Read Like a Writer, Part 6: Structure – This Boy’s Life 3

THIS IS THE THIRD of a 3-part analysis of This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. In this part, we take a look at the narrative structure to better understand how the choice of structure helps or hinders the narrative.

Whenever I set out to examine the structure of a piece of writing, whether a book-length work or an essay, I approach it by looking at several aspects:

  • Time — How does the author handle time? Does the narration move forward chronologically or does it jump around associatively, as in My Brother by Jamaica Kincaid. Does it weave two or more narratives timeframes together? Does it play with time experimentally?
  • Place — Does place, with its contour and weather, define the story’s narrative? When I think of a memoir of place, Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces comes to mind.
  • Theme or Topic — Memoirs are often structured around themes, where time does not move in a linear fashion, but each theme-based section tells its own story and it is by synthesizing these together that the full story is communicated. Ghost Boy, by Martin Pistorious, is one such memoir.


In This Boy’s Life, the narration proceeds in a straight, chronological fashion, beginning when Wolff, age 9, and his mother are on their way to Utah to escape an abusive relationship and start a new life. The narration continues through Wolff’s family relationships and places he lived, through junior high and high school, and until Tobias is ready to escape to a new future.

The narrative has a “this happened and then that happened,” approach, which works for This Boy’s Life because that is how children experience the world. By itself, that approach can lead to a dry or boring narrative, but Wolff’s spare and undramatic style, his selection of important (relevant) life scenes, and adult reflective voice make this memoir resonate as a universal, all-American coming-of-age story — one that we have observed in others or experienced ourselves. 

Chronological order is the simplest and most common time-structure for memoir. And that makes sense, since we are most often writing about a series of events which affected our growth and development, and how adversity or challenge has transformed us in some way. When we sit around the fire telling stories, we tell them in a linear fashion. It’s a natural narrative form, easy to follow.


While the different places described in Wolff’s memoir each have their own distinct character — Salt Lake City, Seattle, Chinook, and Concrete — they are the backdrop for the narration and the not focus of it. So I would not say this memoir is structured around place, as was Markham’s West with the Night.


There are a number of themes threaded throughout This Boy’s Life. These include, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, abuse and its effects, desire for family, and friendship. Of these, I think the strongest theme is guilt and Wolff’s desire to become something more, someone better than who he sees himself to be.

In this sense, Wolff structured his memoir around theme by carefully selecting scenes of events and influences in his life that related to his constant battle with a sense of failure, guilt, and desire to change.

This theme is spelled out for us early on, when Wolff writes: “I didn’t come to Utah to be the same boy I’d been before.” (p. 8)  And on page 11:

“I was subject to fits of feeling myself unworthy, somehow deeply at fault. It didn’t take much to bring this sensation to life, along with the certainty that everybody but my mother saw through me and did not like what they saw.”

When he makes the decision to move in with Dwight in Chinook, Tobias is confused about what his mother wants and about his own emotions, but ultimately, that desire to have another chance to become someone else tips the scale for him:

“I thought that in Chinook, away from Taylor and Silver, away from Marian, away from people who had already made up their minds about me, I could be different. I could introduce myself as a scholar-athlete, a boy of dignity and consequence, and without any reason to doubt me people would believe I was that boy, and thus allow me to be that boy. I recognized no obstacle to miraculous change but the incredulity of others.”  (p. 89).

As he grows older under Dwight’s abuse, he begins to live up to others’ image of him as a troublemaker, a liar, and a thief. Yet he continues to fight that viewpoint internally.

“All of Dwight’s complaints against me had the aim of giving me a definition of myself. They succeeded, but not in the way he wished. I defined myself by opposition to him. In the past I had been ready, even when innocent, to believe any evil thing of myself. Now that I had grounds for guilt I could no longer feel it.” (p. 134).

And to the very end he struggles, still trying to compensate for his self-perceived failures:

“Then I went into the army. I did so with a sense of relief and homecoming. It was good to find myself back in the clear life of uniforms and ranks and weapons. It seemed to me when I got there that this was where I had been going all along, and where I might still redeem myself.”  (p. 286)

We never know whether Wolff achieved that redemption for himself, as he leaves us with words encapsulating the hope and ever-optimistic folly of the young:

“When we are green, still half-created, we believe that our dreams are rights, that the world is disposed to act in our best interests, and that falling and dying are for quitters. We live on the innocent and monstrous assurance that we alone, of all the people ever born, have a special arrangement whereby we will be allowed to stay green forever.” (p. 286).



 Please add to the conversation: What is your take on how Tobias Wolff’s chose to structure his memoir?

If you haven’t read it yet, This Boy’s Life is *available on Amazon in print, Kindle, and audiobook formats.

Our next book in the Read Like a Writer series is
Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd.


My gift to you . . .

To help you start a book journal of your own, I’ve created a Book Journal template I’d like to share with you. If you prefer to journal by hand, download the PDF version, print, and place in a binder. If you like to journal using your computer and you use Microsoft Word, download the Word version so you can make your entry directly onto the page.

Excerpts in this post are from: Wolff, Tobias (2007-12-01). This Boy’s Life: A Memoir Grove/Atlantic, Inc.. Kindle Edition.


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3 thoughts on “Read Like a Writer, Part 6: Structure – This Boy’s Life

  • sara etgen-baker

    I do particularly like how Tobias Wolff subtly crafted his theme(s) into the story. I think the subtly coupled with the narrator’s increased awareness over time is exactly what happens when someone lives one’s life and reflects upon it…the struggles and feelings slowly emerge and give us all the themes of our lives. The themes are what make this read so human and so universal

  • Kathi Ostrom Gowsell

    As I’ve been reading along and taking in your thoughts on how writers accomplish what they do, I wonder how many of these decisions about the aspects of narrative take place before any writing ever begins. I think Tobias Wolff might have been able to plan in advance but maybe Beryl Markham was more flexible in planning as the story developed. Could you comment on planning structure, Amber Lea? Are there general guidelines or is it a personal choice of each author?