How to use two sentences to focus your memoir

Work small before you work big.

I’ve been giving talks around the Pacific Northwest for the past year about how to structure a memoir. It’s a beast every writer attempting the form must grapple with. Where do I even start? How do I take the dramatic moments where everything changed for me and place them within a structure that’s compelling for readers?

The real question you’re asking yourself is this: How do I become a storytelling hero instead of the person blabbing away on the couch?

Few tools have been more helpful to me as I tackle my new project than Jessica Abel’s site and her discussions of the Focus Sentence.

You might know her as the author of Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio, a graphic novel about storytelling. Jessica recently illuminated me that she got it from Tod Maffin, who got it from Ira Glass, who got it from Robert McKee.

It’s pretty simple:

If you want a great breakdown of how this works and why, please head to Jessica Abel’s site. But apart from applying this to my own current project, I like the idea of using the focus sentence on some great memoirs to show how this might work.

The key is to make that first sentence an action. Your narrator is not just a passive receptacle of the world’s ills, even in memoir. The world does not just occur to you, the pile of goo on the floor. That goo wants something. It is searching for something, even in childhood memoir.

Then, the second sentence, the motivation. Why is the narrator searching for this?

The third sentence is a bit trickier, and Abel goes into depth about it in the post (read it now if you didn’t with the link above). There needs to be an element of surprise. We need to understand after the “but” what the narrator is coming up against.

So let’s take a look at how this focus sentence approach works for a couple of recently popular memoirs. I like to use memoir that has been around a while in case my students and workshop attendees have read the work. A word of warning: These are all my own rewritings of these author’s works based on the Focus Sentence model. I’m sure they would craft their sentences about their works differently.

Truth & Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett

Notice that there is drama built into the magnetic pull between these two women. She befriends Lucy Grealy because she is Ann’s opposite.

The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls

Surprise! There’s that shock and awe, the teaser at the end. Everyone loves this book, as do I, and the conflict is clear. Even in a few short sentences we understand what this narrator will be up against.

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: A Memoir by Nick Flynn

Clearly I have a soft spot for children confronting childhood inequity and learning how to parent the parents… But it works with Nick Flynn’s great book as well.

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert

There you go. A book in two sentences.

Try it for your own project! It’s a fun exercise, possibly life-altering.

Somebody…

does something…

because…

but…

Remember that the key is to establish yourself as an active narrator in your story, figure out what he or she wants (that’s you! — what the heck did you want, anyway?), and establish what big thing you were up against.

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