There’s drama in life, so why not in the documentation of a life as well? We’ve all experienced moments where an outcome wasn’t guaranteed. The concept isn’t limited to sports or warfare. Who hasn’t taken a test of some kind, the outcome of which would effect one’s life? In my case, passing an exam meant keeping my job. For others, passing meant gaining a job, or entrance to a college, or med school, or Navy Seal training.
In writing, however, the concept of “drama” is too often downplayed or worse, equated with “melodrama.” The more acceptable term is “tension.” So let’s rephrase the question: Does tension belong in a memoir?
The answer, as some of my vocal Southern brethren might say, is: “Oh, hell yes!”
So, how does one introduce tension in non-fiction, and more specifically, memoir? Several things come to mind, beginning with promises, vows and obligations. These are all common things, and many of us don’t even think of them as motivators, but that’s exactly what they are. We do things for reasons, don’t we? Well, these can be mighty strong reasons. Add desire to that list, and you’ve expanded the whole notion of motivation exponentially!
Okay then, if you’ve established that something must be done, you have to ask yourself, “What’s standing in the way?” What is it that might keep you from reaching your goal? Another key question that deserves an answer is: “What’s at stake?” If my goal is to get a date with the insanely pretty redhead who lives on the corner, am I willing to compete with all the other guys who are marching toward her door? If I want to become a physician, am I willing to do the work, suffer the long hours and accept the lousy salary that precedes success?
And then there are other techniques which can be employed as needed. Let’s start with foreshadowing. This one can be very handy and creates instant tension. And it’s as easy as saying something like, “I would find out later how wrong I was.” Or, “If only I’d taken a little more time,” or, “That’s what I thought then.” But be careful, this one is easy to overdo. A little foreshadowing goes a long way.
A technique fiction writers use constantly involves tossing out a question, and then leaving it unanswered. The question needn’t be as obvious as, “What would I do?” Simply setting up a situation that begs the question is enough. Your reader will be happy to ask it in his head: “How will she get out of that?” Or, the one most writers strive for: “What happens next?”
There’s always the old ticking clock, too. How many times have we seen that used? And yet, it still works! Time limits, deadlines, final warnings–all these things have powerful connotations. Use them if you can.
Way back when, Chekov got it right when he advised producing the weapon in scene one that you intend to use in scene 2. Having things appear just in the nick of time is simply too darned convenient. So plan ahead; set the scene. The “gun,” obviously, is rhetorical. It could be anything, or anyone, whose involvement means trouble. Trotting a potential threat out on your stage may be enough to put readers on edge. And that’s a good thing!
Consider, also, the relative values of known dangers versus unknown dangers. The latter might seem to be scarier–what’s more frightening than the unknown? But I don’t buy it. I know how deadly a coral snake is. If one shows up in my house, I’m moving. I won’t necessarily do that for something strange that crawls in. It could be benign. Which would bother you more, a black spider or a black widow spider?
In the wonderful world of writing, stories revolve around a simple formula, the acronym for which is MAC—Motive, Action, Consequence. I’ve talked about it at length. (Here, in fact.) It works for both fiction and non-fiction. It also requires that the writer strike a balance between action and anticipation. In fiction, readers need a break; much like the characters they’re reading about, they need time to rest and recuperate before the next great challenge arises. Similarly, readers of memoir need time to process. While they’re busy doing that, you can be setting up the next bit of tension which, hopefully, will pull them toward the next episode of your life.
“What happens next?” Man, what a great question!