Writing Memoir: Raising the Stakes

Michele Sharpe
3 min readMay 7, 2018
Photo by Mounzer Awad on Unsplash

Memoirs are already written in stone because they are about “what really happened,” right?

Wrong. “What really happened” can be written about in an infinite number of ways.

Art is all about selection, or framing. Think of photography. The photographer selects or frames the view. And by doing so, they deselect other views.

As a memoirist, you are not obligated to present all the views or all the scenes. You are in charge of selection.

And, you have control over how you arrange, and rearrange, the scenes you do select.

If you want your readers to keep reading, you can select and arrange for suspense once you know what is at stake, and how you can raise the stakes through the organization of your story.

I’ve quoted writer Chuck Wendig before. In his craft book Damn Fine Story, Chuck tells us:

The stakes of the story are that which can be won, lost, or otherwise protected. What can be won arguably amounts to the character solving the problem. What would be lost is that the character has failed to solve the problem and must reap the harvest of his failure.:

What are the challenges you are writing about in your memoir? What are you trying to win, or trying not to lose? Are you writing about recovering from an injury or disease in spite of the odds stacked against you, or about succeeding as an artist, a parent, a worker in spite of the roadblocks thrown in your path, or about finding peace or wisdom or identity in spite of your own stubbornness?

It’s the “in spite of” parts that can help you raise the stakes in your memoir manuscript. Consider pacing the memoir so that the odds, the roadblocks, the stubbornness, and other complications appear one at a time. Each time you reveal one of these challenges, you raise the stakes.

You raise the stakes, too, when you reveal what you have to gain on your quest in a piece by piece way. That’s usually how life goes — we start off looking for one thing, thinking there’s one obstacle to overcome, and we end up finding out that there are other things we need to fulfill our quest, other barriers to jump over, other fences to climb.

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Michele Sharpe

Words in NYT, WaPo, Oprah Mag, Poets&Writers, et als. Adoptee/high school dropout/hep C survivor/former trial attorney. @MicheleJSharpe & MicheleSharpe.com