How to Write a Powerful Premise for Your Memoir

memoirs writing tips May 30, 2024
Writing a memoir premise

A premise is the foundational idea or central theme that drives your memoir—a single sentence that captures the essence of the story you want to tell. Your premise serves as the guiding light that shapes the narrative, ensuring coherence and focus throughout the writing process.

Crafting a clear and compelling premise is crucial because it not only clarifies your purpose as the author, it also helps readers understand what to expect as you draw them into your journey. By distilling your memoir's core message into a concise statement, you create a strong foundation that supports the development of your story, making it more engaging and meaningful.

The best time to identify the premise of your memoir is before you start writing. If you’ve already begun writing and don’t yet have a premise, don’t fret. You can craft one now!

How to write your memoir premise

A one-sentence premise should identify three key elements: the main character (in a memoir, that’s you), the situation, and the lesson or overall theme. Here are a few examples:

  • The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls reveals the theme of resilience as Walls recounts her unconventional and nomadic childhood marked by poverty and dysfunction, highlighting how her challenging upbringing shaped her determination to overcome adversity and build a better life.
  • Tara Westover's Educated explores the transformative theme of the power of education as she narrates her journey from a childhood in a strict and abusive household with no formal education to earning a PhD from Cambridge University, emphasizing how knowledge becomes the key to breaking free from a restrictive past.
  • Becoming by Michelle Obama intertwines the themes of identity and self-discovery as it traces her life from a modest upbringing on the South Side of Chicago to becoming the First Lady of the United States, highlighting how she navigates the complexities of public life while staying true to her values and evolving as an individual.

The memoir I'm writing is a journey to reclaim the youngest, purest version of myself after enduring a childhood of emotional neglect and sexual abuse, and how I reintegrated my little girl with my adult self to finally become whole. 

Writing a premise is harder than it looks. You have to hone in on what the point of your memoir is. The exercise reaps exponential benefits:

  1. Your premise becomes your compass, reminding you what direction you’re heading so you know when you’re off track.
  2. Your premise helps you identify what to keep in and what to leave out of your story.
  3. Your premise will help you write faster because you’ll know more clearly what you’re trying to say.
  4. Your premise becomes an important basis for your book proposal and marketing copy if you plan to publish your memoir.

It might take you a few tries before you land on a statement that clearly describes the premise of your memoir. Play with it until you craft a version that feels true to the story you’re trying to tell. Your premise may evolve and change the further you get into the writing and editing process, and that's okay. Having a premise will help guide you throughout your writing process.

Once you’ve nailed your premise, copy and paste it at the top of your manuscript. Let it serve as your north star every time you sit down to write and edit your memoir.


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