Writing Memoir: Raising the Stakes

Photo by Mounzer Awad on Unsplash

Memoirs are already written in stone because they are about “what really happened,” right?

Wrong. “What really happened” can be written about in an infinite number of ways.

Art is all about selection, or framing. Think of photography. The photographer selects or frames the view. And by doing so, they deselect other views.

As a memoirist, you are not obligated to present all the views or all the scenes. You are in charge of selection.

And, you have control over how you arrange, and rearrange, the scenes you do select.

If you want your readers to keep reading, you can select and arrange for suspense once you know what is at stake, and how you can raise the stakes through the organization of your story.

I’ve quoted writer Chuck Wendig before. In his craft book Damn Fine Story, Chuck tells us:

The stakes of the story are that which can be won, lost, or otherwise protected. What can be won arguably amounts to the character solving the problem. What would be lost is that the character has failed to solve the problem and must reap the harvest of his failure.:

What are the challenges you are writing about in your memoir? What are you trying to win, or trying not to lose? Are you writing about recovering from an injury or disease in spite of the odds stacked against you, or about succeeding as an artist, a parent, a worker in spite of the roadblocks thrown in your path, or about finding peace or wisdom or identity in spite of your own stubbornness?

It’s the “in spite of” parts that can help you raise the stakes in your memoir manuscript. Consider pacing the memoir so that the odds, the roadblocks, the stubbornness, and other complications appear one at a time. Each time you reveal one of these challenges, you raise the stakes.

You raise the stakes, too, when you reveal what you have to gain on your quest in a piece by piece way. That’s usually how life goes — we start off looking for one thing, thinking there’s one obstacle to overcome, and we end up finding out that there are other things we need to fulfill our quest, other barriers to jump over, other fences to climb.

“Macro view of an urban person’s hand on a chain link fence in De Nieuwe Stad” by Mitchel Lensink on Unsplash

For example, I wanted to go to law school because I wanted to represent people who were caught in the criminal justice system. One obstacle in my way was that I was a high school dropout. I got to law school, but then drugging and drinking became another potential obstacle. In law school, I started to see how having power as a lawyer could help me heal from my own past abuse. But then, it became clear I wasn’t going to get a job because my grades were bad and I didn’t have connections. So I started my own practice. But then, I ended up representing . . . And so on.

As mentioned in a previous post, you, and the other significant people in your memoir, are characters, and in any story, we expect main characters to grow and change. Readers want to know:

  • who you are when the story begins,
  • who you become when the story’s conflicts arise, and
  • who you are when the story ends.

Raising the stakes means keeping the reader’s attention by revealing goals and obstacles through pacing. How does your quest change with the knowledge you gain from overcoming obstacles? What are the stakes at the beginning of your quest, in the middle, at the end?

The quest you want to write about may have already happened, but you control how that story is told. You select which stakes to reveal, and when.

Write on.

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