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.