I have a fair amount of material (incidents, characters, places) that would perhaps amount to a memoir or Bildungsroman. But readers, including myself, seem most attracted to narratives with a plot. Is it possible to write a "plotless" narrative? But if not, how to make a plot emerge from lifewriting?

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First of all, while an autobiography recounts the whole life of a person, a memoir typically describes a specific phase in their life (e.g. their time as president) and begins when the development of the adult personality has already been finished. A memoir is less a Bildungsroman than a portrait of the person or a documentary about their office, revealing details unfamiliar to the public.

That said, it doesn't matter whether you write an autobiography, a memoir, or a (fictional) novel, the rules of writing long form narratives are always the same, e.g.:

  • provide a hook at the beginning to draw the reader into the narrative
  • describe some status quo at the beginning that is disrupted by an inciting incident
  • give the hero a goal and put obstacles in his or her way
  • order the obstacles so that the action rises towards a climax (the final "battle" between the hero and the opposing forces or antagonist)
  • let the hero make a difficult decision that changes him or her
  • show how the hero achieves their goal, only to find their world changed, or how they fail because they refused to change

For biographies one other rule applies:

  • the live you recount must be exceptional

Most readers don't want to read a story about a person being born, going to school, working fourty years, retiring, and dying. If you want to sell that book, either the life has to have been uncommon, or the person living it.

If you write for an audience of family members, none of the above rules apply. Then the goal is mainly documentary: to transmit information, for example telling your children what your life was like before they came into it. Here, a simple chronological retelling will usually suffice.

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