scenes are like building blocks that can be stacked or linked in ways that maximize reader engagement. Scene arrangement is what creates a book's structure.

Memoir Mistake #3: Not Understanding Story Structure and Why It Matters

Structure matters because it impacts pacing, which means that it impacts your reader's experience.

Structure consists of strategic scene choices designed to emerse the reader in the memoirist's experience for a specific purpose.

Poor structure (including frontloading that delays the start of the story and ending the story too late) produces boredom, frustration, and reader fatigue.

Exellent structure grabs the reader's attention and keeps them emotionally and intellectually engaged from page one to the end, leaving them satisfied and excited to tell others a book is worth the money, time, and energy required to read it.

Memoir Mistake #4: Not Understanding the Difference Between Exposition and Backstory

Backstory is all the stuff that happened before the story a book covers started.

Exposition is information readers need to understand why something is important.

Some exposition happened in the memoirist's past (think flashback content), but excellent writers have a knack for slipping that information in at just the right moment and in just the right way.


Understanding and avoiding these four common memoir-writing mistakes will help you craft a stronger outline or revise your work in progress to meet the demands of the memoir market and compete against all the excellent entertainment options available on YouTube, in theaters, and through streaming platforms.


Ready to talk to an experienced and results-oriented ghostwriter/book collaborator, book doctor, and developmental editor? To schedule a free, 30-minute consultation, click here.


Feature Photo by Fabio Comparelli on Unsplash

CI Communication Strategies

Cristen Iris