How to Turn Your Memoir into a Short Story

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Take your reader on a memorable journey, using engaging fictional techniques and deeper points of view.

I wrote my first short story in 2004 when I wrote about the impact my mother’s death had on me. It was a memoir short story.

A short story is exactly what it sounds like — a short story. It can be fiction shorts or nonfiction shorts. Publications will specify types of shorts they will accept.

In nonfiction, the difference is the memoir short story is told in story form like a fictional story, not essay format, despite being based on real life. When told this way it creates an immersive experience for the reader that keeps them turning the page.

The story takes the reader on a journey, allowing them to experience the journey as well as deepen the emotional connection with the story and author. The reader lives it with the storyteller.

Word counts for short stories range from 500 to 20,000 words. The most common lengths are 500, 1000, 3000, 5000, 7000 to 10,000 words. You should always read the submission guidelines of any publication where you want to submit your story.

You can fictionalize your memoir to protect people involved, at which time it becomes a fictionalized story based upon a true story.

🎭A memoir short story I wrote about the loss of my mother:

It Should Have Rained CarnationsMemoir A Short Story.

Story format in memoir can be seen in novels and movies.

You see this memoir or biographical type of story format often in movies based on books, such as Where The Red Fern Growsbased loosely on the childhood of Woodrow Wilson Rawls, and A River Runs Through Itbased on the 1976 semi-autobiographical novel by Norman Maclean.

Granted, these are novel-length stories; however, the fictional format was followed to convey a deeper experience of the story, which translates well visually and produces award-winning movies.

The author starts in the narrator’s voice, which is non-intrusive in the character journey for the reader. The voice of the narrator only appears briefly in the beginning and at the end of the story.

Give us a sense of time and place.

Fiction techniques such as deep point of view and show-don’t-tell help you to create an engaging experience for your reader.

Carry us to the place you lived using landmarks that are markers of the time. If you lived in the eighties, they still had attendant and self-serve gas stations; in the fifties, soda still came in glass bottles. The body styles of vehicles are ways to communicate the era, as well.

These time markers set a scene and give the reader atmosphere and place without a lot of telling.

The year or decade your memoir happens in shapes it through the trendy fashion and styles, slang words, patterns of speech, and the surrounding landscape using key specifics for the time.

Show us, don’t tell us.

If your character feels rushed show us by letting us see them scurry around, running late, experiencing frustration in action, and through the consequences that result from being late.

Show us through body language, interactions, and dialogue. According to Janice Hardy in her book Understanding Show, Don’t Tell, you should use words that demonstrate the physical action such as I reached over, I picked up the cup.

In deep point of view, certain types of verbs put distance between you and your reader.

Alice Gaines in Mastering Deep Point of View says there are three kinds of verbs that do that: perceiving verbsthinking verbsemoting verbs. These are verbs that tell: perceivingto know, to wonderemotingto see, to feel, saw, noticethinkingto wish, to feel.

Use description to bring a scene alive and give it character. We learn a lot in this first paragraph of a fictional story, Anne of Green Gables, about the character Mrs. Rachel Lynde through description.

~First paragraph of Anne of Green Gables from the Project Gutenberg website.
CHAPTER I. Mrs. Rachel Lynde is Surprised

MRS. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies’ eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place; it was reputed to be an intricate, headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade; but by the time it reached Lynde’s Hollow it was a quiet, well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs. Rachel was sitting at her window, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed, from brooks and children up, and that if she noticed anything odd or out of place she would never rest until she had ferreted out the whys and wherefores thereof.

🎭More on Show, Don’t Tell:
Why You Should “Show, Don’t Tell”Let your story come to life on the big screen of your imagination.

There are many story craft books that teach techniques that can help you immerse your reader in your personal story whether it is fiction or creative nonfiction.

Other recommended reading for deep point of view:

Below are a collection of memoir short shorts or biographies, in story format, which are engaging reads, plus a couple of good memoir novels:

As I said above, reading is the best way to learn these immersive techniques, which can help you learn to show, rather than tell, your memoir in short story form.