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Harry Potter: A classic storyline that follows both a three-act structure and the hero’s journey. Both structures can be useful when organizing a memoir draft. 

So you’ve written a ton of stuff for your memoir.

You have oodles and oodles of words.

You’ve been writing for a while.

You feel tapped out. What more is there to say?

If you’re at this point, then it’s time to shape it into something. There are many ways to do this.

You have to find some kind of frame on which to hang all those words. The memoir will have movement — highs and lows, climaxes and resolutions, transformations from one thing to another. Your job now is to arrange that movement in a way that engages readers.

All pieces of art have movement — symphonies, dances, operas, films, paintings. Our eyes, our ears, our hearts move along, guided by a composer, conductor, director, choreographer, artist, etc. Writing is no different. You want to sweep the reader from word to word, sentence to sentence, page to page. You need to keep them reading.

If you have no idea where to begin, let me suggest a couple of common frames.

Three-act structure. This frame has been used for millennia to tell stories. There’s a reason for that — it works!

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Think of your favorite movies. They likely follow this format.

Because we can’t make things up in memoir, your story may not fit neatly into this prescribed box. That’s OK. You can still use it as a guide. I loosely organized my memoir around the three-act structure. The plot points were particularly helpful. Once I identified two major incidents that could act as plot points, I could organize my writing around them. I used Syd Field’s Screenplay as a reference.

The Hero’s Journey. Again, this is an ancient form of storytelling. Joseph Campbell was the one who brought the study of this storyline into the modern era. Christopher Vogler has a stunning book that adapts this for writers called The Writer’s Journey.

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Think of your favorite movies again. Many movies (and the books they came from) follow this circle. Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter are obvious examples. I didn’t really use the hero’s journey for organizing my memoir, but I have referred to it for my current narrative nonfiction project on Camilla Hall and the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Other resources:

Once you can find a narrative arc to work with, you can start organizing your existing writings. You probably will find that you will need to write some new things in order to bridge gaps or fill in details. But you won’t know what’s missing until you decide upon a structure.

If you’re at this point, take heart in knowing the bulk of your hard work is done! You’ve already written so much. There may be some left to write, and then there’s the task of revision, but your entire story is so much clearer now than it was a few weeks, months, or years before. Good job in getting to this point!