Building suspense is important in a memoir, because you want people to stay invested in the story and have that visceral reaction of intrigue that makes them want to keep turning the pages. But if most of the action in your story was internal, it can be difficult to know how to achieve this.
So -how do you turn a true story that’s character-driven and mostly internal, into a page-turner?
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 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 your book needs to be strongly plot-driven to keep the reader turning pages. But it’s not true!
All memoirs are character or narrative-driven, essentially, because they’re exploring an experience through the lens of memories of that experience.
Take some pointers from what I noticed in Inheritance by Dani 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 this post about why most memoir manuscripts are rejected, you’ll know the number one reason is because they start in the wrong spot.
Shapiro starts right in the thick of it, which is perfect for the reader to be plunged into the central ‘dilemma’ of the story.
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! This heightens the pace in the beginning. Longer chapters in the middle area build to the central climax or reversal.
The beginning of the chapters firmly plants you in the scene in terms of time, space and current dilemma, and ends with a question or new thread of intrigue which signifies what’s changed in the central characters since the beginning of that particular chapter. For instance, at the end of chapter 37, the last two lines:
…he wrote two brief lines that for the first time made me weep. Strange how I misspelled thoughts as “thoughtus.” Perhaps it was an appropriate slip.
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.
Inheritance is a great example of blending themes in memoir, and also very poignant and lonely, in some ways. Have you read it? What did you think…?
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