Every ordinary life story is extraordinary!

Every ordinary life story is extraordinary!

When and How to End Each Chapter of Your Memoir

Woman sitting on library floor with book

Different Writing Devices Produce Different Effects

How do you know at what point one chapter of your memoir ends and the next begins? Should you have sub-chapters within chapters? As with everything relating to memoir, you can make your own rules. But let’s take the second question first.

Be Disciplined and Edit

I’m not a fan of separating a memoir into three or four parts and then doing chapters within each part—or worse, letting each part go on and on without dividing it into chapters. If you’re writing a history of the world, maybe you want to split that up a bit, devoting Part I to the prehistoric world and subdividing that into the stone age, the bronze age and the iron age. But look, your memoir is not the history of the world. It’s a close look at a shorter time frame. Subcategories within categories can have the reader picturing your outline or storyboard, and listing Parts I, II and III can be kind of a spoiler, because readers see how your life divides up.

So let’s assume you go with ordinary chapters. According to Scribe Media, an average nonfiction book of 50,000 words typically has 12 chapters. The math of that comes to 4,166 words per chapter, or let’s call it 4,000 words per chapter. I think that’s a fair guideline but nothing you should consider carved in stone. If one chapter feels complete at 2,500 words and another not until 7,500 words, rely on your sense of what works.

Of course, you still should always look at your work with a critical eye. Will the reader want to slog through that longer-than-average chapter? Let’s say you devote a whole chapter to high school. Does it feel longer than the four years of high school seemed to last? If you didn’t get along with any of your teachers, maybe five examples are one too many and you can cut the weakest of them.

If you have an exceptionally short chapter, make sure the content justifies its own space. Perhaps the information can be woven throughout a few other chapters. Or for a simpler solution, maybe you can tack it onto the end of the previous chapter or the beginning of the next.

Organic Timing for a Chapter’s End

I haven’t experienced much of a struggle in determining when it’s time to end a chapter. As you get used to writing, your writer’s voice will just grow quiet when you’ve finished what you have to say about that segment of your memoir.

Endings are pretty obvious especially when you write your memoir in chronological order. If, again, the chapter is about high school, graduation or prom will pretty much cap it off. If the chapter is more of a theme that spans several time periods, such as your difficulties getting along with your sister, you will know when you’ve shared all the important points of that relationship.

Be Deliberate When Ending Each Chapter

It’s so helpful to read memoirs even as you write yours. When we read as readers, we’re interested in following the story. But when we read as writers, we’re also observing all the techniques that hook the reader, make the story flow, keep the information clear. So be mindful of the various ways a skilled author ends a chapter. You’ll discover that you have a choice at the end of each chapter. To take one of the common approaches to ending a chapter, you might:

  • Build suspense. This is probably the most common device. It doesn’t have to be a big cliffhanger, but you always want your reader to have trouble putting the book down. A chapter’s last sentence can easily make the reader curious about what will happen next. Try something like: “When I shoved the diploma into my jacket pocket, I felt the key I’d dropped into the pocket hours earlier and knew I had to figure out what door that key would open.”
  • Foreshadow. Similar to developing suspense, foreshadowing gives the reader a glimmer of what’s coming next but offers a bigger hint. You can foreshadow what’s coming immediately in the following chapter or in an episode that occurs several or more chapters later. In either case, try something like: “Even as I watched him drive away and my breathing finally returned to a normal pace, I had a feeling our paths would someday cross again.”
  • Review/reflect. Like a short story, a chapter can be its own vignette that circles back to a theme or message. Just be careful not to be preachy or “authorsplain.” If you’ve made your point through the narrative, you don’t have to boil down that point for the reader. But you still can drive it home a bit: “That quaint town helped me see beauty in nature and appreciate the value of every individual who entered my life, but it wasn’t going to hold me back from discovering what else was out there for me.”
  • Increase the reader’s emotional connection to you. A memoir can reveal your darker side, so you have to make sure you don’t turn the reader against you. Consider ending a particularly brutal chapter on an emotional note: “His reassuring nod nearly brought me to tears. It was all I needed to be sure that I was making the right decision—owning up to my mistakes while still following my heart.”
  • Put the reader in your shoes. To some extent, your entire memoir is intended to resonate with the reader. Support this by ending a chapter here and there with a sort of invitation to readers to consider what they would do in that position. You can combine this with building suspense: “The three options would lead me down completely different paths, and I knew I could choose only one of them.”
  • Summarize. I wouldn’t use this technique often, because you shouldn’t have to repeat what you’re trying to get across. But it does add variety to your chapters’ endings. It can be something like: “So that was it. I’d tried everything the doctors had recommended. I did the hard work in therapy, had the MRI to check for physical problems, propped myself up with a supportive community and even changed jobs. Nothing worked, and at this point I wanted to just give up.”

You can probably think of more types of chapter endings on your own. Keep in mind that in a first draft you don’t even need to be concerned with this. It comes with the polishing—that’s the great thing about a second draft! And once you get the hang of ending a chapter, it will flow for you. Writing is like anything else—practice improves your outcome.

Memoir Organization: The Chapter that Pushes “Pause”

Book open to a page

Structure is always a major decision for memoir authors. Should you simply go chronologically, starting from the beginning of your saga and following with chapters that document the incidents as they rolled out in your life?

Or, instead, should you view your life as a collection of topics and tackle each subject matter one at a time? For example, you might devote a chapter to your professional life. Within that chapter, you can go chronologically, but everything that’s important about your work will get covered. Maybe another chapter is about your extended family, your spirituality or your hobbies. Your life becomes a collection of aspects of who you are.

Only One Rule: There Are No Rules

There are no rules in writing a memoir. Let me say that again. I’m not talking only about structure. This is your life. You are the one who lived it, and you are the one who is writing about it. You get to decide what to include and how to present your life. There are no rules in memoir writing. So you can employ a chronological structure and still interrupt the time line with a chapter that is more topic-centered.

Let’s say your memoir’s core focus is the way you contracted, suffered from, and then rebounded from a rare illness. You want to explain what happened to you and perhaps help others who might have the same illness. You lay it out chronologically, starting from the time you were young and healthy, recalling the first signs of the illness, documenting the details of your treatment and finishing with your triumph and recovery.

Example of a “Pause” Chapter

During your ordeal, you picked up painting. This gave you a way to pass long hours, take your mind off your troubles, express yourself creatively, and bond with a local artist who sold paintings on the street. And, eventually after you conquered your medical problems, painting provided a side income that continues to benefit you in current time as you’re writing your memoir.

Although painting has become an important aspect of your life and your recovery, it still feels tangential to your medically focused memoir. So that’s one problem: should you include it at all? The second issue is that it develops over time. If you introduce incidents involving painting into every chapter in which they fit chronologically, you’ll be mentioning it a lot but only as a paragraph here and a paragraph there. You’ll always have to stop what you’re talking about to catch up on this development in your hobby.

An easier way to manage a topic like this is to devote one whole chapter to your painting. Insert the chapter into the chronology of when you set up that first easel in your basement studio. Then explain how the diversion helped you throughout your illness and your life. You can use a sort of future “would” tense: “I would discover that this creative outlet would fulfill me not only while I was sick but long afterward.” Then you can go into the details.

If It’s Good Enough for Springsteen…

I noticed that Bruce Springsteen uses this chapter-interrupt device in his memoir, Born to Run. He singles out one of his E Street Band members, saxophonist Clarence Clemons, for a separate chapter that pauses the general chronology of his memoir in order to tell everything about his colleague’s talents and the relationship that developed between them. He takes this narrative well past the point in time where the previous chapter leaves off while providing a bit of background of Clemons’s life before that point as well.

More Uses for the Interrupting Chapter Device

It’s a huge freedom! This single-chapter departure from your own structure takes the burden off you as a writer, permitting you to explain something in depth without having to revisit it in multiple chapters. You also can use it to preview how that one aspect of your life turns out, tease other pieces of your life you either haven’t yet introduced or haven’t yet resolved, or pay special homage to a person, institution, company or topic.

Admittedly, devoting a separate chapter to a topic is not as difficult than weaving it into your long memoir thread. But don’t feel as if you’re taking the easy way out. When something is easier for the memoir author to write, that means it’s probably easier for the reader to understand, keep track of and enjoy. And that’s the whole point, right?

Login

Then just set up a chapter and start writing your memoir. Don’t worry about rules. There are no rules to writing your memoir; there are only trends. These trends are based on techniques and features identified in current top-selling memoirs. At best, they’re the flavor of the month. If you’re capturing your life in print for your family, for your own gratification or to inspire readers, rather than aiming to set off Hollywood screenplay bidding wars, these trends don’t even apply to you. You’ll write the memoir that suits you best, and it will be timeless, not trend-driven.There are no rules, but there are four steps:

1. Theme/framework
2. Writing
3. Editing/polishing
4. Self-publishing

You’ve researched this, too, and you’ve been shocked at the price for getting help with any one of those steps, much less all four. That’s because most memoir sites promise to commercialize your work. They’ll follow a formula based on current memoir trends, because they want to convince you that they can turn your memoir into a best-seller. These sites overwhelm you with unnecessary information not to help you, the memoir author, but to address Search Engine Optimization (SEO) algorithms so they can sell more.

That’s not what we do at Write My Memoirs. Our small community of coaches, writers and editors are every bit as skilled as any you’ll find, and we charge appropriately for their expertise and the time they’ll spend helping you craft a compelling, enjoyable read. But you won’t pay an upcharge for other websites’ commercialization, the marketing that follows, and the pages of intimidating “advice.” You can sell your book if you like—we have ISBNs available for you—but our organic process of capturing your story takes a noncommercial path.

If you want help with any or all of the four steps above, choose from our services or save money by selecting one of our packages. If you’d like to talk about what’s right for you, schedule a call. One year from now, you can be holding your published memoir in your hand. And at that point, it will be a big deal!