Tension is (or should be) a writer’s stock in trade. It’s what causes readers to stay up late to “finish just one more” page, scene, chapter, part, or volume of your epic–be it fiction or something else. Tension is shorthand for any literary technique which operates on the most tantalizing of questions: “What happens next?”
About the only place where tension isn’t welcome would be in the directions for a do-it-yourself project. In such cases what comes next must be abundantly clear, as failure to provide it won’t result in mere tension, as it will in a story, but could result in physical harm, either to the consumer or the poor schlub who sold the fershlushinger item in question. Readers rarely hunt down writers to hurt them for plot failures. (And, just to be clear, Stephen King’s novel, Misery, was not autobiographical!)
Admittedly, it’s easier to work tension into fiction than to use it in a memoir. Still, it can be done, and with great effect. Yours included. Assuming you’ve chosen the most interesting moments of your life story to record, start by making a simple list of them. I’ll make one up as an example:
- Landing the dream job
- Death of a loved one
- Encounter with someone famous
- A great achievement
- A great failure
- Birth of a child
I’ve made no effort to put these in any order, nor are they meant to portray the most meaningful events in my own life. When working on your own list, take a moment to be sure the “big” events are included and decide if some ought to be left out.
If you break each of the events down, you’ll probably find there was a time when the outcome was in doubt–maybe competition for the dream job was staggering, or a marriage proposal seemed impossible, or a loved one appeared perfectly fine, and plans had been made, and then… Focusing on the details may reveal opportunities to present the doubts you had or the barriers which stood in your way. It might also mean you recall great expectations dashed by reality.
Relating these critical elements of your story can and should be done carefully and with the possibility of failure clearly shown. Whenever an outcome is in doubt, there’s an opportunity to create tension. Once you’ve identified it, additional techniques can be borrowed from fiction writing to further enhance it.
- Raising the stakes, in fiction, is a tried and true tension builder. What happened in your life event that made it even more important at one point than another? Who else is depending on you? Focus on that, and the tension level is bound to go up.
- A time limit of some kind can have a similar effect. Fiction writers call it a “ticking clock.” Who hasn’t experienced deadlines in life? Was there one involved in your experience?
- Added barriers work in fiction; they should work in non-fiction, too. Not only would the hero have to scale a near-vertical wall, the bad guys greased it! Your memoir need not be that melodramatic, but every layer of resistance to your success offers a means to crank up the tension level in your life’s story.
- See if you can find more than one way a failure might impact you: physically, emotionally, or psychologically. Getting all three amounts to the trifecta of tension.
If you’re writing non-fiction, and especially if you’re working on a memoir, you should take every opportunity available to create and maintain tension in your work. It can be hard, and sometimes nearly impossible, but it will be worth it in the end.