Memoir: The Narrative Plot Structure

A memoir, at least a good one, is first and foremost a story like fiction. Now wait you say, but it’s my story. It’s the story of my life. It really happened and isn’t made up. True. A memoir is about reality, but it is reality with the narrative plot of a fiction story. Let me show you how that is.

First, look at the diagram below.

Source: D. William Landsborough

Freytag created this pyramid years ago to illustrate what all good stories have––plot. A memoir may not have a character in the traditional sense, but YOU are the character, the protagonist of your own story. Anything that antagonizes you is the antagonist of the plot. In a memoir about overcoming an illness, it is the illness that antagonizes the protagonist––again, you.


Here you start your story with the everyday––life before things go wrong. We need to see you before you go through any kind of change. Paint a clear picture of yourself, your surroundings, and your circumstance. We need to know you and your life clearly, descriptively.


Now things are changing. Something happens to disrupt life as you know it. You are now setting on the journey toward a new future, but you don’t yet what that will mean. This is may be the first symptoms of your illness––a mysterious circumstance that leads you away from the life you’ve known to something that will only get more complicated in the future. Remember, you know this but the you of the story doesn’t know this. You are telling a story so the character needs to begin to change and the initial incident is where it happens.


In this section, the plot thickens. The disease becomes so impactful that you are losing a hold of your life. Events start to happen which send you spiraling toward an uncertain future. You are faced with new antagonisms. (Remember the antagonist stands in the way of the protagonist getting what he needs.) You are now leading the readers to what will be the epitome of trouble or disaster. Each circumstance builds on the one before until something must change, or to the point where the protagonist (you) is facing a life or death situation in the face of the illness.


This is it. This is where something will change, has to change. The protagonist is facing the worst possible situation. He is facing the ultimate attack by the antagonist. This is the part of the book where your reader will most invested in the outcome of the story. Think of a good thriller. It’s the height of suspense. The question of: What will happen now? What will he do? Will he survive? The reader is waiting for the most significant change possible.


So a change is made. A long fought answer discovered. You now must deal with your battle with the illness. You start to get answers that will let you beat back the disease. You get help. You gain strength and are moving forward toward you want––health again, or at least sanity back. Here you unravel the issues that bound you and the antagonist together. You begin to separate from the antagonist. This is also where the results of the climactic decision take place.


Here the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist ends. The battle has been won, typically in memoir. You get better or at least your life has been saved. You will describe the new reality and what you’ve achieved. Your character will have achieved their goal which is whatever they wanted at the beginning of the journey. This will look different for every memoir you may write. The you is seeking something. Here answers will have been found. There may be a kind of peace of mind to be had.


This is a fancy French word for “The End.” You are now living in your new reality. Life isn’t what it was before, but you’ve come to terms with it. Here is where happy endings take place. When you overcome your illness, what do you do now? How do you move forward from here? The end wraps up any last details and leaves the reader a satisfying result. The book then ends.

I’ve used an illness as an example here but memoir is the same whether it is an illness or someone’s death that you have to come to terms with. Whatever your “change” is that is what you are showing in a memoir. Readers expect to see you evolve from point A to point B and having learned something or become something else.

Use Freytag’s pyramid to organize your plot. This is the narrative––another word for story––that you are showing/telling us. All memoir uses a structure like this, despite how creative you want to be with the way you present the information. We humans love a good story. For fun, watch movies and read book and try to find the pyramid in each. I guarantee you, you’ll see the pyramid in just about everything.

If you’d like me to help you plot your narrative, email me and I’ll get your set on the right path toward writing a stunning memoir.