Autobiography story structure

by George Odhiambo
(Mombasa, Kenya)

Question: I am working on my autobiography and would like to get guidance on the structure. Can you please help?

Answer: The principles of story structure are the same, regardless whether the story is true or not.

The challenge with a real life story is that one life often contains many stories. So you have to carefully select which aspects of your story are the most relevant to the meaning you wish to convey.

Generally, a biography or autobiography covers an entire life. So the four acts of the story generally look like this...

Act 1: Setup (Childhood)
Here you convey the early influences, including the environment you grew up in and the significant people and events. Set a context for what comes later.

Act 2: Complication (early adulthood)
Here you describe the aspirations and challenges you faced early on, how you took advantage of opportunities, setbacks, etc. Sometimes this is where friends and enemies are made. It is the journey through life.

Act 3: Crisis
Here you describe the major turning point in your life. It may be how you made your crowning achievement, or it could be the "darkness before the dawn."

Act 4: Resolution
Here you describe how your life ended. If you had a crowning achievement in act 3, this is often where things fell apart. (Everyone's life can be said to end in tragedy, because we all grow old and die or get surpassed by others eventually.) However, a good autobiography is usually more of a comi-tragedy.
The "comi-" is great achievement of the life. The "tragedy" is the decline afterwards. The meaning may come from an acceptance of one's decline, a way to come to terms with the anticlimactic nature of a good life.

Alternatively, if you present a dark moment in act 3, act 4 may be about how that was changed into victory. Either way, act 4 is the place where you make the life ultimately meaningful.

All the other elements of story structure can be applied in a similar way. However, most people don't expect a real story to be as tightly structured as a thriller novel, for instance. The pacing can be a little more leisurely in an auto-biography. But having the story elements in place will help draw the reader along.

It's a good idea to decide on two things before you start...

1. Your greatest achievement in life.
2. The ultimate meaning of your life.

Knowing these, you can then work backwards, identifying the significant events that led up to these two. For instance, you may decide that your greatest achievement is what you did for the world, your career. That is what makes a life significant. But the ultimate meaning of your life may be more personal or family related.

Above all, don't get sidetracked trying to tell everything that happened to you in your life. Just tell the parts that contributed to those two things. They are what will give your story significance and meaning for the reader.

Best of luck.

Comments for Autobiography story structure

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Jul 04, 2017
I now have a compass to guide me in writing my autobiograhy
by: George Odhiambo

Thank you so much. Your instructions on autobiography story structure are so lucid they have equipped me with a rudder. Otherwise, I was rudderless before.

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