You have a great story to tell about something that happened to you. But should it be fiction or a memoir?
The answer to that question is less straightforward than it seems. Let’s say you’ve always wanted to write about your mom being a witch with her own coven, or that wild backpacking trip you took through India. Either story could easily be told from a strictly autobiographical point of view—and both could be fictionalized.
Memoirs and novels both require skilled story-telling. You must write compelling scenes, develop characters, create conflicts and resolve them, and weave a narrative with enough forward momentum that people will want to finish reading your book once they dip into the first few pages.
So how do you decide which form fits your story best? Consider these four key questions:
1. Do You Have a Platform or Truly Bizarre Story?
For celebrities and CEO’s, the platform is the thing that will lure publishers to your tales: they love people with big fan bases, so they’ll probably want your memoir rather than a novel. And if your story is truly bizarre, you might be better off telling it as nonfiction. Otherwise, people will think your novel lacks credibility or seems melodramatic.
2. Does Your Story Have Enough Substance for a Memoir?
Memoirs aren’t just slice-of-life tales; they require an overarching theme and a story arc. If your personal story lacks substance or you don’t have a platform as an audience, consider fictionalizing the events and adding made-up scenes to create an exciting novel. If, on the other hand, you survived that blizzard by learning how to make a shelter, then went on to become president of Habitat for Humanity building houses all over the world, that’s a great narrative arc for a memoir.
3. How Much Heat are You Willing to Take?
No matter how cool you think everyone in your family will be with you outing Uncle Robert’s drinking or Cousin Millie’s gambling addiction, telling family stories can cause both legal and family trouble. Are you ready for that? If not, you might want to write a novel instead of a memoir. Yes, the parents who locked you in a closet smaller than Harry Potter’s probably deserve your wrath, but publishing a memoir can have long and drastic consequences. If you think that’s the case, tell your story as fiction. Change just a few things about the characters, like gender or location, and most people won’t suspect (or be able to prove) a thing.
4. Is This Book Commanding Your Attention?
Once you start writing your book, let instinct guide you. If the writing is holding your attention in a way that inspires you to commit hours to it every week, or even every day, then you’ve chosen the right genre for this particular story. Don’t worry about readers, family matters, or the marketplace. Just write the best, most honest story you can, and the rest will follow.