Memoir Basics 4: Writing an eye-catching opener

Memoir openers

Opening with a summary of the story

One way to open a memoir is to start with a single, dramatic experience that sums up the story. 

In the case of Trevor Noah’s memoir, the experience of being thrown out of a moving car by his mother summarised the kind of life he led growing up.

Meanwhile, Malala Yousafzai’s dramatic experience is the reason she’s famous and why she wrote her memoir (it’s even summarised in the title). So it’s the perfect place to open her story.

I come from a country which was created at midnight. When I almost died it was just after midday.

One year ago I left my home for school and never returned. I was shot by a Taliban bullet and was flown out of Pakistan unconscious. Some people say I will never return home but I believe firmly in my heart that I will. To be torn from the country that you love is not something to wish on anyone.

I Am MalalaMalala YousafzaiSource

This opener has four components:

  • A poetic, eye catching start that plays with opposites.
  • Yousafzai’s dramatic event, told in two short sentences.
  • A little about the aftermath and her feelings about her situation.
  • A general statement about why she feels that way.
Our thoughts…

Of course, your story doesn’t need to be nearly as dramatic (even if you’re making it up). Here are some examples that follow the same pattern, but are about smaller—but still dramatic—events.

I was born on a Monday to sporting parents. I was hospitalised on a Sunday, hating sport with the fiery passion of a thousand suns.

When I was eight, I played football for the very last time. Long story short, I tripped over my own feet, crashed into another player and went to hospital with concussion and a hairline skull fracture. My parents played it down saying that it was just a part of sport and I’d be back on the field in no time but I knew I never wanted to go through that again. You can fix a fracture, but clumsiness at the levels I had were incurable.

In January I was a selfish kid who had nothing. By December I’d turned my life around and had $6,557.55.

A school visit to an animal shelter inspired me to raise money for the RSPCA by baking brownies. I baked on weekends and sold them at school and around my neighbourhood during the week. Some people say I should take a break but I believe looking after the animals is more important. They have often been neglected and not looked after properly, and any way we can help the RSPCA to help them is important.

Did you notice how, in both examples, the drama of the event was boosted by the opening sentence? Something about the strength of those opposites gives the dramatic event more power. 

  • ‘Monday + sporting parents’ vs ‘Sunday + hating sport’
  • ‘January + selfish + no money’ vs ‘December + changed + raised money’

When you write your opener, start at the dramatic event. Then look at some way you can introduce it with a ‘Before’ vs ‘After’ introduction that boosts the event’s drama. If you’re writing from your own experience, you may need to play with events a little to give it some punch (For example, things may not have happened Monday/Sunday or January/December, but they’re minor details).

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