Online | Nonfiction | Memoir | Workshop

6-Week Online Nonfiction Workshop: Creating a Narrative Arc Out of a Messy Life

Creating a satisfying narrative arc out of your own life story is so difficult, partly because you're still living it. How do you write a story where there is no real "end," and when life doesn't actually develop in a series of "aha!" moments? There’s a certain amount of translation necessary to condense a sliver of the messy, complex, ongoing story of your life into something that fits into one book, and feels satisfyingly narrative to a reader. In this course, we'll talk about how to find the central arc in your story despite the fact that real life is never that simple, and how to create tension that will keep readers turning the page.

We’ll use outlines as the foundation of this course, so we can zoom out and talk about students’ full projects and story structures. We’ll spend part of the first class talking about what makes a useful outline, and establishing the outline format we’ll work with for the rest of the course. Each student’s full outline will then be workshopped by the group, with a focus on the best way to tell each particular—pinpointing the most immediately engaging entry point for the beginning, defining a narrative arc (or deciding to do away with it), and finding smaller arcs within the story that will keep the reader rapt from beginning to end.

Through readings, exercises, and class discussions, we’ll tackle one challenging element of story structure at a time. Through the craft lessons, assignments, and group feedback, students will break down and rebuild their outlines, leaving the course with a clear plan for how to structure their story—and a roadmap to follow during revision.

This course is designed for writers with a working draft of a memoir where they have all the pieces but they’re not in the right order yet.

This class will meet over our video chat platform. You will need to use Google Chrome to join your class meetings.


- How to think of your life story in terms of narrative structure

- How to create sub-plot arcs that keep the reader invested in your story

- A revised outline and a plan to tell your story in the most engaging way

- One 1-on-1 meeting with the instructor to discuss your writing

- Access to Catapult's list of writing opportunities and important submission deadlines, as well as a 10% discount on all future Catapult classes


Week One: What is a narrative arc, and do you really need one? This week we'll talk about what constitutes a satisfying narrative arc, and how to identify generally where your story should start and end. Starting with the big picture, we'll work on outlines.

Week Two: Beginnings. Figuring out where to enter the story can be the most challenging part of the structure. This week we'll talk about what makes an engaging first chapter for a memoir—how to grab the reader's attention and set up all of your themes right away.

Week Three: Endings. We're skipping ahead here, but having a sense of where your story is going to end up can go a long way toward helping you figure out how to get there. We'll talk about how to satisfyingly "end" a story that you're still living through, or where no real resolution is possible.

Week Four: The Middle. Pivotal moments, turning points, revelations, and mini-arcs throughout the story. The middle is basically the whole story, and we'll talk about ways to keep the tension high as you make your way from the beginning to the end.

Week Five: Alternating storylines and subplots. Plenty of memoirs include more than one storyline, and this week we'll talk about how to weave multiple stories together without losing the reader's attention.

Week Six: Creating tension without chronology. Narrative arc is a classic way to keep the reader engaged, but what if you don't want to tell the story in order? In the final class we'll talk about how to create narrative tension, and even an arc, in a story that's told out of order.

Lilly Dancyger

Lilly Dancyger is the author of Negative Space, a reported and illustrated memoir selected by Carmen Maria Machado as one of the winners of the 2019 Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards, and the editor of Burn it Down, a critically acclaimed anthology of essays on women's anger from Seal Press. Lilly's writing has been published by Longreads, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, Glamour, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and more. Find her on Twitter here.


“It demystified the writing process a little bit, and made it feel like writing is more tangible, and less abstract – something I could achieve. Ms. Dancyger gave great feedback. She was approachable, engaged, and encouraging.”

former student

“Lilly Dancyger is an enthusiastic and passionate instructor. She was well organized and provided a rigorous program for us to follow. Her criticism was honest and constructive.”

former student

“Lilly is a thoughtful, considerate editor who combines her developmental skills with skilled line editing for a holistic editorial approach that makes the story sharper and cleaner, the narrative more compelling, and the piece's purpose clear. Lilly knows what makes a story effective, and how to employ the writing techniques that will sharpen even the best and most vulnerable personal narratives. She's attentive to the writer's needs, and knows how to ask questions that will direct the writer toward the best story possible while retaining their own artistic voice. Lilly's editing helps take the personal essay from personal to universal. It's not often I feel like an editor isn't afraid to give it their all in editing a vulnerable topic, but also isn't hunting for just the most shock value and ‘universally appealing’ parts of a story, all while wanting the narrative to actually be strong, tight, compelling, and effective.”

NARRATIVELY contributor

“Ms. Dancyger understands the craft of the personal essay, how to weave narrative with theme, how to make the personal resonate. She draws the reader into the scene, evoking our senses and emotions.”

Erin Khar Managing Editor, RAVISHLY

“Lilly Dancyger is a lovely, incisive writer attuned to the emotional core of a story and the evocative details that bring it out. She’s able to be expressive while smartly avoiding sentimentality, and she's well attuned to structure.”

Jennifer Bleyer Senior Editor, PSYCHOLOGY TODAY

“Lilly has an innate understanding of what makes a memoir piece pop, which is evident both in her own writing and in her work as an editor. She is uniquely skilled at helping writers pull out the most interesting angles of their own personal experiences and present them in a way that reels in the readers.”

Brendan Spiegel Editorial Director, NARRATIVELY