For many memoirists, making an outline of their book is one of the most crucial steps in its development. Outlines are an excellent way to get your family”s story organized in your head, as well as on paper, before you even begin writing.
It”s important to keep in mind, however, that an outline is a tool to make your job of writing a personal or family memoir easier; you are its master, not its slave. The outline may become very detailed as you develop it, but try not to lose sight of the big picture. Be sure to cover the beginning and the ending, as well as the major events in between.
Here are two tips that can help you develop an effective outline, and get your memoir started on the right foot:
- Consider the scenes that make up your outline with an eye toward viewpoint. Is every scene told from the same point of view, or are there scenes that suddenly skip to another “character”s” perspective? The easiest way to deal with the question of viewpoint is to decide up front who the narrator of your story will be (chances are it will be you, which makes your job that much easier), and then make sure that you describe each and every scene from that narrator”s point of view.
If you have scenes that you cannot tell from first-hand experience, you may be able to recast them as anecdotes told to you. Let”s say, for example, that you are writing your personal memoir but have included in your outline the scene of your parents” first meeting. You”ve established yourself as the viewpoint “character,” but here is a story you can”t tell from your own memory. You might choose to retell the story as your mother related it to you. If so, then you must tell the details of the scene from her viewpoint and hers alone, although you should “frame” the scene with some material that establishes you as the narrator. For example:
“I have always had difficulty with the concept of ”love at first sight,” but my mother was a firm believer. She never tired of telling the story of when she and Dad met, how she practically tripped over him as she wandered around that huge cold library looking for anything remotely resembling the psychology stacks …”
You probably won”t be writing scenes in this much detail as you outline, but you should at least be able to identify those scenes that will break from the main viewpoint and start thinking about how you want to deal with them.
- Evaluate your outline for a sense of unity. Look for any scenes that seem to wander from the main path, or that seem disruptive to the flow of the story. In order to do this effectively, you must have a strong sense of your book”s scope, theme, and intended reader.
Let”s say that you are planning to write about your parents. The theme of your book—the point you most want to make about your parents” lives—is that a marriage can remain strong even through the most difficult of times, if the couple is willing to work hard at it. In your outline you”ve included a scene that describes your father walking you to school on your first day, one that depicts your mother”s emotional state after a miscarriage, and—close to the end—a scene detailing all the planning you and your siblings undertook to give your parents a grand celebration for their anniversary.
As much as these scenes may say about you, your parents, and your siblings, do they really speak to the theme you”ve identified? Maybe so, if, for example, your mother”s miscarriage threatened the stability of the marriage. But if the scene of your father walking you to school is simply a pleasant personal memory, it probably doesn”t belong. These will be hard choices to make, but if you outline with a critical eye, and cut the extraneous material, you will be much better equipped to resist the temptation to wander down these paths later, when you begin the writing process.
Learn more about the Focus on the Personal/Family Memoir Workshop from WritersOnlineWorkshops.com.