Going For The Heartstrings By Way Of The Silver Lining
A lot of the reasons behind people's writing of autobiographies and memoirs is to recount a life changing experience, or a series of life changing events. Not all of these life changing occurrences are happy. To quote Dostoyevsky, "All happy families are the same. Every unhappy family is unique."
Fiction is often easier to write than autobiographies; for one, you can have it happen to someone else, though a lot of fiction draws on experiences that shaped the author's own life. It's also easier to write fiction because fiction has to make sense; it must lead to a resolution.
Real life seldom has nice, clean resolutions tied up with a bow in the final chapter. Life is messy and it generally goes on long after the dramatic events have transpired.
Still there are techniques that are used in fiction writing that are appropriate to writing memoirs and for maintaining sympathy while you build your narrative up.
The first one is that you should rely on the expectation of an ending. Even if it's not a happy ending, there has to be an ending for the reader to look forward to; it's what they're aiming for as they go through. So briefly allude to the ending, and at each turn of the tale, show how you're working towards the conclusion – and then show the things that happened on the way that made these events emotionally resonant.
An example of this might be to start with watching a child run around in the park chasing the dog, happy and carefree on a bright sunny day…then reflect on the ordeals of going through a miscarriage and eventually an adoption agency to get the child to that state. You've established what the end state is (happy child playing with dog) and now you're going to showcase what you went through to get there.
The audience will read along, because they know that there's a happy ending.
Now, this technique doesn't always have to entail a happy ending; one of the most gripping
popular narratives of treatment for cancer certainly doesn't have a “happy ever after” conclusion – the woman who wrote it, Karen Berger, died of side effects from chemotherapy in an attempt to treat stage IV ovarian cancer. Anne Frank's diary also doesn't have a happy ending either, but grips the reader from start to end.
The trick to both of those and maintaining the sympathy of the reader is to remit on the hope that both of those authors felt. At each turn through the tale, you can see how they're trying to live a normal life, or the remnants of a normal life. They build up these fragile castles of hope, and every time a cornice is knocked off by life experience, you can see them mending them again.
To maintain the sympathy of your audience, you have to either convince them that there's a happy ending at the end, or that at each stage of the narrative, that the author believes there's a happy ending at the end. Otherwise, there's too much unrelenting depression going on. It turns into a grind to read, and nobody finishes it. It’s this resolution of the human spirit faced with unspeakable horrors that gives us glimmers of hope.
So, to maintain your audience’s interest, please remember to showcase the bright side of the narrative, to give them a break from the sadness.