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  • Writer's pictureAl Desetta

How should you begin a memoir? One strategy is with a powerful scene or turning point.

Updated: Mar 20

The beginning of a memoir is crucial in grabbing the reader's attention and setting the tone for the book. One strategy is to begin with a powerful scene or moment. 

When I worked with Wanda Broach-Butts on her memoir of bereavement, The Ice Underneath, I chose to start on the morning of the day her husband was murdered. As usual, he drove her to the train station for her commute to work. Wanda’s train ride and morning in the office were uneventful. Yet, at a certain point, the day was no longer routine.


“Ted had gotten me so spoiled and comfortable in our marriage. As I settled in at my desk, I knew it would be only a couple of hours before he called me at mid-morning to see how my day was going. Another call at mid-day, and then a final call about an hour before I was on my way home: ‘Hey baby, what would you like for dinner tonight? I’ll be at the train station to pick you up. Love you, honey.’


“But mid-morning came and went with no call from Ted.”


The strategy here was to draw readers into the story by creating a sense of immediacy and suspense, by having Wanda narrate it as she experienced it, with no knowledge of what was to come. The reader is as unaware as she is. 


“All through the afternoon I tried to concentrate on my work as I waited for Ted’s end-of-the-day call. Five p.m. approached and I hadn’t spoken to him in nine hours, since the train station. Very strange. So unlike Ted.


“Just before leaving work, I called and left another message. ‘Honey, I haven’t heard from you.  I’m really concerned.’"


Wanda’s anxiety builds during her train ride home.


“The ride seemed so much longer that night. As I stared out the train window, not quite seeing the darkening landscape, anxiety and worry, which had been nagging at me all day, now entirely flooded my mind.”


When she gets off at her station, Ted isn’t there to pick her up. Now she knows something is definitely wrong. Wanda calls her sister to Penny pick her up and they head to her home.


“We got on the highway. My heart was racing. I was panicking.


‘Penny, something’s not right.’


‘Just breathe, Wanda, just breathe. Deep breaths, in and out.’


“Penny’s phone buzzed. My sister was silent, the phone pressed to her ear. 


‘No way,’ she said.”


That ends the prologue to the book. The first chapter then starts, chronologically, at the beginning—the night Wanda met Ted. What happened to him that Monday while when Wanda was at a work will not be revealed until much later.


No matter what your book is about or what kind of life you’ve led, there is probably a powerful scene or moment that would be a good place to start your memoir. It may not be a traumatic experience like Wanda faced, but there is drama in every life. Even a business book needs to open with a powerful scene.


A memoir ghostwriter can help you identify and make the most of that moment in constructing your book.




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