Most movies tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Many of those narrative features tell the story of a single individual that can span a certain amount of time, ranging from a few days to a few decades. Some of those focused narrative movies are also memoirs, which can include original and adapted screenplays. But what is a memoir and how can you identify one?

Memoir Definition

Let's define memoir

Autobiographies are fairly common and known quantities in the world of literature. Memoirs are, too, but they are not as broad as autobiographies tend to be. This is key to understanding a memoir vs autobiography and how they tell their stories, which we go over below in our memoir definition.

MEMOIR DEFINITION

What is a memoir?

A memoir is a non-fiction story set in the author’s past during a specific period of their life. The name “memoir” comes from “memorie/memoria/memory,” as memoirs are essentially reminiscences of the author. A memoir is told completely through the author’s point of view. This means that facts can be embellished, with an emphasis on feelings and emotions.

Memoir Characteristics:

  • Narrative tales set in a character’s past
  • Stories set during a short period of time (as opposed to a lifetime)
  • A greater emphasis on feelings, emotions, and perspectives versus factual storytelling

Memoir Meaning

History with Examples

Writing memoirs used to be something only a privileged few were able to indulge in, as they had the time and money to sit around and reminisce. Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars and Commentaries on the Civil War are two very early memoir examples, with Caesar writing about the two respective wars, how they went, and his role in them.

What is a Memoir Caesar

 What is a memoirs purpose  •  "...and I conquered you, my dudes!"

While serving as memoirs, they also serve as historical records, which is something many other memoirs end up being. Thus, in these early examples, we can see both the personal and historical reasons for jotting down one’s specific memories.

As time went on, other people, be them important politicians or simply chroniclers of their era, were writing memoirs. Some of these included Sarashina Nikki of the Japanese Heian period (8th to 12th century); there were also several European memoir examples from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.

The 18th and 19th centuries brought us closer to what we could consider more modern examples of memoirs. While these centuries were full of memoirs written by privileged politicians or aristocrats, there was at least one that broke the mold a bit.

Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is one of the most popular and well-known memoir examples in literature. Focusing on the two years, two months, and two days the author spent in a cabin, the memoir has Thoreau cover many subjects. These include living on your own to identifying plant life around him, among many other things.

You can learn more about who Thoreau was in the video below.

What is a memoir  •  Henry David Thoreau's memoir meaning

As access to writing materials and typing increased, and as the world became a bit more modern, more “regular” memoirs started to pop up. This was especially true during some of our darkest times, specifically the two world wars. From these great wars came memoirs from soldiers, victims, and survivors, including those in the trenches of World War I or in the concentration camps of World War II.

Closer to the 21st century, memoirs became even bigger as normal everyday people began jotting down their memories. In many cases, these memories were to preserve the history of a person or their family, as they would otherwise be lost without being written down.

In other cases, memoirs have served as forms of expression from the individual writers, detailing events in their life and the impact it had.

Memoir Examples

Memoir vs. Autobiography

Reading the memoir definition, you may be wondering what exactly makes it different from an autobiography. Both are just chatting about yourself, right?

Both forms may indeed be chatting about oneself, but there is a difference between a memoir and an autobiography. A memoir is a look at a specific period from the writer’s life, or a sequence of specific periods that have thematic links. An autobiography, meanwhile, is the writer’s entire life (up until writing, of course).

Autobiographies also tend to be more rigorously fact-checked, while a memoir can be a bit more fast and loose with the facts as the writer weaves a story.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule; sometimes an autobiography has some elements that aren’t totally truthful, but that’s usually frowned upon.

While they’re distinct in definition, the two terms occasionally overlap since their qualifications are a bit subjective.

Memoir Examples

Types of Memoirs

Because “memoir” is a pretty general term, there are many different ways the writing style can manifest. Over the years, a few categories for the genre have cropped up, though there are various schools of thought on the subject.

Personal Memoir

When you think of a memoir, this is probably the type that comes to mind. In this memoir, an author tackles a formative, personal experience from their life.

Avatar-Joel-Edgerton

“I was small-boned and skinny, but more than able to make up for that with sheer meanness.”

— Mary Karr, The Liar's Club

There’s no limit to what this experience could be, but examples may be meeting a first love, enduring an illness, or navigating a relationship with a parent.

Portrait Memoir

With a portrait memoir, the subject is someone other than the author. Of course, the memoir is still through the eyes of the author, and they probably play a big role in the narrative, but the real focus lies with someone else.

Avatar-Joel-Edgerton

“My father had lost most of the sight in his right eye by the time he’d reached eighty-six, but otherwise he seemed in phenomenal health for a man his age when he came down with what the Florida doctor diagnosed, incorrectly, as Bell’s palsy…”

— Philip Roth, Patrimony

This might be a parent (the amount of memoirs about parents, particularly complicated dads, could fill the Pacific Ocean), a best friend, a sibling, a teacher — really anyone who the author knows intimately. The film Aftersun loosely falls into the Complicated Dad subcategory of the portrait memoir.

Political Memoirs

This memoir is usually written by, you guessed it, politicians. It can be a personal memoir in form, but often with the larger goal of ingratiating themselves to the reader to get their vote or support their platform.

Avatar-Joel-Edgerton

“Of all the rooms and halls and landmarks that make up the White House and its grounds, it was the West Colonnade that I loved best.”

— Barack Obama, A Promised Land

Political memoirs can also be written by people who aren’t politicians but are trying to further a political goal, like an activist. Some political memoir examples: Che Guevara's The Motorcycle Diaries, Michelle Obama’s Becoming, or Tony Blair’s A Journey.

Public Memoir

This type of memoir is a bit similar to the political memoir because it’s written by a person who’s already famous. But the public memoir usually doesn’t have a political ax to grind (at least, that’s not a requirement), it’s just a memoir by someone who’s well-known. 

Avatar-Joel-Edgerton

“Plainly, due to my high and solitary place in the world—am I not the Living Buddha (0r is that Richard Gere?)—and to my cold nature and to my refusal to conform to warm mature family values, I am doomed to be the eternal outsider…”

— Gore Vidal, Palimpsest

This celebrity will write about being famous and hanging out with other famous people, and they’ll make the GDP of a small country in book sales.

Travel Memoir

People like traveling, but it’s expensive and usually exhausting. So sometimes, we prefer to read about someone else who’s spending the money and traveling around the world.

Avatar-Joel-Edgerton

“When you’re traveling in India—especially through holy sites and Ashrams—you see a lot of people wearing beads around their necks.”

— Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

A travel memoir can take a lot of different forms, but there’s one constant: the writer is moving around.

Writing Memoirs

How to Write a Memoir

If these categories didn’t already make it clear, there’s no one way to write a memoir. It can be a straight-forward narrative or an avant-garde collection of scenes. But, hey, a few helpful tips can’t hurt.

You can learn a bit more about writing memoirs in the video below.

How to write a memoir

Know the “Why”

The most important question to ask yourself when you’re about to write the next great memoir is, “Why will people care about this?” If you don’t have a good answer, you may be writing a journal entry — which is totally fine; journaling is great and important in its own right.

But with a memoir, it’s crucial to have a greater purpose. This personal story may mean a lot to you (and if it doesn't, why are you writing it down at all?). But if someone doesn’t know you, why should they care that your sophomore year girlfriend broke up with you because she didn’t believe in your dream of becoming the premiere soft serve ice cream provider of Illinois?

There are many reasons a reader might care. Maybe your story in a larger sense is about young love and big dreams — we can all relate to that. Maybe the story is filled with drama: she broke up with you by pushing you into a vat of soft serve extract, and you spent months trying to get the solution out of your hair. Or maybe you’re the founder of Dairy Queen, and this is a glimpse into how it all started.

Beginning, Middle, End

It may seem obvious, but this fundamental rule of storytelling can be tricky when writing a memoir. The nature of a memoir means that there is going to be a story before and after the memoir ends.

What is a memoir My story goes something like this…

My story goes something like this…

There’s no one way to find the beginning and end points of your memoir, but primarily, this should be rooted in the first piece of advice: have you achieved the “why”? If so, end it.

Don’t Get Stuck on Facts

This doesn’t mean lie. But if you feel the need to inform the reader of every detail of the story, it’s going to become a pretty dull read. It might all be true, but the “why” will have left the building.

Life doesn’t work in story arcs — things are messy, beginnings aren’t really beginnings and ends aren’t really ends. Of course, you want your memoir to reflect that to a certain extent, but you also want it to be readable. So omitting facts and cleaning up narrative elements (even if it’s not the complete and total truth) becomes crucial to the memoir style. The truth lies in the grand strokes, the emotions and characters.

Memoir Movies

Memoirs in Cinema

Memoirs have definitely been around longer than cinema, but movies about people and their lives (specifically biographies, aka biopics) have been pretty common since the medium’s inception. Some of these movies could even count as memoir-esque, like Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), which, instead of chronicling Abraham Lincoln’s tenure as president (or his entire life), examines his time as a lawyer in the 1830s.

What is a memoir  •  Young Mr. Lincoln

So while there have been plenty of biographies, many of the most well-known movies based on memoirs have been fairly recent. One of the most high profile of these is Eat, Pray, Love, a 2006 memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert that turned into a 2010 movie starring Julia Roberts.

Eat, Pray, Love  •  A pinnacle in memoir movies

But even before that we had Girl, Interrupted, a 1993 memoir by Susanna Kaysen which made it into a film in 1999 starring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. The opening lines of the film even retain the memoir feel.

Take a look at them below, with the script that we imported into StudioBinder’s screenwriting software.

Girl, Interrupted  •  Read the entire opening

The voiceover feels like Kaysen answering the “why do we care” question that we outlined in our tips section.

And then of course there was The Basketball Diaries, a Jim Carroll memoir from 1978 that turned into a Leonardo DiCaprio movie in 1995. Here's the opening scene and credits.

Memoir movies  •  The Basketball Diaries

From 2009’s Julie & Julia (based on two separate memoirs) to The Theory of Everything 2014’s (the Stephen Hawking memoir written by his wife Jane Hawking) to 2018’s Beautiful Boy (based on two memoirs about the same subject), there has been no shortage of memoir based films in the last two decades.

Memoir movies  •  The Theory of Everything

Some are more successful and acclaimed than others, but like novels, there are plenty out there for filmmakers to adapt. And don’t forget there are also movies based on true events that weren’t chronicled in memoirs before, so if you want to adapt a moment in your life as a script for a movie, go for it.

Up Next

How to Write an Adaptation

Now that we have covered memoirs and movies based on memoirs, it’s time to look at how you might go about adapting one. We cover the step-by-step process of adapting a book for the screen, all with examples and even some quotes.

Up Next: Writing an Adaptation →
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  • Rafael Abreu received his M.A. in Cinema Studies from New York University. He’s written reviews, scripts, and analytical essays focusing on all aspects of cinema. He can’t stop talking about aspect ratios.

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