The Structure of an Autobiography
Date Posted: 17/08/2016 | Category:
(For the sake of clarity this refers only to writing your own autobiography, but it can be applied to biographies too)
A lot of people start to write an autobiography to record their stories for future generations, or to preserve the stories of those that have already gone before them. Looking at old photos can stir a memory, a story, but who will remember it when we're gone?
Autobiographies are usually split into three categories:
• The life story
• The achievement story
• The overcoming hardship story
The first is an overview of your whole life, the second and third are more memoirs - a narration with narrower focus on a particular time or event within your lifetime.
But where do you start? Is there a set structure to follow? The latter is easy to answer: no. As long as your story is compelling and your narrative engaging, then what you tell and how is up to you.
Where you start depends on how much you want to include, and how much to include depends on the story you want to tell. Think about who you are writing this for, and why you are writing it. Is it a form of catharsis, do you have something unique in your life or is it to tell your story to the next generation? If you're writing to document your life then it's likely that you'll be writing a complete autobiography from birth up to the current time.
If you're writing a memoir then the place to start is wherever the story starts. Is this a tale of overcoming addiction? Then when did the addiction start and why? Is it the story of a trek around the world? Then what inspired you to do it? In a memoir you have to make the decision about how far back you go - was your childhood influential in the story? What about your parents' backgrounds? If you come from a mining family and your story focuses on your career in the mines and their eventual closure, then you might want to include a brief introduction about your family's history working in the mines, or the history of the mine itself. However, the emphasis in a memoir is the story at that moment in time, so there is no need to include everything that comes before it.
Now that we've established the difference we will focus on the traditional lifetime autobiography as the story you're trying to tell here is less obvious. Yes it's your life story, but which bits? You can't include everything or it will become very long-winded very quickly.
Crafting your autobiography
1. Write out a timeline of your life - research yourself! Brainstorm and write down everything you can remember - not everything will go in the final book, but you never know what useful or interesting story you might remember.
2. Who are the important people in your story? Think beyond your immediate family - who else influenced your life along the way, even if only for a moment, whether bad or good.
3. Pull out the best stories from your life. The main topics that readers find of interest are:
- Childhood. Where did you come from, what sort of child were you, how did it shape your later life?
- Coming of age. Times of change are always more interesting than stasis, and a person discovering themselves can be one of the most fascinating
- Falling in love. Everyone loves a love story. whether it has a happy ending or not, whether the story is an unsuccessful search for love.
- Mid-Life/Identity Crisis. Who are you, what have you done with your life, what's the purpose of life? Everyone gets older and everyone deals with it differently - what was your reaction?
- Challenges. Most people face challenges in their lives. Addiction, abuse, loss, violence, mental health; the list goes on. Whatever your battle was against and whether you won or lost, include it.
4. Before you start writing, consider the following:
- What's your theme? A particular event that impacted your life, a goal and the pursuit or achievement of that goal, an achievement in your life or even part of your personality can be the theme. If you're a comedian, then your autobiography might focus on events that show your comedic personality or aspirations throughout your life.
- Is your narrative going to be objective or emotional? The more objective the narrative the more accurate it is likely to be, but more descriptive and emotional language is likely to engage the reader more.
5. Decide where to start the story. You need to grab the reader's interest in the first page.
6. Build a structure. It may be useful to use index cards here. Write out a card for each key event and place them in the order you want them to appear in the book. You can then use secondary cards to indicate links, themes, values or lessons learnt from these events.
- Does the story start in the present and progress with flashbacks?
- Is it a linear, chronological story from birth to present day?
- Is it non-linear, with stories grouped together by theme?
7. Separate your book. Always use chapters. They can be used to separate stories, themes or time and break the book up into readable chunks.
8. End with a conclusion. Have any lessons been learned or experience gained?
9. Think of a title. You might have had a title from the beginning, or the perfect one might occur to you half way through a particularly pertinent story. It doesn't matter when you choose a title, but it needs to be memorable, so stay away from words that are difficult to understand or remember. You need people to remember the title so that they can recommend it to their friends!
- Talk to other people in your stories - do they remember it the same way that you do? Can they add anything to the story?
- Write in your own voice - it will be more authentic if it's true to your natural style and your personality will come across.
- Be revealing - the reader is looking for honesty so include the bad as well as the good, and offer your inner thoughts. The reader doesn't want to read a narrative removed from the subject.
- Include the conflicts. It won't be a very interesting story without any struggles or enemies to overcome.
- Remember to include background details. When did the events occur? What was happening in the world at the time? What was it like at that moment in time? Political, social and cultural events all add shape to your story and give the reader a backdrop against which your story is played out.
- Don't confuse your tenses! The majority of what you write will likely be in the past tense, and only changing to the present tense if you refer to yourself now eg 'Looking back on that time I feel...'
Now comes the hard bit - getting it all written down! Good luck, and we hope to see your finished autobiography in our in-tray soon!