Putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) is the first step to telling your life story. But fairly early on in the process, you will need to pause to consider what kind of life story you’re writing. Should you write it as an autobiography, a memoir, or another nonfiction sub-genre? The purpose, frameworks, audience, and marketing options differ dramatically from one sub-genre to the next, so you’ll want to get clear on how you’ll craft your story if you wish to meet your readers in the ways you intend.
North American publishers and bookstores have given rise to book classifications and genres for ease of selling books. Both real and online bookstores shelve their books by category, and each category contains several sub-categories. Nowadays, there are several nonfiction sub-genres, and each one has its own literary criteria and operates uniquely as a work of literature.
Life story, for example, can fall under autobiography, memoir, auto-fiction, self-help/self-development, or a memoir hybrid. The writer must know the tenets of each sub-genre before writing in order to meet the sub-genre’s particular criteria with their work if you wish to acquire an agent, approach an independent publisher, or self-publish and meet up with the right readers.
Auto-fiction is a new-ish sub-genre that cross-breeds autobiography and fiction. This type of life story can skew more toward memoir or more toward fiction “based on a true story” depending on numerous factors (you say tomato, I say tomato).
Self-Help or Self-Development & Memoir Hybrid
Self-help or Self-development are typically straightforward “how-to” or “service” books written by entrepreneurs or thought leaders based on their fields of expertise to help readers fix a particular problem in their lives or simply live better. When they have just enough personal narrative, they become memoir hybrids, like Jen Sincero’s You Are a Badass.
Cookbooks have gone this route in recent years as well, and cookbook memoir hybrids commonly fuse personal story with recipes, such as Stanley Tucci’s newly released, Taste: My Life Through Food or Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone.
Then there’s biography and memoir, which of all the nonfiction “life story” sub-genres are the two that tend to be most conflated despite the fact that they’re quite different.
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Autobiography and Biography: Purpose, Framework, Structure, and Marketability
An autobiography or biography is designed to illustrate and explore what the subject did during their life, with whom, and why, culminating in the subject’s having arrived at their current moment (or their final moments if they are deceased). An autobiography or biography provides both a personal and historical record as it explores the subject’s life in the context of the culture, time period, key players, etc. that served as influences.
Biography is a linear document that tends to cover one’s entire life span from birth to present day/final days.
Autobiography and biography can be largely told to the reader through exposition (telling). While it may include scenes to illustrate moments/anecdotes that make the reader feel “present” with the action, by and large biography doesn’t need to have a plot or invite tension through narrative devices as again its purpose is to serve as public record.
Autobiography and biography tend to be the territory of famous persons, designed to give readers — who would naturally be curious about this public figure —a glimpse into their lives. The work may range from quite intimate to curated depending on the personality writing it, their reasons for writing the work, and how vulnerable they wish to be.
Michelle Obama’s Becoming and Malala Yousafzai’s I Am Malala are two such popular autobiographies.
Some well-known biographies (written by someone else) cover the lives of Napoleon, Steve Jobs, Rosemary Kennedy, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Mao Zedong, Sylvia Platt, and Frida Kahlo, and Henrietta Lacks.
Given that autobiographies or biographies are reserved for such prominent individuals, if you have written an autobiography, you may be faced with two options for selling the work: renovating it into a memoir or self-publishing it for a more intimate readership.
Memoir Purpose, Framework, Structure & Marketability
A memoir is a combination of story and exposition that takes the reader through a particular time in the subject’s life during which they experienced tremendous growth, change, and healing/awareness. Through the use of narrative craft such as plot, scene, character, setting, dialogue, and a candid, approachable persona guiding the work’s development through personal reflections and narration of the events, the reader empathetically experiences similar attached feelings of growth and catharsis along with the memoirist.
A memoir typically covers a select period of a person’s life during which the memoirist underwent a particularly trying situation. Additional periods of time outside of the frame may appear in backstory or flashbacks.
Structure in Craft, 3 Acts, & Plot
More closely related to the novel in creative scope, the memoir does double duty as a work of literature in that it must both braid together real-life experiences and an authentic persona’s voice and thoughts along with narrative writing craft such as structure, plot, tension (through exposition & scene), setting, character development, etc.
Also, like a novel, a memoir presents in a “Three-Act” Structure rather than a linear series of events like the biography.
During the period of time of the book, the memoirist goes on “a journey” to seek or achieve something. The memoirist typically begins this period of time in one state: confused, in disrepair, looking to escape their present circumstances, un or ill-informed, etc. Over the course of events in the book, they strive to fix the problem or come to clarity, and by the end, they triumph in some way and emerge changed.
This evolution of the protagonist going from “darkness to light” is achieved through a narrative arc that looks similar to an annoyed eyebrow.
Structure & Plot
Plot is the engine that propels the story forward and is responsible for creating the three-act structure.
Plot is the causal relationship between events propelled by something being at stake for the protagonist, who seeks to get that thing at all turns. Tension arises from the protagonist’s ability (or inability) to get what they want, and the book travels forward as they strive, fail, strive again, and fail again.
Finally, at the 2/3 mark, the protagonist will typically hit the peak of clarity or insight (the epiphany) and spend the last 1/3 in resolution.
This classic mode of storytelling has been how stories are told since the dawn of the story in oral tradition, and coined by Aristotle (so it is now cutely called the “Aristotelian story arc,” which apparently if you say at a party will make you look very cool).
How do you get plot to work? Friction
Plot is created through a mixture of exposition and scene, so the reader can both learn about necessary grounding information, backstory, character description, and cultural and historical context by being told, but also spend time as if physically present in scenes that bloom open to illustrate or deepen a moment and enable the reader to gain empathy for the characters as they strive to get what they want (and either achieve or fail).
The outcome of this friction, and being guided by tension and high stakes, is a structure that takes the reader through a visceral experience. The reader experiences the subject’s trials and triumphs with them over the course of the book.
At the story’s end, the subject ends up changed with a new insight and clarity, and usually healing and catharsis (or the realization that these things are only partially possible). The reader feels the same, which broadens the reader on a human level and enables them to leave the world of the book a changed person as well.
Types of Memoir
In some memoirs, the plot is bold and due to external forces (will the family make it past the tornado? Will she find her lost daughter?) Some great examples of big-plot or highly tragic memoirs are Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster and Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave.
Other memoirs portray important life struggles, which can be exponentially more devastating and powerful. This list of the Best Memoirs from the Past 50 Years highlights many excellent memoirs from some of the best writers on the shelves.
Nonfiction, namely Memoirs, are the highest selling books (even with school closures ramping up young adult and children’s book sales, adult nonfiction was still the frontrunner) and have been topping charts for two decades. As our increasingly disconnected world grows apart, readers crave the dynamic of a great story paired with knowing that the story in fact happened to the writer.
This feeling of intimacy is giving millions of readers solace, information about worlds other than their own, and a feeling of human-centered connection. A well-rendered memoir will typically have success with finding a broader readership, whether that’s through mainstream publishing or self-publishing.
What matters above all else is that you tell your story. Next is to understand its framework or work to meet the criteria of your chosen framework, so you can meet with your readers. They will be glad you did the work- and so will you.
If you have a story to tell, we will help you tell it. Write your memoir with us in our Write Your Memoir in 4 Months program or let us support you with custom writing coaching including accountability, resources, insights, and editorial guidance. Most importantly, your stories matter. It’s time for you to tell them.