Saturday, April 20, 2013

Make ‘em wait

Part 3 of
Make ‘em cry, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em wait.”
Wilkie Collins (1824-1889)

Why should you avoid opening a story in the following way?  

“We eventually found Old John, alive, buried under four feet of tree limbs—the elephant had buried him the way elephants bury their own—but for six hours we didn’t know if we’d ever find him, dead or alive.”

If you begin your story this way, you have given away your ending. That weakens the power of your story. It diminishes readers’ involvement.

Giving away the ending spoils essential elements in good stories: tension and suspense.

A quality story “will consist of a real person who is confronted with a significant problem, who struggles diligently to solve that problem, and who ultimately succeeds—and in doing so becomes a different character” (Jon Franklin,* Writing for Story). Note the tension: (1) a significant problem (2) the character struggles diligently to solve.

In other words, “A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.” (Jon Franklin,* Writing for Story) Note the tension: (1) a complicating situation (2) the character confronts.

(Writers develop what Franklin calls “a sympathetic character” and “a real person” when they “make‘em laugh” and “make ‘em cry,” which we covered in our two previous blog posts. Click on links if you missed them.)

Today we’ll look at tension and suspense, and Wilkie Collins’ advice to “make ‘em wait” for resolution.

After all, as you lived the stories in your memoir, you endured a time lag—maybe months, maybe years—before you found resolution for your problem. You didn’t know how the incident would end.

You had to wait. Make your readers wait, too.

Here’s why: Readers open the pages of your book because they want to learn from you. They know you weren’t handed an easy fix—that’s not the way life, or God, works—so they don’t want you to offer them a trite, instant, easy fix.

“We desperately want our situation solved. We want resolution. But God unfolds the plot in his own time. It is in our months or years of waiting that our story comes to maturity.” (Dan Allender, To Be Told, emphasis mine)

James wrote about coming to maturity when he wrote, “the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its good work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:3-4).

Readers know you came to the maturity that James and Allender highlight—they just don’t know how—and they want to discover it. They want to mine the gems that formed during your coming to maturity. Pat answers or platitudes won’t do.

They want the real thing: They want to tag along with you to see how, step by step, you dealt with your problem so they can deal with theirs. 

Step by step means you let readers experience the suspense you experienced. “Make ‘em wait.”

Perhaps your calamity, your unwelcome surprise, your tragedy arose from cancer, or an addiction—yours or someone else’s.

Or maybe you said, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord,” (Joshua 24:15) and that led to being misunderstood and scorned, and it required sacrifice and courage beyond your expectation.

Perhaps your child got into trouble with the law or your spouse betrayed you. Or you lost your job and health insurance, and then you lost your house.

Whatever your tension-inducing incident, spell it out for your readers. Keep in mind that making ‘em cry will be a companion in making ‘em wait; they will be intertwined. Specify, in sufficient depth, why your crisis made you “cry” and invite readers to “cry” with you.

Hold readers captive.

Explain what was at stake. What were the possible outcomes? Which did you hope for? Why? Which outcome did you fear most? Why?

Spell out complications and disappointments and setbacks.

Share your doubts.

Unravel the story as you lived it—unable to see into the future—and let readers unravel it with you.

Pull readers in. If you gave in to despair, write in such a way that readers experience your despair with you.

Admit to weeks or years of faltering faith.

Tell about your tears, sleepless nights, and prayers.

Describe the times God seemed silent.

Keep your frustrated goals before your readers. Leave them hanging.

Make them curious: Leave readers wondering about the outcome.

When they finish a chapter of your memoir, make ‘em worry for you. Make ‘em wonder what will happen in the next chapter.

Keep up the suspense.

Just don’t tell them the end until the end!

Save the resolution for the conclusion. When that time comes, tie everything together. Make sense of your crisis. Tell, specifically, how you and God succeeded in reaching a good conclusion.

In good memoir form, tell how you changed and matured, how you knew God better than before, how you came to understand His ways and His love. What did you learn from the times God was silent? How did the experience strengthen your faith for future situations?

What new person did you became as a result of the experience?

Let readers feel the same surprise and joy and hope you did.

*Jon Franklin is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and a well-known pioneer in creative nonfiction.


  1. Linda,

    Bridging "writing wisdom" with "eternal wisdom", from sages of any sort always makes it more meaningful to me. You've done that so beautifully in this post with your biblical quotes.

    One of the elements I find most compelling in Linda Joy Meyers memoir, Don't Call Me Mother, is her ability to bring the story to life by conveying her feelings, emotions and inner thoughts. I felt her unfiltered thoughts and saw through her eyes as I read, rather than peering in through a window. She didn't just name the feeling, she showed it, both actively and passively.

    So thanks for the reminder to let those fears, doubts and frailties hang out so readers can learn from our experience and examples.

  2. Hi, Sharon, thanks for your insights about Linda Joy Meyers' memoir. She wrote in such a way that you were drawn into her story, as if you were a participant rather than an observer. What a gift she offered to all her readers by doing that.

    I always enjoy meeting you here, Sharon. You have so much to offer to all of us memoir writers.

    Happy Spring!