Writing Memoir: Creating Suspense

A suspension bridge over a green forest. Photo by Cayetano Gil on Unsplash

Don’t you love it when you can’t stop reading because you must find out what happens?

Mysteries are propelled by this sort of suspense, of course, and in a great mystery (I recommend Tana French!), the suspense is expressed in more than just plot. It’s also expressed in character arcs.

A sense of mystery and suspense can also propel a memoir. In memoirs about surviving an illness, for example, the mystery to be solved can be the cause of the illness, or the efficacy of a cure. Often, the memoir’s central character also unravels an emotional or spiritual mystery.

I’m very invested in making my current memoir project readable, so I’m trying to be conscious of how I handle mystery and suspense. Although I’m sticking to the facts, of course, it’s up to me how I arrange those facts, and if and when I reveal the solution to the mysteries. But writing toward suspense has been challenging for me, partly because I’m inclined to put all my cards on the table at once. But to create suspense, we have to dole out information piece by piece.

In a Writer’s Digest article about the elements of suspense in fiction, Steven James writes:

Building apprehension in the minds of your readers is one of the most effective keys to engaging them early in your novel and keeping them flipping pages late into the night.

Simply put, if you don’t hook your readers, they won’t get into the story. If you don’t drive the story forward by making readers worry about your main character, they won’t have a reason to keep reading.

Making readers worry about characters? This might be another reason why it’s been so difficult for me to exploit the suspense related to me-as-character in my own story: I don’t like people to worry about me, maybe because it feels intrusive, or maybe (more likely) because it calls my competence and strength into question.

My memoir is about reuniting with my birth family, and one mystery is my father’s identity. My mother passed away before I could meet her, and she’d kept my existence to herself for the most part.

But clues popped up here and there as I got to know my family. The first story I heard was from an aunt who liked . . . to tell stories. She made up a very happy relationship for my teenage mother with a man she modeled after one of her favorite television actors.

But of course, I don’t tell the story that way — I let my aunt speak in dialogue, I let other family members have their say, I question the story, and ultimately I do my own research using the name my aunt gave me. All of this information is paced out over a number of chapters. Pacing is the key to giving readers the pleasure of discovery.

Later in the memoir, I come back to the daddy’s identity mystery when relating my experience with DNA testing. Again, the information is spaced out in order to make the mystery and the discovery more interesting for the reader.

In real life — and memoir is about real life — not all mysteries are solved, and those that are solved often turn out in ways we couldn’t have imagined. Now that I think of it, though, that’s often the case for mysteries in fiction. Maybe the line between real life and stories is even thinner than I thought.

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