I just finished Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance and I could not put it down.
I thought I’d take this opportunity to share a few thoughts on how memoirists can build suspense even in a narrative-driven book. Inheritance shot to the New York Times bestseller list within its first week of release, and part of the reason, I think, is that it’s written like a DNA-detective story.
You might think you have to be super plot-driven to keep the reader turning pages. But it’s not true! All memoirs are character or narrative-driven, essentially. Take some tips from Shapiro as this is how i think she’s made her memoir such a page-turner.
1: Start late, finish early
This is an old screenwriting tip, to start scenes as late as possible (ie. in the thick of the action) and finish early (ie. without cleaning everything up!). Shapiro does this with the chapter structures in this memoir which builds suspense and keeps the pacing going.
2: Begin the memoir with the inciting incident
We know by page 17 about the DNA test that reveals her father is not her actual father. I’m not spoiling the book for you here! This leads us to wonder: how will she solve this quest? We know the quest from the get-go. We feel her shock without endless reams of backstory (because of how beautifully she writes) and then little pieces are spliced throughout the rest of the book. But we know enough, to feel the shock and want to join her on this quest to find her real identity, her real father.
If you read my Memoir Masterclass #1 post you’ll know the number one reason manuscripts are rejected is because they don’t start in the thick of the action. Shapiro does this beautifully.
3: Pay attention to chapter structure
As we go through this quest with Shapiro, there’s a clear passing of time, but each chapter ends with a new problem or question being offered, and most of the chapters are quite short. Shorter chapters quicken the pace, generally, longer ones slow the pace. Some of the chapters – particularly early on – are only two pages!
4: Internal conflict is action
If you think about it, not much physically or outwardly happens to Shapiro through the course of this memoir. This is why it’s such a beautiful study in structure and pacing. She perfectly weaves in flashbacks and back story to drive the quest that is the engine of the story. Moving seamlessly from the repetitious question
When did my mother know? What did my father know?
to the yogic philosophy of Samskara, you really feel as though you have a birds-eye view on the inner conflict and meanderings of Shapiro’s psyche as she works through this monumental life shift.
And no, there’s no violence, no wild car chases or otherwise hectic action. Shapiro beautifully interweaves historical data around IVF and fertility clinics with personal experience and even religious philosophy.
It’s a wonderful example of blending themes in memoir, and also very poignant and lonely, in some ways. Have you read it? I identified very strongly, despite not having this experience she had, which is always the mark of a wonderful writer.