Or, you can keep all your ducks in a row, and start out with, “So there was this funny thing that happened to me as a kid, but before I begin, let me tell you about three other things that will be important to this story…”
Both of these approaches are frustrating for the listener. The first is too confusing and the second is too boring.
Yes, it is inevitable that telling any one story from your childhood will probably need you to add some background, either before you begin or interspersed, but there are more elegant ways to do it, and that’s a big part of memoir writing.
Let’s look at the skillful way the first chapter of Trevor Noah’s “Born a Crime” is structured:
- He quotes the Apartheid Law that meant he was “born a crime.”
- He briefly tells us a bit about the civil war between Zulu and Xhosa that followed the end of Apartheid.
- He jumps into his main anecdote at the moment he gets thrown out of a moving car. He says it was on a Sunday on the way home from church.
- He jumps back to tell us about how South Africans embraced Christianity.
- He tells us about a typical Sunday with his mother and baby brother, attending four church services all over town. His description of each service is funny.
- He briefly reminds us that this will be a story about getting thrown from a moving car.
- He goes back to that morning, when the car was broken and he tried to talk his mother out of church, but she said they would take minibuses. The conversation ends with the threat of a spanking.
- He mentions that he would sometimes run away from spankings, and she would chase him. He says they were both champion runners at his school’s sports day (where parents were allowed to compete). He tells stories of other misbehavior and his mom shouting to a crowd that he was thief when she couldn’t catch him.
- He briefly goes back to getting on a minibus to head out to church.
- He jumps back to tell us more about the civil war between Zulu and Xhosa. He talks about his mom walking through the violence to go back and forth to work. She was never scared.
- He talks about going from church to church that day, until they were stranded on a street late at night, looking for a minibus.
- He explains the nature of the conflict between minibus operators.
- Now we finally have enough info to finish the anecdote: They end being bullied into a Zulu minibus. The drivers find out his mom is Xhosa and threaten to rape or kill her. She throws Trevor out of the car and jumps out with her baby in her arms. Their running ability comes in handy and they get away. He tells her that this proves his was right about not going out, and they laugh about it.
A few of these transitions are awkward. Here’s the most awkward one:
But the other eleven transitions are all fairly smooth. Here’s a good one:
He needs to include that little em-dash to make it clear to us that he’s jumping in time again, but he knows he has to ramp us up to jump us over the gap, so we don’t use that em-dash as an excuse to put the book down.
“Even when she should have been” ends that digress on a note of foreboding. We fear, correctly, that the anecdote we’re jumping back to will be a case where she maybe should have been more scared. He reassures us every time that he’s digressed from the main anecdote for a good reason, which will soon be readily apparent.
Almost getting murdered is a hell of a story, and he’s stretching it out as long as possible, threading in a lot of not-quite-as-interesting material that now become much more interesting when we know that it will come into play in this anecdote. He starts us off with just a little about the Zulu-Xhosa Civil War, but he works most of that information in once he’s telling a story about almost getting killed by a Zulu for being Xhosa.
Now we care: about his anecdote, his life, and his country. Smoothly interweaving wild anecdotes with less-interesting background details is a big part of memoir writing.