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4. Structure

Your quick and easy-to-read guide to life-story writing, by Anna Foster

A structure is like having an architectís drawing in front of you. You can see the shape of your book at a glance.

Most professional writers, whether they are writing an article, short story or longer book, map out a structure at the start.

A structure gives you an idea of length, where you are short of material and is invaluable to refer to throughout the project.


A life story, by virtue of its subject matter, may be written chronologically. In this case, write out possible chapters on a sheet of paper, along the following lines:

  • Birth and Parents
  • Early Years
  • School and Teenage Years
  • First Job
  • First Love
  • Meeting a Partner/Marriage
  • Children
  • Career
  • Middle Age
  • Retirement

The milestones in your life may vary considerably from these, so choose appropriate chapters. These are for reference and not necessarily final chapter titles.

Against each one, write down key words and phrases. So, for Early Years you might note: moved house, relationship with grandfather, good/naughty child, stories about you at this time (which your parents told you subsequently), birth of a sibling and so forth.

You can add to this list at any time.

Chapters can run to any length. They should be used to mark the staging posts of your life and give the reader natural breaks. At this point, note potential short and long chapters, based on your lifeís significant events.

Big Bang

Has an incident defined your life and provided the catalyst for writing a book?

You can start with the event itself (the big bang) and then describe the build-up to it and its consequences in subsequent chapters. You immediately draw the reader in, so that he or she is hooked on the story right from the start.

Alternatively, you can create a state of suspense in the early chapters, with the event as the climax to the book. You will need to build tension and excitement into your writing.

The drip-drip method of releasing information should be explored thoroughly in your structure.

Working Life/Special Interests

Has your life been devoted to your career or to a special interest? You may wish to concentrate on these areas to the exclusion of other less important aspects of your life.

Such a structure might suit the record of a diplomatic career. You could order the material by location for example, especially if your postings were diverse.

Your book is likely to contain many anecdotes relating to local people and places, and will be a fitting tribute to your professional life. Write down the key dates and locations, and make a note of any relevant stories.

You can also base a book around a special interest, such as bird watching, angling, a sport or stamp-collecting. Writing for people with similar interests can be very rewarding. You may receive appreciative and encouraging responses to your book.

What sparked your interest? Who encouraged you? How did it develop? What was your greatest achievement? Were there any disappointments? Are you still actively involved?

Leave out the more personal aspects of your life and stick to your theme.

Case study — Phillipís Foreign Forays

From an early age Phillip had enjoyed travelling. After graduating from Oxford with a degree in international relations, it seemed natural to join the Foreign Office.

Unfortunately, Phillip failed the exams. What now? He applied to the United Nations in Rome for a job in the agricultural section and was accepted. After two years in Rome, he was sent to Lesotho to develop modern farming practices in the villages there.

Stints in Nigeria, Barbados, South Africa and another two years in Rome followed.

After retirement and encouraged by his daughter, Phillip decided to record his memoirs for his family. He divided his chapters between his various postings and included many stories of his adventures along the way.

He produced six copies of a full-colour hardback for his grandchildren, liberally illustrated with photographs. His book will last for generations and is a fitting tribute to a distinguished and interesting life.

Letters and Diaries

Will your book be based on a series of letters or your diaries? They not only provide invaluable source material, but add to the authenticity of your story.


Letters capture mood, character and intensity of feeling. They contain quirky spellings and turns of phrase which tell you something about their author. Almost any life story will benefit from excerpts from letters.

The author Blake Morrison wrote a memoir of his mother, Things My Mother Never Told Me (Vintage, 2003), based largely on a cache of love letters between his parents which he found just before his mother died.

Through the letters he learned more about her after her death than he had ever known during her lifetime, due to her quiet nature and reticence about her childhood as a Catholic in Ireland.

The result is a moving account of an unsung heroine.

Letters have to be edited and transcribed, which can be very time-consuming. The reward is a memoir in which the letter-writer comes alive and adds his or her voice to that of the narrator.

Blake Morrison chose to write a first-person narrative and to quote from the letters, a technique which works well as it gives the prose a unifying voice.

Even the entertaining and witty letters of the Mitford sisters benefit from an editorís introduction and explanatory notes.


Writing a diary preserves the detail in your life which might otherwise be forgotten.

Like letters, diaries need to be edited. Because the format itself is repetitive, the reader tires of 'starting again' with each new daily entry. The book needs to be sustained with a narrative.

Remove boring daily details such as what you ate for breakfast, the clothes you wore and descriptions of the weather Ė unless they have a direct bearing on the story.

Itís never too late to start a diary. If you blog, print out a hard copy.

Both letters and diaries need to be transcribed. Again, this takes time and if you are helping someone who doesnít have a computer, you will need to get them typed up.

Getting The Most from Your Structure

Your structure is a prop. It will provide you with discipline when you are writing. It isnít set in stone either; itís a tool to help you with the writing process, so that if you grind to a halt, you can return to your structure and start on a different part.

If additional material comes to light, refer back and see where it will slot in. You can rework your structure at any point.

Once your structure is mapped out, you are ready to write.

Do you have any questions from this section? Please email me and I will try to help you.