I have my MIL’s memoir draft. My question – Would it be a good opening for the memoir to have a “scene” of somewhat dramatic moment in her life? Then go from there. Make it a story of her story?
No. Also no, and please no. (I don’t quite understand “make it a story of her story” so I’m ignoring that for now.) Those flash forward teasers (on any narrative, not just memoir) are basically the author saying, “I know this is a really boring beginning, so I’m going to give you this to hook you, and then you’re going to have to slog through the rest.”
The question I need you to answer before I can tell you how to start this memoir is “How are you structuring this?”
If you’re using chronological order, always the easiest, you start at the beginning and go on to the end. The beginning is boring? Skip it and make the beginning where the good stuff starts.
If you’re using patterned structure, then sort your scenes into the pattern (say “Family,” “Career,” etc.) and build the sections to a climax. And start where the good stuff starts.
If you’re using a frame structure, start with the frame, then go to the narrative, then go back to the frame. You can also drop pieces of the frame into the narrative as you go. And start where the good stuff starts.
That last one may be your solution. For example (only as an example, not a suggestion): you start with a fascinating conversation you’re having now with your mother-in-law, two smart women in dialogue. Then you segue into her life. And at the end, you go back to the conversation. The conversation contains the theme of the memoir, the reason why the memoir is more than just “this is the life of one woman.” The memoir itself illustrates that theme.
But the best advice is, skip the boring parts and start where her life becomes interesting. God help you if her life is not interesting; there’s nothing you can do.
One note on memoirs in general: The problem with memoirs, much like movie biographies, is that often there is no main thesis, they’re just the events in a person’s life, and real life is chaotic and often meaningless until we give it meaning. Even then, people rarely grab onto one idea and hold it at the center of their lives forever. So memoirs are intrinsically sloppy narratively, and the most important thing to do is figure out a structure that tidies it up. If you can find a throughline in the person’s life, that’s great, but more likely you’re going to have to find a pattern, anything that gives the reader the feeling that there’s a shape to the narrative and not just “and then this happened.”
Basically, memoirs are a bitch to write unless the central character has had such a fabulous life that the fabulousness overwhelms the lack of focus in the narrative, which is almost impossible. Betty White’s memoir tanked, that’s how hard memoirs are to write.