Thursday, November 21, 2013

Your memoir: make suspense reader-friendly

Suspense, tension, conflict. They are must-haves for your memoir. They draw readers into your story, make them care about you, and keep them reading.

Last week I shared a Chip MacGregor quote that I’ve been putting into practice in one of my rough drafts: I’m trying to make suspenseful passages more reader-friendly. Chip’s message: Readers don’t want to waste time in your long, drawn out moanings and groanings. They bought your book because they want to know how you solved your problem.

“Readers don’t buy books that ponder problems. They buy books that offer great solutions to problems. So offer solutions. Tell me what the answer is to my problem.”  He says we should go ahead and “set the stage by revealing what the conflict or problem is,” but (my paraphrase): Get on with it. Don’t wallow in your drama. Condense your drama. (Chip MacGregor, Memorable Words; emphasis mine.)

On the other hand, we can play downplay our suspense too much, according to K.S. Davis.

She teaches her students (both fiction and memoir writers) to beware of a “failure to sustain key moments.” Key moments: moments of tension and suspense and emotion.

In some of her students’ rough drafts, Davis discovered key moments “were just going by too quickly.” To remedy that, she advises, “…Writers, don’t be afraid to slow down and ‘linger.’ Make sure you are devoting sufficient space to the ‘key moments’ in your manuscript so that they register with your readers. Your writing will resonate much more clearly and vividly if you do.”

She says we “give the moment sufficient emphasis” by using dialogue, summarizing unspoken thoughts, and using nuance. (Read K.S. Davis’s full blog post, Lessons in Lingering.)

So, the combined message from Chip and K.S. is this:  Find a healthy balance in writing passages of suspense and drama and emotion.

You might be saying, “Easier said than done!”  I agree. Here’s what I’m doing and perhaps you’ll find it helpful, too:

I’m crafting a couple of versions of my vignette and playing around with the drama—condensing, reorganizing. (I’m so glad we live in the days of computers instead of typewriters! Back in the olden days, if we wanted to change just one word or comma on a page, we’d have to retype the entire page!)

After tweaking, I’ll set the manuscript aside for a week or so. Later I’ll take a fresh look at it and by then I should be able to see what works and what doesn’t.

What about you? What advice can you share about finding balance between too much drama and not enough? Leave a comment below.


  1. Thanks for another excellent post, Linda! What strikes me is the importance of slowing down to convey a mood or event, while moving the story forward. Striking that balance--which for me has meant lots of rewriting--is the challenge. I can't imagine doing all this without a computer!

    1. Yep, rewriting. Using a computer (instead of typewriter) is a huge help, but also I think of the crew of people who critique and edit and coach. It takes a village to write and publish a book (and market it). You're doing a marvelous job, Kathy! Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. This is really an interesting concept. I mean, when most people think "memoir", they think "boring unless you're into personal/family histories". This shows us that our lives (and the records of them) have strong emotions and compelling "plots".

    1. For sure! Memoir can be way more fascinating than fiction. A memoir can be the stuff of super-hero-like stories, award winning movies and, perhaps most important: a memoir can change readers' lives for the better. Powerful stuff! Happy Thanksgiving, Lia, and thanks for stopping by. :)