How to establish plot points in your memoir

blogging-bonanza-bugAs we work our way through the month-long blogging bonanza celebrating the launch on March 28 of Truth, Dare, Double Dare, Promise or Repeat: On Finding the Meaning of “Like” in 1982, we’ll begin each week with Structure Sunday where I’ll share some important elements to consider when writing a memoir. Today, I’m examining how to structure your story.

* * *

Absence doesn’t make the story grow fonder when it comes to writing.

In the middle of writing Truth, Dare, Double Dare, Promise or Repeat: On Finding the Meaning of “Like” in 1982 (literally, the middle — I had 34,000 words on paper), I got stuck. I didn’t know where I was going, and I was losing track of where I had been.

How does a writer get back into a half-finished work and make sense of it?

For me, it was an outline. Some writers like to free-write without any notion of where they’re going, and that might work for fiction, but for memoir (or even autobiographical fiction), which depends on using real-life events for grist, an outline is helpful.

I created my detailed road map after reading Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder on the recommendation of author and blogger Catherine Ryan Howard, who called it “the single most useful tool I have ever come across when it comes to that thorny little problem called plotting.” (I also mentioned this book earlier this month when discussing how to create a likeable protagonist.)

Yes, as the title suggests, Snyder’s book is about writing screenplays, but many of his concepts can be applied to books. Not only is it written with style and verve, it has substance and detailed tips for following through. After reading it, you’ll never watch a movie the same way again.

I used some of the tips to punch up the outline for Truth, Dare, and when I sat down to write after a two-month drought of inspiration, I jumped right into the fray and knew what needed to be done.

Here’s exactly how I used Snyder’s concepts to drive my outline:

Snyder recommends a good screenplay requires 15 “beats” or plot points from opening scene to final image. First I wrote each beat on a post-in note, and then I starting working in the scenes from my high school diaries (and the ones I had already written) to support each beat.

story plotting notes

Here’s Truth, Dare in the form of 40 Post-It Notes outlining my plot points.


Organizing beats this way helped me figure out where to introduce characters, conflicts and resolutions.

all is lost beat

Here is an original Post-It note for the “all is lost” beat of the story.

Then I wrote up a seven-page, color-coded outline reflecting my post-it notes. I numbered chapters and added notes to myself about character motivations, scenes and the goal of each chapter. For someone else, you might put all the Post-It notes on a wall in your writing area, but I didn’t have that luxury.

Then, I got back to writing. By creating an outline of all the points I wanted to make in my story, I was able to check off each chapter as I finished the first draft of it. I still moved scenes around after creating my beat sheet, but at least I had a map for getting to the finish line. Snyder’s screenwriting concepts, by the way, also helped me write the ending to Truth, Dare, Double Dare, Promise or Repeat. I’ll write more about that — and the significance of the blue shoes on the cover — later this month.



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