Creative and Nonfiction Class April 20, 2022

Class taught by Carol Brennan King at

Today we talked mostly about the 5 Commandments of Storytelling from https://storygrid.com/five-commandments-of-storytelling/

I believe that this material about the construction of good stories is equally important for memoir writing as fiction because a memoir is nothing more than one of many stories we have lived through.

Remember, a memoir is a slice of your life, not the whole thing. If you were going to tell the story of your whole life, you would be writing an autobiography. For most of us, we just can’t summon up enough readership who would be enthralled with a book compiled with everything we could remember happening to us.

A memoir is another thing: it is a piece of life. Think about your college years when you transitioned from teenager to adult, or should have. Or maybe your first job and what you learned there, your wedding day and the ensuing changes. We’re thinking, in a memoir, of a short period of your life that had a significant impact on who you are.

A memoir can be of a time period as short as only one powerful day in your life, or one year, or it could be about something that happened in one year, but you only experienced the consequences several years later. It is NOT a book about your whole life.

For the reader to want to read your memoir or your story, and to stick with it once started, it must have the same qualities or construction as a piece of really good fiction.

SO HERE WE GO, remember that these 5 COMMANDMENTS OF STORYTELLING work whether you are making a story up, or it really did happen, and to you.

  1. Your story or book must begin with an inciting incident. That means something happens to your main character that messes with his or her life, big time.
    1. We talked about how this incident can actually happen right in front of the reader on that first page,
    2. OR it might have just happened, and we walk into the room where the character or you (if it is a memoir) must figure out what to do now.
    3. But this inciting incident may not happen in that first paragraph at all. It might not happen until page 2 because you had to set it up, telling us just enough to understand the magnitude of these events.
    4. As a result, the protagonist or you have to figure out how to deal with this. In other words, your main character or protagonist must come up with a goal to deal with this challenge.
  2. So you or your character makes a series of decisions or actions to fix things. As you can imagine, the stakes grow higher as you or the protagonist try different solutions to the first problem, and then the subsequent twists and turns that follow.
    1. Sometimes the subsequent challenges are due to decisions made by the main character.
    2. But sometimes these challenges are just part of life or things that come about as you/the main character learn something new that forces a personal change.
  3. Now you or your main character faces a CRISIS! None of their efforts have worked, two solutions present themselves: either the best of two bad choices or a choice between two good things. Remember: the outcome of either choice is not guaranteed. It is a gamble.
  4. Climax. REMEMBER, neither the crisis nor the climax are the end of the story. They just set it up. SO, for the climax. The climax is the consequence of the choice made in the crisis situation. It shows who the main character, the protagonist, or you (in a memoir) really are. It reveals the truth about what is inside of the character.
  5. The resolution. This is that meaningful thing that happens as a result of the choices made during the crisis. Remember your reader here. They picked up this book because they thought that in some way it would enrich their lives. Maybe they might learn something. Maybe they might just expect to and get a great emotional ride, but they won’t pick up the next thing you write unless this one was a satisfying ride.
    1. PS. Every story does not end with “happy ever after” right then. But your reader must have hope that the ending is meaningful or purposeful.

So there we have it, what the 5 Commandments of Storytelling as developed by Shawn Coyne look like when we apply them to a memoir as well as fiction.

Now, kudos to Shawn Coyne who originated this material, and you can find tons of great resources on his website STORY GRID. Remember, I showed you his book two weeks ago in class.

You can also find the source of our class notes and applications of the principles at https://storygrid.com/five-commandments-of-storytelling/

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